Seated at a table this past spring in the courtyard of a nursing home, I squeezed into the frame of my iPhone camera and snapped a selfie with my parents. In this fifth decade of my life, it’s the only photo I have of the three of us together. It’s among my most valuable possessions.
This family portrait is neither flattering nor joyous. My mom and I are covered head to toe in the garb required of nursing home visitors in this Age of Corona. A face mask covers our noses and mouths. A curved face shield extends from our foreheads to our chins. From the neck down, we’re draped in a flimsy gown of blue plastic that if it were yellow, could easily pass for the infamous hazmat suits from “Breaking Bad.”
My dad, 90, is in the center of the scene, clad in a faded navy blue polo, smiling as a big as he can despite missing teeth and oxygen tubes running from his nose. His thin, frail body has been ravaged by time and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but it’s clear he’s happy to be with us in this moment — he mustered the strength to sit upright and pose.
It’s a family portrait that had been in the making since 1974, the year I was born.
No pictures exist of me and my dad before 2006, the year I concluded my journey to find him, arriving in the lobby of a senior housing complex in Inglewood, Calif., where he anxiously waited to greet me.
He was 74 at the time; I was 31. I’d last seen him when I was six years old. It was the only time I’d seen him. And it had been 25 years.
My dad missed out on becoming a father. He met my mother in 1973. They carried on a relationship for two months, maybe longer. Then, she stopped coming by his place.
“I didn’t know she was pregnant when she left. I really didn’t,” my dad once told me, reflecting on the memory. In 1981, when I was 6, my mother arrived unannounced at his home — with me in tow. She was married by then but apparently felt it was important for us to meet. That was the last time I saw my dad.
When we reconnected a quarter century later, my dad took those first awkward lurches toward a bond with me, those wobbly steps at becoming a father. During our first Father’s Day conversation, he shared stories about going fishing with a favorite uncle and hunting raccoons and soft-shell turtles as a young boy.
As I’ve gotten to know my father over the past 15 years, he’s shared his discomfort with being called “dad” — he says doesn’t feel worthy of the title. Instead, he prefers I call him by his military nickname, “Watashi,” Japanese for “I.” It’s how his friends greet him.
Where my father was out of the picture, my mother was front and center. For nearly every milestone moment in my life — the day I was born, my favorite childhood Christmas, my college graduation, my wedding day — there is photographic evidence of her anchoring presence, from holding me swaddled in her arms at the hospital to dabbing tears from her eyes as my wife and I exchanged vows in a Hawaiian garden.
Now here she was with me, visiting Watashi in the twilight of his life while bringing closure to a piece of her past.
Photos are memories you can touch. And the memory that eluded me most was a photo of me with my parents, a family portrait. It took 46 years, eight months, and six days —from the day I was born to that nursing home visit in May — for the timelines of our lives to finally intersect, placing us in the same place, at the same time. As it turned out, when I was growing up in Los Angeles, my father never lived more than six miles away from me and my mom.
The layered and complex narrative behind my one and only family portrait is what makes it so priceless to me. It represents the culmination of the steps I took as a man to find my father and fill the holes in my origin story.
But my photo also reminds me of something else: the important role dads play in documenting family life.
From camcorders in the 1980s to the camera phones of today, I’ve witnessed fathers joyously capture everything from baby christenings and weddings to family holidays and exotic vacations. The technology of this digital age allows us to snap scores of photos and video clips with the press of a thumb and edit (or delete) them on the spot. At times, we have to remember to simply live in the moment instead of fussing over how to get the perfect shot or angle, something I’m totally guilty of myself.
All I ask is that you fit as many people into the frame as possible—mothers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, cousins, good friends and, last but not least, yourself. There will no doubt be one photo in the bunch that will come to mean the world to your loved ones, today or years from now.
Don’t let it take 46 years to make.