Smoke rose from thousands of incense sticks in the temple near downtown Honolulu. A huge golden Guan Yin, the merciful deity who is both woman and man, watched over us as nuns chanted sutras for the salvation of all sentient beings. Scores of people milled about, performing their individual devotions. I bowed my head to the floor three times and placed oranges before the red-faced warrior god, Guan Yu, in honor of my father, a soldier neither Buddhist nor Chinese, who embraced all humanity, good and bad.
A shelf in my parents’ living room holds three sacred texts: the Holy Bible, Lives of the Saints, and Mein Kampf (in German). Daddy was fascinated with the Third Reich, the beauty and horror of a people who had gone so wrong, but looked so good doing it.
WWII was his first war. As a sailor in the Pacific theater, he did not fight the Germans he loved so dearly. Daddy left the Navy, joined the Army Special Forces, skipped the Korean War to marry my mother, and did a tour in Vietnam during the worst of the conflict. He survived encounters with the enemy unscathed, only to suffer chronic health problems from Agent Orange.
Charges were brought against my father for a stunt he pulled while in ’Nam. The officer in charge of Daddy’s battlefield unit wanted a clean jeep, so he ordered a young private to wash it in a nearby stream outside of the unit’s protective perimeter. The boy did not come back. Daddy was one of the soldiers sent to find him. First they located the abandoned jeep. Then they found pieces of the young private.
My father stormed into his commanding officer’s tent, pistol in hand. Daddy put the gun to the man’s head and promised to kill him if he ever again endangered another soldier for something so trivial. At the court marshal, Daddy avoided jail time by claiming the weapon was not loaded.
I asked him about the incident, and he told me the truth.
Divine truth visited him in the person of a Buddhist priest who was walking right into a battle zone my father had just left. Referring to gravestones in a nearby cemetery, Daddy spoke to the priest in French: "Mon père, why are the names in Chinese and not Vietnamese?"
The venerable monk looked at my father with infinite compassion, put his hand on Daddy’s shoulder, and said, "Mon fils américain, my poor, ignorant son! Don’t you know? God only speaks Chinese." Five years ago, I gave my father a vertical silk banner for his Roman Catholic funeral. The silk is white with black Chinese calligraphy, bearing his name so that God would know him. He was ecstatic.
We were not close when I was growing up. I feared him, his mercurial temper, the cruel teasing that drove my mother from the dinner table in simmering protest. Mutual dislike inspired me to look for reasons to despise him. When my 19-year-old self made a homophobic remark, he chided me, saying that some of the finest men he had ever met were homosexual. I said nothing, but thought to myself, Yeah, you say that because you are a faggot just like them, Daddy.
It was not easy for either of us to love the men who brought us into this world. His own upbringing was so severe that his step-granddaddy, a red-headed Yankee with the lofty KKK rank of Grand Dragon, threatened to send men in white sheets to horsewhip my grandparents if they did not treat their son better. As soon as my father turned 16, he did not let his shirttail touch his fanny before he joined the Navy and got the hell out of Mississippi.
I came out to my parents in 2000 after I moved to Ohio and fell in love with Kevin. Daddy told me just the year before about brave soldiers who died in Vietnam - Gay men whose bones were still there - and their blood ran just as red as his. I was confident that he would not get upset when I told him the truth.
I was wrong. When I called my folks in Texas and gave them the news, my father asked my mother if he could speak to me in private.
Never before had I heard my father weep, but he wept then. He asked me if something he did during a trip to Colorado had turned me homosexual: in a flash of anger a quarter-century earlier, he told my younger brothers and me that he was sick of us. He was leaving the family.
I had forgiven him years before, the incident long forgotten. Not Daddy. The memory festered quietly within him until that very moment. My heart melted and I told him another truth: I had been attracted to men for as long as I could remember.
My coming out gentled us, bonded us. From 2006 to 2012, I called my father on November 11 so we could sing "Quand Madelon," a mildly erotic battle song about a tavern maid, to honor his father who served in the Army during WWI. Sometimes my husband joined us.
My father met my man during the celebration of my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. Kevin immediately won Daddy over by handing him a vintage copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which Daddy promptly enshrined next to Mein Kampf, The Lives of the Saints, and the Holy Bible.
"I don’t love Kevin like a son-in-law," Daddy told me. "I love him like a son."
I did not attend Daddy’s funeral in Our Lady of Guadalupe Church near San Antonio. The truth is I feared showing my ass if conversation with some of my not-so-tolerant siblings went wrong. It has happened before. Instead, I made my small offering for Ray Martinez-Weems in the crowded, incense-filled temple dedicated to the Goddess/God of Mercy.