Gathering Places


Monday, July 23, 2001

Losing, but still
learning from,
a beloved father

Two days after my dad died, my sister and I had been going through the papers in his office when I turned on his computer and found a document: "Aku's Long Life."

My dad -- his nickname "Aku" came about after an acquaintance mispronounced his name -- had begun writing his memoir. It starts: "Hi my name is John Kauhane Kua Sr. What I am about to write here is my life story the best I can remember." Reading the page-and-half that he had finished revealed a part of him that I had never known.

And, in the days after his passing earlier this month I would learn many more things about my dad from many people -- including him.

First, he had a public side.

The hundreds of people who filed by his casket knew this side the best -- the bowler, the billiards and card player, the man of faith, the guy who'd talk story with anyone and the patriarch of his brood of nine kids.

His greatest legacy would come as a musician.

A self-taught virtuoso on the ukulele, his repertoire included, "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Nola" and "Chicken Reel." It was his rendition of "Stars and Stripes Forever" with its ukulele-thumping ending that brought audiences to their feet with applause. In 1999, he played in famed instructor Roy Sakuma's ukulele festival in Waikiki, taking the stage with other ukulele greats including his boyhood friend Moe Keale.

The slack-key guitar was another musical passion, one that he shared willingly with others as a slack-key instructor for Hawaii County's parks and recreation department. His slack-key prowess earned him a place in the Big Island Slack Key Festivals, which dedicated this year's program to his memory.

Music may have been the key to snagging his love of more than 50 years -- my mom. An old friend wrote to my mother in a sympathy card that he was with my dad once when he was playing music in front of her house . "What I didn't know was that he was courting you."

My dad's childhood had been a mystery but what I've learned in the past couple of weeks has enabled me to better understand the many sides of his life.

My dad was born in Hilo out of an affair between a teenaged girl and a much older married man. That girl, who was 12 or 13 at the time, would die sometime after childbirth. The baby would be given to Fritz and Mary Kua in the Hawaiian adoption practice of hanai just after Mary herself had lost a baby.

My dad was partly raised on Oahu, first in Kalihi. His earliest memories came when he was 3 or 4 years old. "I can remember as a little child my grand-pa...used to take me to the movies," my dad wrote. "I (knew) that my grandpa loved me very much because he always took me with him where ever he would go."

Times were tough for his family.

"My dad would go (to) the beach to fish or make opihi," he wrote. "Sometimes my mom would say to us...come eat and all we had was poi and salt. We became full because the poi made us full."

Because his father moved around to find work, my dad attended a myriad of schools -- Kalihiwaena Elementary, Keaukaha School in Hilo and Naalehu School in Ka'u. This shifting of schools could explain why my dad didn't finish school. He stopped going in the eighth grade then returned but dropped out in the 11th grade.

In 1998, at the age of 67, however, my dad made his family proud when he went back to school to get his diploma.

The most painful and private side of my father came at the end. He suffered from congestive heart failure, with the first signs coming in May when he turned 70. His weakening heart led to an accumulation of fluid in his lungs, making it difficult for him to breathe. After medication and inhaling oxygen, he declared he was getting better.

His handwritten notes to himself told a different story, of a man who kept his agony to himself and away from members of his family who would likely worry.

"My mind was not feeling good so I took one magnesium (capsule) for relax," he wrote after returning home from the emergency room on June 11. "I had my cough again so (that's) why my mind was not (too) good because mucus slow coming out."

My dad went into the hospital on July 2, the day before he and my mom celebrated 51 years of marriage. Four days later, I would receive two frantic phone calls telling of his worsening condition. My younger sister, my daughters and I caught the first flight out to Hilo the next morning. We arrived at the hospital at about 6:30 a.m. and my heart ached when I saw his frail body.

What I didn't know until later was that when my dad heard we were traveling to see him, he held on, enduring a night of electric zaps to keep him going until we got there.

He held our hands as our tears dripped on the sheets. At one point he stroked my daughter's hair. I kissed him on the head and ruffled his hair. He told me he loved me.

My dad closed his eyes and fell asleep before his heart gave out at 7:30 a.m.

In the weeks before his death, my dad tried to close his unfinished business, including seeking and extending forgiveness. He never stopped searching for things that would make him whole, and it's a lesson I'm just beginning to learn.

Crystal Kua is a Star-Bulletin staff writer.

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