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Speaking to the Heart

a story about my father

My childhood was infused with stories about a formidable Hawaiian woman, Kuana, my great-grandmother. In keeping with the Hawaiian tradition of hanai, an informal adoption process, she raised my dad and his brothers even though she was well into her sixties with grandchildren of her own. She made medicines from native plants and harvested crops. She was also a landowner and businesswoman, renting her boats to village fishermen.

And best of all, Kuana was famed for being the last keeper of the sharks.

As a teenager, I was determined to write her stories, to make them mine. And so I did. Wanting the stories to feel authentic, I asked my dad to show me how to incorporate Hawaiian words and phrases. But he couldn’t help.

In the 19th century, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i became one of the most literate nations in the world, and most Christian too. But by the time my dad was born in 1933, everything had changed. The kingdom had been illegally overthrown after a rebellion led by the American minister to Hawai‘i and supported by U.S. military forces.

My dad was raised in the Territory of Hawai‘i, where it became illegal for Hawaiian to be spoken at school. Local school officials were directed to follow the model of American Indian boarding schools that were designed to “kill the Indian, but save the man.” Teachers were threatened with termination of their employment if they allowed children to speak Hawaiian. And children like my dad were routinely beaten for speaking their 'ōlelo makua, or their mother tongue. The Hawaiian quality of life rapidly declined.

Like many other children, my dad could understand Hawaiian, but he lost that voice.

At age 8, he began drinking. It made him feel better. Less rejected. Less complicated. That began a 30-year commitment to alcohol. And he drank heavily. Eventually he lost his arm in a tragic accident, blacking out at the wheel and sideswiping a semi-truck loaded with sugar cane. He often said that losing his arm saved his life. A man named Jesus helped, too.

That story was woven into the fabric of my childhood. Thankfully, by the time I was born, my dad had reconciled with God, choosing forgiveness for others and himself. However, he couldn't shake a sense of inferiority that altered the trajectory of his life, and our family, in many negative ways.

I always assumed the inferiority he felt was due to losing his arm. But he corrected me in the last months of his life. He did more with one arm than many men did with two. But he never could define what was missing in his life. The inferiority that plagued him was something deeply ingrained in his identity.

Culture and language matter. Some even say that language is at the axis of identity. When my dad lost his heart language, it was the equivalent of losing his identity — and his sense of dignity. His is a common story experienced around the world, even today.