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Deaths in the Family

Molly Fumia
George Sakkestad

Los Gatos Author: Molly Fumia moved from casual observer to inner circle while researching "Honor Thy Children."

Los Gatos author casts a gentle net on one family's tragedy

By Todd S. Inoue

I WAS ONE of 1,000 people gathered at Saratoga High School gym in 1994 for a service to honor the passing of AIDS activist Guy Nakatani, the San Jose resident whose crusade had taken him to area high schools, including Los Gatos High School. The day was memorable for loving speeches from friends Anne Takeuchi, then-Congressman Norm Mineta, the Rev. Dennis Sakamoto and Guy's father, Al Nakatani. The afternoon was a resonating sonata to a young man's life taken away too soon.

And if I remember correctly, Guy Nakatani's memorial service also had one of the most luscious postmemorial spreads I'd ever seen. There were endless pupus platters of nigiri sushi, makisushi, teriyaki, sashimi, tempura and won tons. People, eyes still wet with emotion, were pulling the plastic wrap off of platters, filling their plates, loading up on grub. Smiles and lively conversation soon followed. The soul and stomach were filled, in that order, and the party was on.

Reading Molly Fumia's book on the Nakatani family, Honor Thy Children, I learned that Guy had planned the entire spread--the food, the music, the speakers, even which napkins were to wipe the guests' lips. Something as simple as color coordination was just as important to Guy as his short yet lasting legacy as an AIDS educator and orator.

My remembrance of the food feast sparked a telegraphed smile from Fumia when I called her. "No Safeway napkins," the Los Gatos resident recalls. "Guy imagined his own memorial. He also told us we had to have the belt and shoes match and nails match. He picked who would do the eulogies. The food had to be presented correctly. After the service, it was a total party, and that's what Guy would have wanted."

Fumia's book doesn't just focus on Guy; she casts her net gently over the entire Nakatani family. The Nakatanis--Al and Jane--lost all three of their sons to tragedy. Greg, the promising student, was killed in a still-unsolved homicide in San Diego. Glen and Guy both succumbed to AIDS. Honor Thy Children graphically chronicles a family's struggle against cultural conditioning and denial to eventually embrace their children and each other.

The book opens with the initial meeting between Fumia and Guy, with her host showing off his closet--painstakingly organized with military precision. Fumia reveals how Guy and his parents learned from their mistakes and reshuffled their expectations before tragedy swallowed another son.

book cover FUMIA ADMITS the book is a tough sell. Who wants to read about a family bereft of its offspring? True, getting past the first 133 pages is a chore. Fumia takes the reader through the deaths of both Greg and Glen in dramatic detail. The sorrow that befell the Nakatanis is heartbreaking. How can a mother and father tolerate watching two sons perish, then the third sentenced to fatal disease?

But every parent should read Honor Thy Children. The book offers an epiphany halfway through, setting its sights on the future rather than dwelling on the past. The reader revels in the courage of the Nakatani parents, who would ensure their last son would die with dignity, as mother Jane Nakatani accurately describes a wish--one that nudges parents not to wait until the deathbed to remind their children they are loved:

    Just one good death, practically every day, I would tell Alexander--that's all I ask for. Greg had died violently, with us so far away and unaware. And Glen--I was right next to him, and still I couldn't keep him from dying badly. And now Guy. I would do anything to break this terrible pattern, to take away his pain, to make sure he was never alone. In these last days, I would do anything to let him know he was the most special child in the universe.

Fumia moves from casual observer to caring observer--a transformation rooted in the growing bond between subject and writer. Rather than play stone-faced journalist, Fumia allowed her true feelings--and her attachment to the subject--to come forth naturally. By the time she goes to Maui to see Guy for the last time, her casual observer status is upgraded to inner circle.

"I was lost to the cause very early on and becoming personally attached to the story," Fumia admits. "When I went to Maui, I can't remember if I brought my tape recorder. If I did, I only used it once when I was talking to his parents."

Fumia's experience with the subject of grief--she's written two books on the subject--helped her keep her wits.

"When you go to a memorial or funeral, something amazing happens," Fumia says. "The pretense goes away, and honesty comes forth. I was fascinated in my own personal grieving. I began looking at it as an artist trying to interpret my experience. What I was seeing was a family living this ongoing grief and surviving and transforming the process. The grieving was just a part of it. The life that we were living was much, much more complex."

A surprising entry was the gallows humor Guy would inflict on his caretakers. More revelatory was learning how much self-hatred Guy hid underneath his sharp Polo clothes. He went through high school whitewashed--perming his straight black Japanese hair and wearing blue contact lenses. He hated his sexuality, choosing until the end to keep it as ambiguous as possible. "I've never denied it; I've just avoided making it an issue," he would argue.

The book doesn't hold Guy up as a model citizen, a fact that he repeated in his lectures. His opening up to Fumia with hidden truths is a stirring moment. "For Guy, who wanted to be the most loved person, to admit that he'd done these things--that he had multiple partners, gone out of control--that was so painful to him.

"There was a point when he was screaming at me. I was saying, 'It's OK, it's OK' and he'd scream at me, 'It's not OK!' I was feeling very afraid. I wished that his dad was there. I was feeling like I was bringing forth these things. In a way, my natural curiosity and ability came to my aid but it also got me in trouble."

Honor Thy Children is released with full blessing from the Nakatani clan. The family moved from San Jose to Hawaii this month to be closer to their three sons, who are buried beside each other there.

"In the beginning, there were all kinds of secrets that may or not come out," Fumia says. "What I did was accompany them to let them out. The book transformed in that nature: Guy chronicled his life about leaving a legacy, but the story wasn't about Guy. It's a story about family."

Honor Thy Children by Molly Fumia; Conari Press, 2250 Ninth St., Suite 101, Berkeley, 94710; $2.95 cloth. Fumia will talk about and sign copies of her book on March 29 at 3pm at Barnes & Noble, 1600 Saratoga Ave., Westgate Shopping Center, Saratoga (408/370-0444)

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From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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