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The Best All-Seasons' Gift: Joe Finds His Uncle at Kalaupapa

In the middle of the old burial grounds, facing the ocean in the shadows of the tall and forbidding cliffs of Moloka‘i, stood a small but elegant stone memorial, edged by carefully placed, polished concrete blocks. The skillfully chiseled inscription read:

Rokuro James Kuri
August 10, 1915
March 25, 2000
Roku served God with a kind and gentle spirit.

As soon as the once-a-day small plane touched down on the Kalaupapa airstrip, Joe and Ann Abe gathered up their cardboard boxes filled with green plastic pots of yellow and pink chrysanthemums and azaleas and okazuya bento, and paused by the benches at the deserted passenger shed. Soon they saw a cloud of dust and a rattley old station wagon coming toward them. A tall, blonde, sun-burned haole man in a blue palaka shirt, faded blue jeans, and black rubber zori came out of the car and waved to them.

“Welcome to Kalawao,” he greeted them warmly. “This is a beautiful day for Uncle Roku. I’m Tom Preston, the pastor. We talked on the phone, remember? Well, I promised to pick you up, and here I am.”

Joe shook hands with the minister and introduced his wife Ann. They headed for the cemetery, feeling all the bumps and holes in the partially paved road. Ann and Joe placed the flowers on the grave and draped a red carnation lei over the headstone. Roku liked the color red, they had found out. Although Christians, the couple placed their hands together in gasshō, murmuring “Namu Amida Butsu,” and bowed their heads. Then, with the minister they sang “Amazing Grace” while breezes blew gently over the other quietly resting mounds.

“At last, Uncle, I found you, and got to see you only five, six times. And now you’re gone,” Joe said quietly.

As a small boy, Joe enjoyed going through all the family albums, skipping over the old Japan pictures of bald men in hakama and haori, and ladies with puffy hairdos in striped black kimono. There were the young men and boys in black student uniforms with stiff standup collars, with closely shaved heads, or wearing soft black caps. Instead he liked to look at and wonder about his mother’s photographs of her brothers, all in a row, in their Sunday-best shirts and long pants, and barefoot, from the tallest at one end to the shortest at the other. Mom, the eldest, and the only girl, was then the tallest, and then came Ichirō, Jirō, Saburō, Shirō, Gorō, and baby Rokurō, number six boy. The children seemed very close in age, no more than a year apart. While growing up, Joe knew some of the uncles, all living in various parts of the world: Honolulu, Mainland, Neighbor Islands, Japan. But what happened to Roku? His mother always gave him vague answers like “Oh, he was adopted by Maui relatives,” or “He went to school in Japan long time ago when he was about 10.”

Joe was never satisfied with her answers but always noticed the slightest shadow of sadness on her face when he asked about Roku. Through the 1950s to the 1990s, Joe was busy growing up, going to school, serving in the Army, graduating from the university, starting his own business, getting married to a wonderful, pretty young woman, and raising their own children. Until by chance one day, one of his old Army buddies came over for dinner with Joe and his family, including his mother, and said, “I won’t be dropping by for a while. Got a new, but short-term job. Social worker at Kalaupapa.”

Joe’s mother clamped her hands to her mouth and almost fell out of her chair. Almost instinctively she squeaked, “Go find Roku. He’s there. Find out about him. For me.”

Then she cried and cried.

Joe was astounded. At last he was to learn about the mystery of Uncle Roku, and determined himself to find him.

“Why the hell you getting in touch with me now? Over 50 years already. Nobody in the family even wrote to me. I wrote sometimes to my sister, but she stopped when I was about 12, 13,” Roku blurted into the phone from his house in Kalaupapa when Joe was finally able to locate him. In spite of the expletives, Joe was happy to finally hear the phantom voice of his long-lost uncle, the cute little boy with his head cocked to one side at the end of the long line of brothers. After another string of profanities, Roku’s voice made a plaintive sigh, and Joe knew it was all right. He felt his uncle was truly happy to hear from him. He also learned that Roku had heard from somewhere over the years that his sister had married someone named Abe, and had a son named Joe.

“Eh, I going visit you, you know. This month, 10th, okay? I’ll bring you anything you like. What you need? Tell me,” Joe said, although Roku was protesting.

“No need come. No need nothing. No like see you,” Roku said.

Before he could hang up, Joe reiterated, “I tell you all right? I going to Kalaupapa on the 10th anyway, so if you no like see me, that’s okay.”

On their first visit to Kalaupapa, Joe and Ann packed all kinds of goodies not readily available at the settlement: senbei, macadamia nuts, chocolate-covered and salted peanuts, home-made cookies, banana bread, kamaboko, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, jars of takuan, rakkyo, and kim chee. If he really did not want any of the stuff, he can give it away, they said.

On the appointed day, they touched down at the Kalaupapa airport and saw only two old pickup trucks. They did not see anyone around.

“I guess Uncle Roku meant it when he said he didn’t want to see me,” Joe said with a slight quaver in his usually strong and confident voice.

“I wonder if he didn’t want us to see him deformed, or if his bitterness is really holding him back,” Ann said, wondering how to console her husband.

Then they saw a handsome, well-built older man emerging from behind the faded brown truck. They stared at each other, in awe and curiosity. Joe walked toward him and smiled, for the man looked not unlike himself, but so much like his mother, except in a more masculine way. He extended his hand and said, “Uncle Roku. I’m Joe.”

Two men gazed at each other, and Joe threw his arm around the old man. Uncle Roku neither took Joe’s hand nor returned the embrace, and backed away.

“What, you not afraid to touch me?” he said quietly.

“What for? You my uncle. I thought about you long time.”

Roku regarded his nephew who was sturdily built, like himself, a little taller. Their eyes crinkled like half moons the same way when they smiled. Then he flung his arms around Joe. Tears welled in his eyes with great joy, and he uttered between sobs, “You the first relative to come see me. I never going forget this for the rest of my life.”

Roku enjoyed all the things Joe and Ann had brought him. He was so happy with the takuan, he opened up a jar right away, and crunched away like it was candy, like small-kid time. He called his friends, all with varied degree of deformities, and had a party. Roku had taken off his shirt by then, and revealed well-developed muscles and smooth skin. He introduced Joe to all his friends, saying again and again, “This my nephew,” thumping his hand on Joe’s shoulders proudly.

Ann and Joe had gotten into Roku’s old truck and driven through the quiet village to Roku’s neat, white house set in the middle of a beautiful fully landscaped yard. During the afternoon, they had learned that Roku never did have Hansen’s Disease. A bounty hunter, someone who knew someone who worked in the Board of Health, had reported the 10-year-old boy’s small patch of itchy skin as suspicious to authorities. With no proof he had the disease, Roku was sent off to Kalawao.

“I cry every night, about one year,” Roku told them. “I never understand why my family give up on me. But lots of other boys here. We got to be good friends, scared at first, but. Grow up together, go school, fish, da kind. The Hawaiians all nice to me. They all very kind people. They my family now. I learned to speak Hawaiian, better than English. No Japanese, but. Was one Japanese lady, tried to teach me Japanese. I called her the ‘sad lady’ because all the time she look sad. Learned some words like haji, ‘shame,’ koraeru, ‘endure.’ She said she got the illness, and her family disown her. The guy no like marry her, so she ran away from home before bring shame to family. Japanese funny kine, no?”

Roku told them that when he was around 12, the itch went away. He attributed it to the good clean air and water. Although he did not have the illness, he did not want to leave Kalaupapa. Some of his friends did. Some came back. He had gone to one of the other islands once and called one of his brothers. He was told never to call again, that he was no longer his relative. And this was long after the miracle of the sulfa drugs. Leprosy was cured.

It was the last and only flight back to Honolulu. Roku drove them back, and as they rattled over the roads, Joe knew exactly what he would get for his Uncle Roku for all the missed Christmases and birthdays: a brand new, big red pickup truck that could carry five or six of his fishing buddies, and their gear in the back. The barge for large supplies went to Kalaupapa once a year, and Joe began his preparations right away. The whole village was there, months later, when the much-awaited barge arrived. The happiest was Roku, like a little kid with a much-cherished gift.

The next time Roku finally came out to Honolulu was for the grand family reunion at Christmas. All kinds of relatives, blood and extended, came and shook Roku’s hand. They made him feel welcome and at home. Next to Joe, the happiest was his big sister, Roku’s big sister who in the early days had secretly gone to the shelter in Kalihi to give him small gifts of candy, socks and underwear, and a few dollar bills. She held her little brother’s hand most of the time during the party.

Late in March, 2000, the minister called Joe to reveal the sad news of Roku’s death. Quietly. At his own home. He looked quite youthful, but he was actually over 80. Young, but old. Roku had become a Christian and had devoted years to helping out at all of the churches, in addition to going to the aid of everyone who needed him, which were many. He had been the favorite of the nuns, the nurses, and women in general, as well as his friends, the fishermen, the carpenters, the plumbers, the mechanics, and the slaughterhouse crew. That’s how he knew how to do anything and everything. He was happy at Kalaupapa.

“We gave him the Christian name James, who was so beloved by Jesus,” the pastor had said. Roku’s last words to Joe were “I don’t want to go to Honolulu, even if it’s nice, or anywhere else. When I die, Joe, make one small memorial for me here, okay? Facing the ocean. This is my home.”

Joe and Ann watered the plants for the last time, smoothed the ground adjoining Roku’s plot, where a large cross made of weather-beaten planks marked the unnamed neighbor’s grave. Roku’s friends drove them to the airstrip in the large red pickup truck that Roku loved so much just because it was given to him by his favorite nephew who had made the great effort to find him, and with so much love returned him to his family.

Joe heard again Roku’s soft voice saying, “You the first relative to come see me. I never going forget this.”

* This article was originally published in The Hawai‘i Herald on December 19, 2003.

© 2000 Fuku Y. Tsukiyama

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