There is a hole in the photograph. It is not a physical hole; nothing has yet been printed. It is, rather, an emotional hole, an absence that colors the rest with regret and, perhaps, with anger.
“We should reshoot seven and eight,” the wedding photographer tells her assistant as she flips through the pictures on her iPad. “Meaghan’s dress isn’t hanging quite right in the back.” The assistant nods. I do not see the problem, but what does an old man know of such things?
We are standing under a tree in Myrtle Edwards Park on the Seattle waterfront, with the waters of Elliott Bay, the islands of Puget Sound, and the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula in the background. The sky is a clear blue, without a cloud, and a soft, cool breeze blows in from the water. I am told it is a popular spot for pictures.
The photographer flicks back to the very first picture, the one of the bride’s family. The one with the hole. She glares at her iPad, her eyes boring through the thin slab of metal and glass, and her brow crinkles into a frown. “Maybe if we…,” she mumbles, tapping a fingernail on the back of the tablet, but she does not finish the thought.
“No,” she sighs. “I guess there’s nothing we can do with this one.”
Anyone who knows the family at all can see it, and even those who do not can sense that something is missing. Meaghan is in the center, resplendent in white satin and lace, with her family behind her. Father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, brother, and sister-in-law. They are a handsome American family, well dressed and full of happiness for Meaghan. However, there is a fraction less joy in their smiles than would be expected.
There should be another brother, Danny, in the photograph. He is an adult, healthy, perfectly able to travel, but he has chosen to stay home. Little was said – just “Danny’s not coming” – but his motive is plain. He disapproves of his sister’s choice.
Whatever reasons lie behind his disapproval, his absence is wrong. He may have a duty to his conscience, but he also has a duty to his family, and that is paramount. If the father has decided that the marriage is acceptable, it is not for the son to contradict him. Danny has brought dishonor upon his family with his absence, and he has brought shame upon himself.
I met Meaghan five months ago. My wife Yumiko and I flew to Seattle from our home in Los Angeles to visit Yumiko’s mother Nanami and our daughter Sarah. We went to Nanami’s house for dinner that night, and when we arrived, we found that Nanami had also invited Sarah’s friend Meaghan for dinner. Yumiko greeted Meaghan warmly, as if she knew already her. I was aware that Sarah and Meaghan worked together and that they were friends, but that was all.
Sarah has always been a good daughter, respectful and accomplished. I do not understand her work – she has always looked forward, like her mother, toward science and technology. I look backward, to the accumulated wisdom of three thousand years of the written word. Both are worthy of study, past and future, and I am proud of everything Sarah has achieved in her career. I often believe, though, that we live in different worlds. Eleventh century Japanese is sometimes easier to understand than my daughter, or, for that matter, than my wife.
For years, Sarah dated a young man named Brian. He was a modest, quiet fellow with a career in engineering, building roads and bridges and the like. Solid work, connected to the earth in a way that would ground Sarah’s ephemeral computer code. I did not approve when she moved in with him, but she was nearing thirty, too much her own woman to listen to her father’s scolding. I expected they would be married, and they did announce their engagement, but then it ended quite suddenly. Neither Sarah nor her mother have ever been able to explain what happened to me in a way that I can understand.
So, as you can imagine, it was quite a shock when Sarah announced after dinner that she and Meaghan were going to be married, to each other. At first, I could make no sense of the words Sarah had spoken; it was as if she had described a stone hatching into a dog. But then, slowly, I understood, and my world was turned inside out.
I have nothing against gay people. I cannot avoid them in my position at the university, and I have no wish to do so. How other people choose to live their lives is entirely up to them. I have a very particular view of the proper way of living, shaped by literature and tradition, but I am not so arrogant to think that my worldview is the only truth.
However, Sarah is not other people. Sarah is my daughter. Her mother and I have brought her up, as best we know how, to honor and respect the traditions of her Japanese ancestry, as well as to strive for understanding and achievement in the modern world. Her path through life was never in question. She was to study hard in school, excel in her chosen career, marry a loving, respectable man, and raise a family with her husband, just as we had raised her. This … confusion was not supposed to happen to my only child.
Yumiko was furious with me. She held her anger in check until we returned to our hotel room, but as soon as the door closed she gave it full vent. “How could you be so terrible to our daughter, Ken?” she cried. “I’ve never seen her happier, but then you had to go and throw a bucket of cold water over everything. Sometimes I don’t understand you at all.”
“How can you be so calm about this, Yumiko?” I asked. “I cannot accept what our daughter has told us. I do not recognize the person she has become.”
Yumiko did not answer. She just looked at me, as if she had not understood what I had said, or she chose not to believe what she heard.
“And what is next?” I asked. “Will she wear a suit and tie to her own wedding? Will she quit her job and take off who knows where with this Meaghan person?”
“Don’t be stupid, Ken.”
“How do I know what to think? Nothing I thought I knew about Sarah makes any sense anymore.”
Yumiko clamped her mouth shut and gave me a look I will never forget. I had seen her angry before, and frightened and worried and sad, but I had never seen a look like that. Her face told me, quite clearly, that she wished she had never met me.
I stood my ground, willing my own face to be a mask. To allow any emotion at all into my expression would be weakness, and I was not about show weakness in front of my wife, especially when I was not in the wrong.
When I did not respond, Yumiko ran into the bathroom and slammed the door. I was in bed when she emerged, and I pretended to be asleep, not wanting to continue the fight. There was nothing I could say. Yumiko had immediately taken Sarah’s side, and Nanami had known for months. I did not understand how they could both be so glib about such a sudden, dramatic change in our normally sensible daughter, and I knew no argument would sway either of them.
For the rest of the trip, I went where Yumiko told me to go, smiled when I needed to smile, ate what was put in front of me, and blandly agreed with whatever anybody said. I went home bewildered. I did not see Sarah or Meaghan again until three days ago, when I flew into Seattle for the wedding.
The first few months after Sarah’s announcement, which I suppose I should call her coming out, I did not speak of it to anyone. Yumiko was quite busy with her research, and she was just as happy not to fight. Talking with Sarah on the phone about anything at all was uncomfortable, so I avoided it.
Instead, I turned for guidance to the source I trust most: literature. Surely there must be some wisdom in the world’s literary canon about romantic love between women, something beyond Sappho.
I began with the classics, Eastern and Western, because those are the works I study and teach. The more I read, the more I was struck by how much is written by, about, and for men, and how correspondingly little is written by, about, or for women. I did find some work, poetry in particular, from Wu Tsao and Emily Dickinson and, yes, even Sappho to illuminate longing and desire, but I found nothing to anchor such relationships into society in the way of traditional marriage.
I generally avoid modern literature – I find very little of value in the post-Ulysses world – but I waded in nonetheless, spending time with Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, the novels of Sarah Waters, and the like. Most of what I read seemed utterly fantastical, set in a world so different from our own that I could derive no wisdom from it at all. In the few works that rang true, lesbians are tragic figures, punished by society for their unnatural desires. Not what I want for my daughter.
There is, of course, more uplifting contemporary fluff, but I could not bring myself to read it.
Finding no answers in literature, I decided I needed to do something more direct. I called Sarah and asked her to explain.
We spoke for over an hour, mostly Sarah talking and me listening. She told me the story of how she met Meaghan, of all the wonderful qualities of their friendship, of realizing how much she loved Meaghan, and of their first kiss, when Sarah confessed her love. Nothing in our conversation seemed strange or wrong or immoral. She was the same Sarah she always was. The only difference was that she was in love with Meaghan, and she was very happy. I was somewhat reassured.
When I began to ask questions, though, my concern returned. How would she provide for herself without a husband to take care of her? She had managed well so far, but life is simpler for the young. Could she really pursue a successful career in the male-dominated software industry? How would discrimination against homosexuals affect her? Most importantly, who would be a father to her children, if she could have children at all? Sarah could give me no answers that I could accept.
“Daddy, please tell me you’re okay with this,” she said near the end of the call.
I did not respond immediately. I could not. After a long while, I said, “I love you, Sarah, and I am very proud of you.” That was not what she wanted to hear, but it was all I could give her.
As the event approached, I was still not sure what to think. There was no doubt that Sarah genuinely loved Meaghan, and that Meaghan loved Sarah just as much. I knew they would treat each other with honor and respect. What I did not know was how they would manage a life together. So many things that are simple for husband and wife would be difficult or impossible for them. It all felt so complicated and strange to me. Queer, in both senses of the word.
Yumiko went to Seattle two weeks early, to visit her mother and to help with the planning. I waited until three days before the wedding. I was resigned to Sarah marrying Meaghan; there was nothing I could do to stop it. I resolved to try to be welcoming and gracious, and to keep my doubts to myself. Yumiko would be angry with me, and Sarah disappointed, but it was the best I could do.
So I find myself standing in the park in Seattle on a beautiful day, with my wife and daughter by my side, unsettled to my core about why I am here. Yumiko is wearing the pretty new suit – more of a dress, really, with a matching blazer – that she wore to meet the governor last year, when she was selected for his scientific advisory council. She scolds me when I call it orange, so I will try to remember the word she uses. Peach, I think.
Sarah is in a short-sleeved, form-fitting, straight white dress. The five-petal flower pattern in the textured white silk is entirely Japanese, and I smile when it catches the light. The flower is the mon of the Oda clan, the Japanese noble family from which Sarah and I are descended. How Sarah found the fabric, I do not know, but I am glad she did. It tells me she still has some connection to her heritage and to her family, even as she makes this drastic break with tradition. The simplicity of Sarah’s dress is striking next to Meaghan’s elaborate Western confection, but it suits my daughter as perfectly as Meaghan’s dress suits her.
I am wearing my best suit, with a tie that Sarah gave me for Father’s Day. I know it sounds like an American cliché, but it really is one of the most meaningful gifts I have ever received. It is silver silk, printed with a particularly meaningful passage from the Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel. The calligraphy is from a Kamakura-era manuscript that is, in my opinion, the definitive version. Sarah created it for me through the magic of the internet, and the result is astonishing. I had no idea technology could do such things.
I find myself standing in the park, and I have a choice to make. I can choose to be like Meaghan’s absent brother Danny and allow my own feelings to hurt my daughter, or I can choose to be like Yumiko and Nanami and the rest of Meaghan’s family and give my daughter my full, unconditional support.
If disappoint Sarah on this day, she will forgive me. Her generosity of spirit, though not infinite, is staggering. She will forgive me and all will be well, but she will remember. How could she not?
I have seen how Danny’s behavior has affected Meaghan’s family. He may believe he is doing right by his condemnation, or he may simply be an angry young man. I do not know, but I do know that all he has accomplished is to cause his family pain.
I have a choice to make, but it is already made. I have been clinging to all my objections and concerns, but I see now that they will only separate me from my daughter. It is difficult to set them aside, but I must. I must support my daughter on this day, now, at this moment, completely and without reservation. If I do anything less, I bring dishonor upon my family and shame upon myself.
The photographer will start with our family pictures soon, but she can wait a few minutes. This is important. I take Sarah by the hand and we find Meaghan, surrounded by bridesmaids in gray suits. Some wear skirts; some wear pants. It is curious, this lesbian wedding, but that is not important.
I take Meaghan’s hand in mine, and I tell my daughters, both of them, that I love them and that I am proud of them. I tell them that Meaghan is a member of our family. I try to bow to Meaghan and shake her hand, but instead she pulls me into a hug, and Sarah wraps her arms around us both.
When the wedding photographer finds us, she is annoyed with me for messing up her schedule, and Yumiko has to fix Sarah’s makeup, but that, also, is not important. What is important is that we are ready.
Sarah stands in the center. I stand behind her, with Yumiko and Nanami on either side. The photographer shouts instructions, mostly not for me. I do not smile, exactly, but I do allow my face to reflect the joy I feel. The photographer clicks the button on her camera several times, and we are done.
There is already a hole in the photograph of Meaghan’s family. If I had not given my daughter my heartfelt blessing and welcomed her partner into our family, there would be another hole in another photograph, less obvious than the first, but even more damaging.
I will not be that hole.