these lines of lightning
Everywhere we go, the locals tell us that they can’t remember the last time they’ve seen this much rain.
My family and I have spent the past week and a half traveling the Hawaiian islands of Maui and Hawai’i, dodging endless thunderstorms while visiting old relatives and meeting new kin.
One of the most beautiful things I’ve learned here about hawaiian families (ohanas, as Lilo & Stitch taught us) is that everybody is warmly welcome at “the family table.” Hawaii’s culture of hospitality ensures that new faces are merely considered friends waiting to be met. One constant reminder of this familial framework is that both intimate confidants and complete strangers are ubiquitously referred to as cousin or braddah (the older folks, auntie and uncle).
I’ve been meeting enough people lately that it’s been hard to keep track of who’s actually blood-related to me and who I’m simply calling cuz for the sake of social cohesion. I’ve always been taught to believe that the distinction really matters, but the folks around here would probably say it doesn’t make much of a difference – we are all, as they say, ohana.
Many of my aunties on these islands remind me of my own grandma (peace be upon her) who passed just this October. Her death still feels emptying and carefully painful to me, but aches only residually until I am explicitly reminded of her loss. Therefore, meeting and greeting all these ladies who look very much like my grandma looked and talk very much like my grandma talked feels like someone has started picking at a scab that had just begun to heal.
Partying, dining, and sashaying around with these wonderful Hawaiian-Japanese aunties of mine has then proven to be both pleasing and disturbing to me. Pleasing because catching glimpses of these ghosts of my grandmother’s past fills me with warm reflections of her. Disturbing because I find myself haunted by these whispers of who my grandmother could have been.
My aunties’ appearance and vernacular are also where their similarities to my grandmother decisively end. Their joy, their mannerisms, and the zest of life these women possess is wholly foreign to me. Where they fall apart giggling with their grandchildren, where they listen to loud radios, cook in oily kitchens, and sing silly songs with their keiki, my grandma could not bring herself to do any of these things with us towards the end.
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At my grandmother’s funeral, we sang praises of the many great things she had accomplished in her life
Indeed, her story, told backwards to front, certainly boasts the stuff of legends – from being born in a shack on a Hakalau sugar cane plantation, to escaping being interned with her brother in a domestic concentration camp, to coming to the mainland to attend a small Quaker university in Kansas, to becoming a Chicago public school teacher, to helping operate a YMCA camp for underprivileged youth, to taking her place as our esteemed family matriarch – my grandmother boasted a breathtakingly creative and colorful past.
The challenges she overcame were enormous, the risks unbelievable, the rewards…exponential.
Her life seemed to many of us to be a series of impressive acts pulled together into one singular work of vibrant art – perhaps something like a patchwork quilt, sewn from a multitude of stunning experiences. Hearing her stories, poring over that ancient stitching one colorful panel at a time (through nascent pink and crimson pain, past amber sadness and Pacific blue to viridescent triumph), one could almost taste the powerful emotions in all the colors of her rainbow.
However, towards the end of her seasoned saga, the dominant color that had crept into the quilt of my grandmother’s life was an overwhelming gray. Gray, a sad, sort of empty shade. Gray like an empty gravel road, gray like the ironic rain clouds that seemed to be following us all over the islands.
Maybe a dark splotch of this color was in the mix all along, tucked in with the pinks and reds and blues and yellows right from the beginning. Or maybe it entered later, after something terrible happened. I don’t know. What I do know is that as she got older, that ashy hue insidiously began to spread across the rest of her beautiful tapestry until all she could see left of her life was a poisoned, melancholy gray.
For some of us, this rot in the fabric polluted our image of her entirely. At the funeral, one of my cousins kept telling me that the praise and celebration all felt so…masquerading and false. She confessed to me what I never could have admitted to her: that the stories we kept hearing of grandma sounded so absolutely inaccurate, so totally unfamiliar, as if they were describing a complete stranger. My cousin tenderly confided in me that the strongest memories she held of our grandma weren’t these amazing, superhuman tales – they were the very real, excruciating memories of our grandmother spending days crying in bed, refusing to leave her room to celebrate holidays with the family, whispering to us that she didn’t see the point in being alive anymore.
If there is one thing I will never forget about her story, it is that my grandmother succumbed to her death in a manner most unfitting for the rest of her life.
My grandmother died because after years battling this darkness alone, she could not bring herself to go on. Her physical pain, exacerbated by her enduring mental anguish, compounded into severe spiritual and emotional fractures which ultimately cost her her life.
What helps me keep my grandmother’s confusing end from blemishing the rest of her legacy is reminding myself that what happened to her was not her fault. Rather, I believe the failure to recognize and treat her illness lays complicit among us, among the community of family and friends that surrounded her.
Depression was the elephant in the room. In my family (as in many parts of the Asian-American community) the most crucial mental health concerns are sometimes just not talked about. Not in our family. Not in this community. We don’t have those kind of problems here. As a result, mental health issues are stigmatized and hidden away; we deny that we need any help, we don’t receive any assistance, and we keep all of our shit swept neatly under the carpet, thank you.
So at my grandmother’s funeral we told stories of the good, joked about the bad, and completely left out the ugly.
And maybe, in some ways, that’s how funerals should be. I get that mourning is not necessarily the best time to be dragging out all of this muck. I do. But I also have to agree with my cousin that it felt a bit dishonest – damaging, in a way – that not one person (except possibly among the most privileged of company) ever acknowledged by name this…thing that had stolen my grandmother’s life from us. Not at the service and not in the months afterwards has a single word been spoken about the actual cause of her death.
My grandmother could have been taken from us by breast cancer, and it would have been listed in her obituary and featured in all of our conversations. How tragic, we’d say, naming her illness, but this wasn’t her fault. She could have slipped into death after a lifelong struggle with heart disease (or after falling down a flight of stairs for that matter) and we’d have sent out the words announcing the unfortunate cause of her demise flying from our lips.
But this dark, lethal, chemically cancerous thing that stole her from us has remained shockingly unnamed.
Do we understand that there is a huge double-standard at play here?
Do we understand that hiding her struggle is actually perpetuating more pain?
The saddest thing is that we have a cure for this sickness, or at least solid treatment for it. Like a cancer patient either surrenders to her sickness or goes in and gets radical and nauseating and possibly life-saving chemotherapy, so someone who suffers from depression must actively make the concrete decision to seek and receive this sort of healing. Like a cancer patient cannot simply grit her teeth and just pray or wish her tumors away, so someone who suffers from depression cannot simply will herself to just suck it up and “get over it” and “feel better.”
I can’t help but wonder how different our lives might look today if we had known this. If we who loved her had collectively been brave enough to help my grandmother obtain the therapy, medication, and strong social support that have done wonders in the name of helping others recover from this disease. That was our job, because we loved her. Stitch said it best: “Ohana means family. And family means nobody gets left behind…or forgotten.”
But even the most devoted ohanas cannot offer the infirm an ounce of help if nobody is yet willing to recognize the validity of the disease.
The last time we saw her breathing, our beloved Sue Kuramitsu (born Tsuyoko Nakamura) was lying unconscious in the intensive care unit of a hospital near our home. Pale tubes wound out of her nose and an automatic respirator hissed as it pumped mechanized air into her lungs.
My sister and I stood next to our grandmother for a long time, holding each other and crying softly. We told her so, so many things, hoping beyond belief that she could somehow still hear us.
There was so much I still wanted to say to her. So many questions I still wanted to ask, so many secrets I wanted to speak into her life – I wanted to tell her that she was not alone, that I silently suffer this too, that I think it should be okay to admit we all need help sometimes.
Before my grandparents left their regal old home for a retirement community, grandma Sue used to coax me into lying next to her in her plush, feathered bed and ask me to sing her songs “to help her fall asleep” (I always had the feeling she just liked hearing my voice). Some days we’d laugh while I’d goofily serenade her with tunes from Mulan or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Other days, she’d listen reverently as I tried to croon Hawaiian favorites like Izzy’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow. When all else failed, I’d turn to the Shrek soundtrack, especially to ballads like Accidentally in Love by Counting Crows. I always remember that one line, “these lines of lightning mean we’re never alone…never alone, no, no...”
There is such wisdom in those simple words. The streaks of lightning arcing in the stormy skies of our lives, scary as they may be, they simultaneously illuminate the darkness, filling us with fire and hope. Our struggles, our scars, our stitches, they are visible cues that help us see each other for who we really are – wounded, broken, and bleeding creatures who at times are too desperately defeated to get back up on our own.
This is what I would tell my grandmother if she were here with me today. This is what I want to tell the rest of my family and anyone else who may be drowning in darkness today: that sitting down with those who love us most and honestly speaking of our struggles has the salvific potential to instill in us new life, to bring joy and healing and color back into our story, to fill us with the rescuing truth that no matter what particular brand of horrible our lives may have turned today, we are never alone in our suffering.
That alone should be reason enough to speak.
We love you grandma. Now that you have finally fallen asleep, we pray that you truly Rest in Peace.
I hope now you know that you were never alone.