12/21/2012 04:32 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

On Dying With a Long Reading List, Writing, and Saying Goodbye to My Father

"I realized in June of 1945, at the end of 8th grade, that I was going to die with a long reading list," my father once told me. Where were we? Maybe talking over a late-night bowl of noodles in San Francisco's Chinatown, waiting for the start of a Pagnol movie at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, cruising along Highway 1 towards Carmel when we drove up the coast one summer. "The only thing to do," he continued, "was to decide every night whether to read for half an hour or get an extra half hour of sleep. So since June 1945 I've been doing that, and generally I end up reading for that half hour."

"That half hour" usually lasted until the sun came up. No matter how tired my father was, he could stay awake -- in a horizontal position after a full day of work -- reading for hours, finally dozing off near dawn with his glasses halfway down his nose and a book on his chest. One night he'd be engrossed in Montaigne's Essais or Michelet's Histoire de la Révolution française, the next Games Alcoholics Play or The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

It was my father who fueled my love of books. For as long as I can remember, I've loved everything about them: their wonderful weight in my hands, the smell of the paper, the news of the world that they bring. My father's devotion to books encouraged and inspired me to become an avid reader and, eventually, a writer.

People who went about with "their nose buried in a book" earned my father's utmost respect. He always carried a book because you never knew: you could be caught in a traffic jam or have to wait at the doctor's office; you might find yourself with a free hour that you could spend reading in the park. I followed his example and never left the house without a book, a habit one of my boyfriends disliked intensely. "Are you afraid you might get bored?" he'd ask as I tucked a book into my bag on our way out to dinner, a bike ride, a walk on the beach.

My father revered books, caring for them like an automobile aficionado polishing and waxing his car. He protected them with clear contact paper and showed me his technique in step-by-step detail: cut the paper half an inch larger than the book, make diagonal slashes for the corners, then smooth the sheet on slowly so you didn't get creases and air bubbles. Mine never turned out like his; his hands were large and unnimble-looking but before becoming a psychiatrist he'd trained as a surgeon.

One sunny spring day in San Francisco when my father was busy with bills, phone calls, errands, I asked, "If you could be doing anything in the world right now, what would it be?"

A great Francophile, he'd studied philosophy at the Sorbonne -- did he wish he was debating the existence of God in a Left Bank cafe? He often talked about the years he'd spent in Spain as a Navy flight surgeon -- did he dream of once again driving the back roads of Andalusia?

"Oh, that's easy," he said with a smile. "I'd like to be sitting on the patio in the sun reading."

That's it? I thought. If you could be doing anything in the world, you'd be ... reading? And still too young to be aware of the myriad tasks and responsibilities that demand our attention as adults, I didn't get why he didn't just, you know, go out to the patio and read. Now I understand all too well, and it's one of the luxuries and loves of my life to relax with a good book.

Books, my father believed, had the power to celebrate and uplift, console and enlighten. When my translation of Reinaldo Arenas's La vieja Rosa was published, my father presented me with the two-volume Anthologie de la poésie française. The inscription read: "... de la part de ton père, on the occasion of your work's being published for the first time. Mes compliments!" We gave each other books often over the decades and when he was convalescing a few years back after breaking his hip, I sent him a book every week or so: an anthology of Spanish poetry, a biography of Arthur Koestler; a book on fin-de-siècle France, the Algerian War, the Spanish Civil War. He loved clouds, so I sent him a book on clouds. Months later when I was visiting from Tokyo, I asked him how he'd liked the Spanish poetry anthology. "I enjoyed it," he said, "but I gave it to the waitress at the diner." Her son was sick back home in Guatemala and she didn't have enough money to go see him; my father thought the poems would make her feel better.

My father passed away in October on an achingly lovely afternoon in Napa, the lush vineyards golden under the azure sky. We know the day will come, but still I always hoped that somehow for my father, for all of us who loved him so much, it would not. As he lay dying, I read to him from his favorite newspaper, Le Monde diplomatique; a few days earlier, I'd bought the latest issue to mail to him as usual and had thrown it in my bag as I ran out the door to catch a flight to San Francisco. By the time I arrived, my father was unconscious, but I knew he could hear me, my sisters, his best friend of 49 years. We talked to him and held his hand until, slowly, his heart stopped beating.

Today would have been my father's 81st birthday. I would have sent him a book but instead, home now in Tokyo, I look through the books of his that I brought back after he died; I feel the weight of them in my hands, smell the paper, study the passages he marked with post-its, read the lines he copied out on the scraps of paper tucked between the pages. And I know that even now that I have to learn to live without him, he will always be with me.