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In the Hawaiian tradition, ohana is a word that straddles and blurs the line between family and community. Your ohana is your intentional family, the people gathered around you who love and support you, whether connected by blood or chosen bonds of trust and affection.

Last week on the side of a mountain on Hawaii’s Big Island, several of us toiled to finish the job of cleaning out my mother’s house for the final time, preparing it to be handed over to its new owners. The job was substantial—Mom had lived there 35 years—and inevitably bittersweet. It was time, and we all knew it, but time only takes away so much of the sting of loss.

The key to making it through—besides each other—was the constant love and support of Mom’s ohana.

Sunset at Kua Bay, 1/12/19

There was the gung-ho, can-do Grant, a Kiwi imported from New Zealand by way of Colorado, who moonlighted from his hospitality job at one of the big resorts by taming the wild grounds of Mom’s tropical half acre of heaven. Mom’s smile would grow extra wide any time she captured the attentions of this much-younger man, whose nearly infinite patience allowed her to while away long minutes of his Saturdays with story after story. The later arrival of his charming partner Wynona only seemed to delight Mom further.

Stacy was her household engineer, who started out as the once-a-week housekeeper and became, by the end of Mom’s life, one of her closest and dearest friends. An immigrant who escaped Communist Czechoslovakia, Stacy’s unique blend of warmth and steel struck a chord with Mom and they bonded like long-lost sisters, each weekly visit becoming both work and play, as they teamed up to tackle the chores before settling in for long dialogues around the breakfast table.

The most recent arrival in Mom’s circle, Marleen became her lifeline during the final two years of her life. Mom tested the poise and professionalism of most of the staff members she interacted with at the rehabilitation / elder care facility where she spent a substantial portion of her last two years, recovering from a trio of surgeries. During these stays, Marleen won Mom’s trust even as she won Marleen’s heart, leading Marleen to quit her job in order to become Mom’s full-time caregiver at home during the final months of her life. In those end times Mom would often slip and call Marleen “Marie,” the name of a beloved caregiver who had been part of our ohana—though we didn’t yet know the term—in 1960s California.

There were many others, of course: handyman Joe, computer guru Cheryl, and the mail truck lady who would drive down Mom’s steep driveway to hand packages to her at the door, not to mention friends like Carol and Frank and Cynnie and Brad and Meris, and on and on. All, together with her beloved, ever-loyal companion Mike, formed an ohana that held Mom close in her final years, and held the rest of us close during our final days in the house she loved so well for so long.

They are all family now. These connections are real ones, built on respect and affection and trust. Increasingly in her later years, if Mom didn’t connect with someone right away, she simply refused to navigate the niceties of manufactured small talk. This behavior could appear brusque, but again, at a certain point in her long life, Mom stopped caring what impression she made on strangers she might never meet again. Marleen and Stacy and Grant and Joe were her chosen, and she cherished them.

(There is of course a deep irony here. Mom needed a strong ohana surrounding her in part because she chose to live isolated from the rest of her blood family, on a faraway island in the middle of the vast Pacific. If we were to begin counting the number of contradictions Mom lived out over the course of her life, though, we could be here a very long time.)

One of the things about an ohana is that its members often seem to sense when they are needed most, and simply appear, volunteering a hand, a meal, a hug, a smile. So it was this past week as we were lifted up by them again and again. On our last night on the island, we were treated to a sunset dinner overlooking the water by Marleen, her man John, and John’s son and nephew. The spirit of aloha we felt that evening remains with us still now, an ocean away. It always will.

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