Eternity’s light and the door of forgiveness

The author’s father, the Rev. Gordon Nakayama, sits in front of his house for a photo thought to be taken in the early 1990s. Photo: General Synod Archives
Published April 1, 2024

A writer’s long struggle with the legacy of her father’s abuses

“This you must write,” my friend Julie Salverson said as we parted. We had been talking about our fathers. She walked on to Union Station, pushing her green suitcase on wheels, her pen in her hand. “You must. Not for him but for you.”

“OK, Julie.”

I waved and made my way home. And lo, here I am, obediently at the computer. I’m “showing up” for the task, hands on keyboard, munching a dark chocolate almond. It doesn’t matter if words appear, or do not. It matters to show up.

Here’s what I need to write. Again and again and again. My one story.

Another writer friend told me we each have one story. I’ve written about my father already.

How many times? Two books? Isn’t that enough? No? OK. Once more, then, with feeling.

DAD.

The evil one the innocent one, the charming, the reviled.

Once upon a time, he was the adored. What I want is to adore him again. But what I want is not what I’m going to get.

This is not for him. This is for me. That’s what Julie said.

My dad, my beloved dad, is the person in all creation I most loved. He was fun, he was charming, charismatic, emotional, a singer, a storyteller. Not once did he reprimand me or speak harshly to me or to anyone. A good friend once said, “He was without anger? That’s the most horrific thing.” I don’t know what she meant by that. But maybe a person’s imperfections are safer when they’re visible.

He thought I could do no wrong. He created events—parties, concerts, celebrations, feasts. Our Christmases were beyond happy. Japanese-Canadian Anglican families came from all over southern Alberta—Vauxhall, Taber, Iron Springs, Raymond and beyond— mothers bringing futomaki sushi, herring roe on seaweed, pickled herring sushi, Japanese chow mein, sweet and sour drumsticks, yellow daikon pickles, mochi, manju. My brother Tim was Santa Claus. Mama and I filled paper bags with curly green and red candies, red cinnamon candies, a red delicious apple, a mandarin orange, a small toy, wax crayons.

Then one day, the world fell apart. The unspeakable was made public. I hounded my mother to know what all the whispering was about. I said, “Mama, if you don’t tell me, I’ll ask Shirley’s mother.”

Mama, dignified, stoic, silent, stood there expressionless. Then finally, she said the two words. And the world was never safe again.

“Sex.”

“Boys.”

Mama never lied. Her eyes were wide with shock as if she could not believe what she had just said. I don’t know what it took for her to speak. She said it was her fault. I couldn’t move. After some time—I don’t remember how long—I walked away from her, past Dad in his room lying in his cot, blanket up to his chin. He knew she had told me. His eyes registered this. I had to go through his room to reach the stairs to my attic room.

From that point on and for the rest of my life, the shame was hitting the fan. Hate and degradation took me by the elbows in life’s long march.

At one point, when the hate against Dad for his molesting boys was raging, he said to me, “Tasukete kudasai.” “Please help me.”

The only way I could think of to help him in the utter nightmare, in the betrayal of families, communities, of the boys, was to love him, to stand with him, to feel the stones that were hurled his way, till I was brought down to my knees, still loving him.

My knees were developing callouses.

He is long dead, but the evil lingers on. And on and on. It more than lingers. It grows. It amplifies—the revulsion, the blood-curdling revulsion over that particular form of destroying the soul of a child.

A body called the Japanese Canadian Working Group was formed to address the legacy of this. They began a country-wide search for men who had been harmed as children. They found one person, someone I knew in the village of Coaldale, Alta. Then as more family members came forward claiming there had been abuse, the working group set up a website for telling the stories. “He was riding his bike…” The Anglican church contributed some $600,000 for a Healing Fund to support survivors and their families.

The conundrum for me is that Dad’s evil and his innocence go together. Madness comes as the third person in this unholy trinity. Evil. Innocence. Madness.

I felt the hate coming my way, and I thought about escape, as the energy of hate grew. I was the only one left from our family of four. Mama died in 1987. Dad died in 1995. My brother, who had served as a priest in Seattle, is also dead. I thought to flee Canada, to flee the monthly glossy Japanese Canadian magazine that arrived in my mailbox with its news from the Working Group. Whenever I saw it I wrenched my eyes away.

But the group was energetic and organized keeping Dad’s evil in the news. My dad. My beloved. Pedophile. Priest. From the most adored to the most reviled. I thought about escaping life. I began to write suicide notes but as the ideas started to take hold, I got a grip, took my chin in my hands and turned the other cheek.

He had been the moon in my night sky, he had reflected the glory of Love. I believed in God because of him, because he was gentle and kind.

I tried to consign his detractors to oblivion in my mind. I would never not love my dad. To hell with those who hated him. Disappear. Cease to be. But I didn’t succeed. Two years ago I lay immobilized, not eating, lying in my bed/couch in my studio apartment, growing lighter and lighter until, barely 70 pounds, I found myself somehow in an ambulance on the way to the emergency department at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital. How did that come about? I have a vague memory that a Filipina neighbour, Stella, came by to see if she could borrow a straw. Is she the one who called an ambulance?

What I remember clearly is lying in a hospital bed, waiting for my son to arrive for his daily visits. I don’t know who let him know what was going on. He was living in Thailand at the time, with his young wife and children. He got me out of the hospital, stayed with me for nine months, made delicious food and saved my life. My sweet son. My doctor, Joseph Yu Kai Wong, calls him my excellent son. Yes, he is.

Most days I don’t spend time dwelling on Dad. But he’s there in the background, in the air, in memory, in the density of love, hate, anxiety, sadness and hope that has permeated my life.

One dear friend, an Anglican priest, tells me that old age is a time to let go. And I have. I “let go and let God.” I asked the Great Forgiver to do the forgiving I could not do. And it was so. The weight was lifted. Dad was safe in the all-loving arms of the Great Forgiver.

That is where this little story ends. On a note of gratitude. Gratitude for my parents who believed in God and who taught me about the story of Jesus from the very beginning. Gratitude for the first words I learned from Mama. “Tenno Otosama, ima ma de mamotte kudasai mashi te, arigato gozaimas.” (“Heaven’s Father, until now that you have protected us, thank you.”) Gratitude for my kids and for their love for their kids. Gratitude for the Love that permeates everything, that is stronger than evil. Gratitude for the arc of goodness. Gratitude that love wins in the end.

Most of all I’m grateful for my family, for close friends, for a sense of purpose, for the many different tasks to which we are called. Climate change. Homelessness. Refugees. Hunger. Injustice. Poverty. Mental illness. Elder care. The list goes on.

Right now, sitting here at this computer, a wintry January day in Toronto, west wind blowing, I’m grateful for breath, family and friends, health, food, for Canada, for freedom to write. With all this, I can say, these are the best years.

At 88, I have a new book of poems. I’m glad of that and grateful for all those at the publishing company who have made it possible.

Most of all I’m grateful to the Great Forgiver. The Forgiveness Door opens a crack when I turn its way. A stream of eternity’s light pours through, showering gifts I could not have imagined. The hallmark of the Great Forgiver’s gifts is the surprise that attends them. They could not have been manufactured or wished for.

I have been granted the gift of being able to recognize the gifts as coming from God. Love is densely in the space that upholds us. Its immensity and attendance pour our way—we human animals, fragile, ridiculously proud creatures that we are.

Editor’s note: In 1994, the Rev. Gordon Nakayama confessed to then-Bishop of the diocese of Calgary Barry Curtis that he had engaged in “sexual bad behavior . . . to so many people,” after which he was charged with the ecclesiastical offence of immorality. He resigned in February 1995 and died later that year. Survivors and their families eventually began to come together, and the Japanese-Canadian Working Group was formed in 2014 to seek restitution and healing for them. On June 15, 2015, Bishop Gregory Kerr-Wilson of the diocese of Calgary and Bishop Melissa Skelton of the diocese of New Westminster delivered a formal apology for Nakayama’s abuse. The apology stated, among other things, that the church—which did not notify the police at the time of Nakayama’s confession—had not then received any complaints about his abuse.

 

Author

  • Joy Kogawa

    born in 1935 in Vancouver, lives in Toronto. Her latest work is a book of poems, From the Lost and Found Department, published in November 2023, by McClelland and Stewart, Penguin Random House. She is a long-time member of the Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto.

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