A Daughter’s Lesson

Rosalyn Tonai

My father passed away 19 days before Father’s Day at the age of 76. It is only fitting that, as his daughter,  I reflect upon the special bond of a father and daughter, and share something about the man who has taught me many lessons for life.

As the eldest daughter of four children (one brother, the eldest and two younger sisters), I was well aware that I had secured the affection and attention of my father at an early age. These “lessons of life” came to us in different ways, at different points in our lives. Some were informal-- around the dinner table, during car rides. Others were in uncannily formal ways, but most were learned by observing my dad’s own actions.

In short, these lessons became his “gifts” to us. They were manifested in the values of responsibility, identity, balance, and integrity.

As I understand, the two most important things in my father’s life were his responsibility to his work and to his family. 

My dad taught us early on about responsibility, about the consequences of one’s own actions. If we carried out any ill-fated experiments that could cause bodily harm to ourselves or others--like starting a brush fire in the backyard with a magnifying glass, or running through the house with a draw-string plastic bag over one’s head proclaiming “Look at me, I'm an astronaut!" or seeing how hanabi (firecrackers) would spark in daylight… inside the house—these would cost us, mostly in embarrassment. Punishment was swift. When it was all over, he’d demonstrate his unconditional love by sitting us on his knee, cuddling us in his embrace and over our sobs tell us “It's okay, it's okay, everything will be okay.”

Much later on, his future sons-in-law would be summoned to the Shogun’s castle for a lesson in responsibility (or humility) when they wanted to marry his daughters. I thought that I was in control of my destiny--that I could simply make a “save-the-date” wedding announcement to my parents. “What are you doing on May 21 next year?” So I was completely taken aback by my father’s almost feudal request. “No one asked for my permission. Just think about it.” I should have known better, that growing up in a traditional household and then having gone to UC Berkeley wasn’t going to liberate anyone. While I knew my dad wanted to have one of his great fatherly moments. Grant, my betrothed, on the other hand, could only dread the impossible… What if he says “No?” 

We nervously gathered at the family dinner. My dad, dressed in his gray three piece suit, felt he should warn Grant that I was not like the women in Japan. (perhaps wondering if Grant would think that I would obey his every beck and call.). While I rolled my eyes and puffed, my mother blurted, “He knows that! We’re Americans with Japanese faces!” Grant assured him that he already knew that and that he liked women who knew what they wanted. Dad also told him in so many words, “choose your battles.” When Grant finally gathered up his courage and asked for his permission and support, my dad gave the speech of his life which essentially said, "if you will support her and take care of her then that's good."

He showed us that he took marriage very seriously and it was a responsibility he cared about.

On Identity

Dad, being a Kibei, always carried a source of pride in his heritage. World War II didn’t make him hate everything Japanese, like some Nisei I knew. He spent his formative years from age ten until his early twenties living in Tokyo,  as a “borrowed” son with his Uncle and Aunt. He had an  appreciation for Japanese culture, aesthetics and history. Our family experienced this first-hand when our family moved to Tokyo and lived there for 3-1/2 years. (In 1968, my father was selected to go to Japan, with his family, to become a manager of the Engineering Liaison at their joint venture, Yamatake/Honeywell.) His thirst for this history never ceased. Even while living in Japan in the 1960s, Dad would call up strangers who were Tonais in the phone book, introduce himself, talk about his Tonai lineage and inquire about theirs. Last year, over the Internet, he met another Tonai from Maui, compared notes and later met him in person. This interest in history to recapture one’s past is something which has been most fulfilling for me. 


While he had a successful career, there were opportunities for even greater advancement which were overpowered by a stronger desire to be happy at what he was doing and to be with his family. He encouraged us to do well in school, to find our  own career paths and checked in with us to see how we felt we were doing. He tried hard to have us see one another’s perspective, encouraging a healthy verbal exchange of different viewpoints, respecting them, and always trying to keep peace in the family.


It was important for Dad to have a strong belief in what was right in thought and action. The process of arriving at the answer became more important than the answer itself. This was true even with our math homework. During school nights, each of us would spend hours by his bedside, half listening, half dozing off to his long explanation about differential equations, attempting at every pause to ask, “so is this the answer?”  He’d continue, “No, but that’s not the point…”

He would follow through on his convictions. He knew he wanted to pursue an engineering career, and completed studies in Japan. After the war, he moved back to the States, but he had to re-learn English. And he did. He eventually entered UCLA, got elected into the honor society and was among the handful of graduates of engineering in the fledgling field called Computer Science. He worked long hours, believing his efforts would develop a machine that would revolutionize the world.  He was among the pioneers in the private sector, to create one of the first computers. He also took pride in the fact that he never swore and and led a healthy lifestyle.

After a successful career, he found absolute joy in his home computers.  His interests ranged from researching his family history, translating technical documents and oral histories for others, and developing the mechanical means for an adjustable toothbrush.  He also taught himself computer programming on the PC, and enjoyed writing sophisticated algorithms for my brother’s research and also game programs for his grandson.

My dad was fortunate, in that he was one of the those people who go through life with little trauma and are not troubled by events around them. He was lucky to avoid most of the Depression having lived in Japan. While there, he avoided being drafted into the Japanese army, and was unharmed by the Allied bombing raids on Tokyo. He did not go to Camp.  Even after his return to the States, he was drafted but  did not have to serve in the Korean War, unlike his younger brothers. I guess that’s why he had a happy-go-lucky, boyish disposition, with a positive outlook on life. There was little in his experience that jaded him.

Without having to fight any wars all his life, Dad was faced with his biggest battle that would test his strength and courage. Early in 2000, he was diagnosed with colon cancer in the advanced stage. In hindsight, there were subtle, but telltale signs: weight loss, extreme fatigue, extended colds. Of course, as his children we were angry to learn later that colon cancer is very treatable if caught early enough with simple and regular screenings which my parents never knew.  He informed us that he was going to fight. He went through a regimen of experimental drugs, diet, herbal medicine, acupuncture, and even a pulsating light treatment. But by January 2001, the cancer had spread.

Up until his final days in May, as he was growing weaker and weaker with little solid or liquid intake. His body was emaciated and wrought with pain. Dad mustered all of his strength and concentration, very much like an athlete going into the final stretch. He told my sister he wasn’t ready to give up, but that he was exhausted (from the effects of chemotherapy), and if he could only regain his strength, he’d try to eat, and continue fighting. But he wanted to do it his own way, at home, without the help of intravenous fluids or a feeding tube.

Soon, he could not speak. But every day he tried to “exercise” by standing, or sitting-up as often as he could with the use of a walker. I made up a routine. I’d try to administer the correct dose of morphine, then provide him a little comfort with a morning and evening “spa” treatment,  complete with his favorite Japanese folk tunes, or classical music, a hot towel bath and massage.  As always, my brother was there to deal with his doctors, monitor his medication, and provide the interpretation of the medical procedures and prognosis for Dad. While thoughts of his leaving us hurt deeply, I was thankful that all of us were there and had the opportunity to care for him. We were able to prepare our good-byes in the waning weeks of his life.

In his last days, my brother and I would sit next to him on the bed to prop him up, steadying him in place. As he was sitting in quiet repose, it was as though, he was trying to show us that he never wanted to give up. In full circle, we would hold his hand, just as he held ours as children, giving us the sense of security we needed to ease our trepidation into unknown territory. It was in the same way my mother with us by his bedside, stroked his hand, placed his hands together in prayer and assured him that it was perfectly okay to just let go and meet up with his loved ones his mom, dad, her mom, dad, his Aunt and Uncle, and sister Mary. While taking his final breaths, he whispered the words of his faith, and peacefully entered into the other world.*

It is this time, Father’s Day, when we can appreciate fathers, their lessons, their gifts, their unconditional love. And at the same time, honor their courage as they journey through life.

*Ichiro Tonai passed away peacefully on May 29, 2001.