Best gift ever


POSTED: Sunday, December 21, 2008

My Uncle Edwin, who used to preside over holiday cooking with his imposing presence and even more imposing culinary skills, died from diabetes-related complications last summer. Our family gathered around his casket, mourning his loss, feeling his absence. We felt my cousin Lorina's absence, too; in prison on drug-related charges, she missed her own father's funeral.





Andrew Hongo, an English teacher at Hawaii Baptist Academy, works with at-risk youth in the Kalihi Cares program. This holiday season, his family is welcoming back Hongo's cousin, Lorina Kelekolio, who is spending her first Christmas home after three years in prison. He talked to her about her long road back.


Few in Hawaii have escaped the toll the crystal-meth epidemic has taken—on our communities, our schools and hospitals, on our judicial and penal systems, and especially on our families. Ironically, it is this particularly local trait—our close-knit families—that often provides the means for addiction to spread, like a virus.

Such was the case with Lorina: The father of her three children had been a chronic, though functional, addict from the time they met. “;I used to beg him to quit and he wouldn't,”; Lorina said. “;So instead of him quitting, I joined the party.”; Lorina was hooked from the start.

For the next 20 years, her daily schedule revolved around using ice and doing whatever it took to get it. Most days she would wake up in the afternoon and smoke ice until the next morning, hardly eating. Her oldest daughter was raised mostly by Lorina's mother; the younger two were shuttled between Lorina, her mother and the children's father. At Christmas, Lorina would drop by to see the family for 10 or 15 minutes, then leave. “;I just wanted to smoke,”; she said.

The only time Lorina stopped using was during her three pregnancies. After each child, she went right back to the drugs—but never allowed her children to see her smoking. That wasn't the case with many of her friends, though. In the saddest variation on the spread of ice within families, Lorina's friends passed their addiction on to their children, smoking ice with them from as young as fourth grade.

Lorina's three children paid a price in other ways. “;My mom hardly came home. Dad would leave for weeks at a time,”; said Chyla, now 17. She struggled in classes and got in disciplinary trouble. Daughter Charissa, now 22, fell into a five-year cocaine addiction of her own.

Nothing could stop Lorina from using, until she went to prison in 2003. Even then, sobriety proved only temporary. “;After my first term I said, 'No ways, I not going smoke.' But I went right back smoking.”;

Lorina's drug use while still on parole showed up in a positive drug test, the sentence for which was a second prison term with the stipulation that she enter Hina Mauka's Ke Alaula rehabilitation program. Lorina believes that program changed her life.

“;I learned a lot from that program,”; said Lorina. “;I didn't think I did anything wrong with my kids—but I neglected them. I put my kids through hell with my drug use. (Hina Mauka) pushed all that in our face and dealt with core issues, like guilt and shame, so that when you come out you can deal with it.”;

Facing the price her family paid for her addiction finally compelled Lorina to make a lasting change. She's been clean for three years now and keeps in touch with her former drug counselor through weekly phone-calls. She's working for Handi-Wheelchair, a transportation service for people with disabilities. And after all those years of addiction and regret, all she wants this Christmas is to spend time with her family.

Lorina chose the Christmas tree this year, but it was her Aunty Lani who decorated it. “;I came home, the tree was up, and it was so pretty,”; Lorina said as she admired the white lights, silver ribbons and blue crystal balls. “;I'm so excited for my grandson! I cannot wait until he wakes up in the morning and opens his Christmas gifts.”;

But much preparation remains between now and then, not least of which is the extensive holiday menu Lorina is planning. “;Prime rib, baked ham, crab salad and pumpkin crisp. And maybe a third main course,”; she said, counting the dishes on her fingers.

Lorina learned all of those recipes from her father, who taught her everything she knows about holiday meals—and family. “;For us, cooking was bonding. He'd tease me about the way I cut things, but fix all the mistakes I made.”;

Apprenticing at Lorina's side this year will be Chyla, who in years past had to cook out of necessity. “;Otherwise me and my brother wouldn't eat,”; Chyla remembered. This year, however, mother and daughter will be cooking together, perpetuating Kelekolio culinary traditions.

“;I love that I can cook for my family,”; said Lorina. “;I took over where my dad left off.”;

Amid all the presents and cooking, Lorina does have one Christmas wish. Make that two.

She's hoping to attend classes to obtain her commercial driver's license. But classes are expensive, and the nonprofits Lorina has approached for financial assistance are low on funds. Still, she remains undaunted: “;I cannot wait. I'm gonna be a truck driver, just like my dad was.”;

As Lorina and I sat in her apartment talking, her mother rearranged angel figurines on the shelf; her son, Chase, wondered out loud what to get his mother; and her grandson, Aiden, Charissa's baby, played with a Christmas ornament. Lorina glanced from the lights of the Christmas tree to her family.

Then she told me her other wish: “;My Christmas wish is for us to just all get along. And remember this moment.”;