Thursday, March 13, 2014

Requiem for a Father-in-Law

Den (1945-2014)

A little over six months after he was first diagnosed with stomach cancer, my father-in-law, Denzaemon “Den” Inaoka, passed away in the early morning hours of Tuesday, February 25th. He was 68 years old.

His last few years had found him in and out of hospitals. In early summer of 2012, Den suffered a critical neck injury from a bad fall. Rehabilitation entailed wearing a metal halo to stabilize his cervical spine. Then, on May 11th, the day my wife and I were married in a traditional Buddhist ceremony at Kurama-dera in the hills north of Kyoto, Den passed out while taking a bath and was taken to the emergency room. Shortly thereafter the infection from his pneumonia became sepsis and he was induced into a coma for nearly a month. We were all very happy when he survived this ordeal, only to be utterly devastated when a cancer diagnosis shortly followed during his convalescence. Due his previous sickness, he was too frail for chemotherapy or surgery, and his condition slowly deteriorated until he could no longer even hold in water without vomiting. Through it all, he never complained, and we were grateful that at the very least his passing meant an end to his suffering.

Some years before this, in March, 2005, by chance or perhaps by fate, I met my future wife, Ariko, in Tokyo. She had just returned to Japan after a decade in New York City. We liked each other immediately, and after just one weekend together she invited me to come visit her in Kyoto, where she was staying temporarily with her parents. I made the trip down and was treated with perfect Japanese hospitality. I was charmed meeting Ariko's father, Den, this dapper gentleman with a crown of handsome white hair, elegantly modern in jeans and collared shirt, the Colorado state flag affixed to his sport coat lapel. We all went out for dinner and drinks and afterwards ended up dancing in the family living room to Al Green. Den loved American soul music and romantic crooners, with a special soft spot for Nina Simone and Frank Sinatra. When we sang karaoke, he did Sinatra's “My Way,” which is how he liked to tell us was his philosophy for living.

Den loved the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where he skied whenever possible. He also loved Lake Biwa in nearby Shiga, where he often waterskied. Into his sixties he was still competing in his age bracket and until he got sick he had been an effortless athlete on the water, gliding free and strong, forever young. He truly loved waterskiing, mentoring young competitors and investing his own money in endeavors to help those in whom he saw both potential and his shared love of the sport. Indeed, Den wanted his legacy to be one in which he was remembered for shaping and sponsoring this community.

My father-in-law was also Denzaemon, head of a soba restaurant/ cake patisserie business dating back to 1465, when his ancestors first arrived in Kyoto. Even with a culinary pedigree going back to the middle fifteenth century, running a family business is challenging and when you're in a position of power, enemies often pose as friends and take advantage of a man's generosity (he could never say no to someone's request for help and inevitably then some people took advantage of his kindness). No matter how fortunate one man's life might seem, there is tremendous pressure in living, in handling one's regrets and mistakes. Perhaps Den internalized more pressure than he knew how to bear. In later years, we worried over signs of alcoholism. Yet while Den drank a bit much for his own good, he was only ever his worst enemy. He was as gentle as any man I'd ever met.

Though we dined together often through the years, we didn't converse all that much. For a man born into distinct privileges, he was quite soft-spoken. Neither did we have a lot in common (I don't ski or play golf and our politics diverged). He often preferred television to conversation, especially action movies (particularly James Bond). However, from the very beginning, my father-in-law never begrudged his daughter's choice in love, in spite of my foreignness, my slipshod Japanese, and my financially insecure career avocations of writing and photography. In fact, he welcomed all of our friends, Ariko's, mine, friends of friends, so that through the years, dozens, if not hundreds of visitors, most of them foreigners, shared a cigarette, coffee, or tumbler of Suntory whiskey in his company, breaking bread with all of us, regardless of origins, shared interests, or the human need for privacy. His door, always open.

His last night before getting sick was the day before our wedding ceremony. I had about fifteen friends who'd flown in from overseas for our moment. Den took all us guys to one of my favorite restaurants for dinner and afterwards we headed out to Gion where another fifteen people, Ariko's girlfriends, joined us for two hours drinking with geisha and enjoying a traditional dance performance. It must have cost him a fortune, but if it did, he never let on. Den had even checked into the Kyoto Hotel so that all my friends visiting could stay at his place. It was a five-day wedding party that lasted until the dawn every morning. We did not yet know how precipitous his condition was going to deteriorate-- mostly we'd been sad that he'd missed out on a hell of a party and, moreover, wouldn't be able to perform at our wedding reception. He'd recently taken up tap dancing and the plan had been for him to tap dance to Sinatra's classic, “Come Fly With Me.” Such stage ambition was part and parcel of his cavalier charm, the old gentleman athlete challenging his physical limits, doffing his quiet spot in the corner for a brief shining spotlit moment.

His last days he grew very thin, eventually confined to bed. It was difficult for us to witness this man, once so physical and agile, laid low with illness. Sixty-eight years is not that young, but it is not that old either. He had managed to live a full life, with all the triumphs and tragedy that goes into such living. He takes into the next world some secrets, some regrets, much fondness and his generosity. But like so many with exceptional presence of character it is difficult to feel he is truly gone, as if his spirit remains here among us, someone felt, more than seen, wandering these familiar streets that he lived and walked on for nearly seven decades. As a son-in-law who entered his Big Picture late in life, I am grateful for the small co-starring role I had, especially the good memories-- there were many-- that he has bequeathed in passing. 


  1. A lovely tribute to a man who always seemed debonair and kind.
    So sorry to hear of his passing.
    My thoughts are with you and Ariko.

  2. Wonderful tribute. My condolences and thoughts to your family.

  3. An eloquent and well deserved tribute. He was always quick with a smile and kind words when he welcomed into his home and restaurant. My thoughts and prayers are with you and the family.

  4. Beautiful and touching tribute. I'm sorry for your and Ariko's loss. May his spirit live on.

  5. A touching and beautiful tribute. I'm sorry for your and Ariko's loss.