Richard Nakandakari is the hero in all of his stories. He’s the storyteller, the events are his, he lived them and has a right to tell them the way they seemed to him, from the inside. Who’ll know if he rewrites the dialogue to make himself sound smarter, more insightful, and even as a youth, wise? Being humorous is not something he values so his stories are never intentionally told to get a laugh. And the laugh, should there be one, is usually directed at one of the characters in the story, sometimes the craziness of the situation. Invariably, he emerges fully intact, unbruised, dignified, sometimes a bit wiser.
Daughter-in-law Maggie wonders about his lack of interest in turning the story over in his mind to see it from different angles. It’s possible that he has done that but if he has, he never shares those versions. You could count on one hand with fingers left over the number of times he’s admitted to rethinking a position or an opinion of his. He seems to have been fully formed by an early age.
Over lunch on New Year’s Day, Richard tells the story about the first time he had port wine. The family has heard this story many times. Maggie listens again, out of habit, wondering if the details will change. It was in Cleveland during the War. He was there for training. Invited to a private home to hear classical music. Quartet, maybe. (Maggie tries to imagine the scene although no details beyond the essentials are provided.) The woman hosting offers him wine, something he’d never had. Port. He doesn’t like it because it’s sweet. “One day, when you’re older, you will like sweet wine,” she said to him. “Yes, Dad,” says Nathan, not unkindly. “And now you do. You’ve told that story before.” Richard smiles beatifically and says, “Yes, now I like sweet wine. She was right.”
This event occurred before Richard and Jean were married, before he became a father and ceased looking like a gambler or a ladies’ man. Maggie wonders how he came to be invited to the home of this older haole woman. Who was she? What was their relationship? What did Clevelanders think of this dapper young Okinawan man from Hawai‘i with his pencil thin mustache, smelling of Old Spice, his thick hair shining with Brylcreem? Maggie has never asked; no one has, maybe for fear of prolonging the story or causing him to tell it again. Later, Maggie realized that this story actually portrays Richard less than heroically: an inexperienced young man who lacked culture, embarrassing and poignant because he was in search of it.
At this point in their lives, Richard is self-sacrificing, enacting a shift in the dynamics of a marriage in which Jean has done much of the sacrificing: her in-laws living with them during the first 15 years of their marriage; Richard on his frequent trips to sales conventions, although, who knows, his absence may have been welcomed like short absences in marriages can be; the difficult times after the War, making the mortgage, raising two kids.
Maggie thinks that when Richard is asked to account for himself in the afterlife he’ll tell the story of how he took care of his wife until the end – hers or his, it doesn’t matter – since the theme was doing one’s duty, meeting one’s obligations, taking care, seeing to, warning, making comfortable, enduring bad humor, incontinence, lapses of memory, failure of the senses. Perhaps his near deafness is a kind of protection. But Maggie thinks his ministering is his embrace of suffering. She thinks he understands well the 10,000 sufferings and the 10,000 joys. In the off chance he wanders into or through some cosmic misdirection is sucked into a Christian heaven, he’ll have a hell of a good hero’s story to tell.