On Friday afternoon, I was planning on going somewhere, but I happened to read a Facebook Post that set my heart on a different course. It was about Joseph Kahahawai, the Hawaiian man who was murdered on January 8, 1932 as part of the terrible tragedy known as the Massie Case in Hawai’i. Racism. Prejudice. Mob Rule. Violence. Human beings acting so mean spirited towards each other. I had been meaning to visit Kahahawai’s grave after seeing a picture of it about five years ago. I never found the time. Little reminders would come and go throughout the years. Last Friday, I knew it was time. I made my way through the afternoon traffic and stopped by a lei stand in Chinatown. They didn’t have the Maile lei I wanted but a beautiful ti-leaf substitute. I was a little disappointed but I knew the spiritual aspect of ti was going to have a role.
I made my way to Kalihi to Puea Cemetery. I had spent time there before on the outskirts but never explored the whole cemetery. I had come there one night in college for a photo assignment. As I was taking long exposure pictures in the darkness, a man appeared out from seemingly nowhere. I can’t remember his name. We talked for a little while. He said he liked to come at night and lay down in the grass next to his Mother and Father’s graves. Sometimes he fell asleep and just slept the night there on the grass. We said our goodbyes and he faded off back into the blackness of the small tree grove there. I thought a little about that encounter as I progressed towards the cemetery.
I knew that Joseph’s grave was somewhere on the far Diamond Head side. The afternoon Sun was beginning its descent into oblivion as the orange rays scattered amongst grey disheveled and crooked headstones and tall weeds swaying back and forth in a somber dance. On the drive over, I thought about finally standing before Kahahawai’s grave and little waves of emotion swept over me. I maintained my composure by concentrating on the traffic in front of me. I pulled over by the curb and began my trek through the cemetery packed full of graves. I tried to walk on grave curbs and between them on little irregular paths. The whole time, talking to the kupuna, giving them my Aloha, asking for their forgiveness for trodding on top of them unintentionally.
Then in the distance, I spotted the little white fence erected a few years ago around Kahahawai’s grave after it was straightened back up from its tilted state. I had seen photos on the Web. I made my way to him and pictured his handsome Hawaiian face from his picture that I had seen. Wrongfully accused of rape, he had been abducted, beaten and shot in the heart. Police caught his killers as they drove with his body in an attempt to dump him at Kokohead. Part of a long story of tragic events.
I approached his grave and put my camera down while noticing that some lei had fallen off of his headstone. All appeared old and one blue and white yarn lei was a little dirty in the weeds next to his headstone, but still salvageable. I immediately noticed that his headstone said “Born” but didn’t say “Died” like most. It said “Killed.” I recycled some of his old lei to a new home at the foot of his plot and opened up my ti-leaf lei and draped it carefully over the yarn lei that I repositioned on top of his headstone. I felt a little self-conscious as if he was watching me right there. I put the plastic bag into my pocket along with some litter that was near his headstone. I apologized to Joseph that I didn’t have a real Maile lei but a ti-leaf lookalike. I was a little embarrassed.
I then stood there in front of his grave, and began to pray. I looked around first, self-conscious, standing there in the middle of roads, houses, businesses, and pedestrians, in the middle of the cemetery at rush hour. As I prayed, tears burst forth, cascading down my cheeks and neck. I immediately felt spirit. I apologized to Joseph for what happened to him so many years ago. I told him that I love him very much. I asked him to please forgive those who did the terrible things they did to him. I asked Ke Akua to give him comfort. Looking down, I read the words on the bottom of his headstone. Ho’omana’o. Remember. I knew most of us had forgotten about him in this busy World of so many challenges. It was a dark time in Hawai’i’s history that most of us would rather forget. The darkness of the human heart in this place of Aloha pau’ole.
I promised Joseph that we would never forget what happened to him, much like we will never forget all victims of anger, jealousy, greed, ego, injustice and the dark elements of humankind. I did however, condition our memory, not on anger or revenge, but on love and forgiveness. I again humbly asked him to forgive those who judged him wrongfully and especially those who took his life while wiping away my tear-flooded eyes. An eerie quietness descended upon the cemetery as the Sun continued withdrawing below the horizon. I felt like a spectacle to many unseen eyes as if I was surrounded by people just watching me. I tidied up the immediate area of little trash, gathered my belongings and said my goodbyes after lying down on the ground and taking a photo of Joseph’s headstone and the setting Sun.
I made my way back across the graves and weeds. Quietly whispering “e kala mai” with every step as I gingerly stepped on grave curbs and unknown clearings while dark descended. I reached my car and was relieved to have finally made it to see Joseph after so many years of failed good intentions.
I drove down North School Street, headed home, and arrived at the stoplight at Lanakila Avenue. While waiting at the light, I noticed a man in a wheelchair struggling to get up the little incline from the crosswalk to the sidewalk. He tried to push himself up only to roll back in exhaustion. He was bandaged, had only one leg, and looked like he was in his sixties. I watched people around him waiting to cross and others walking by. Some looked back at him as if they pondered possibly assisting him…then continued on their journey. Nobody around him offered assistance as he sat there in the street trying to roll up the curb. People sat in their cars, some watching him as well. I was kind of in disbelief. Just as I was pondering whether I could pull in front of the car next to me and over to the curb to assist him, the light turned green and traffic behind me pushed me forward. I looked in my rear-view mirror and could still see him trying to get up the curb.
I pulled in a parking lot and did a U-Turn and made my way back to the intersection from the opposite direction. He had turned around and was making his way back across the street. I think he just wanted to get out of the road at that point. I turned down Lanakila, parked my car and got out. Just as I got out, I could see a woman on the other corner reach down and grab his wheelchair as she bent down to talk with him. He pointed towards Lanakila Health Center. She helped him up the curb and gave him a headstart down the sidewalk. Relieved there was some compassion still in this World, I got in my car and drove down the road to turn around. As I made my U-Turn, I couldn’t help notice the cross-street was “I’o Lane.” Ke Akua was definitely nearby. Joseph was born on Christmas.
As I drove towards home, awash in raw emotion, I came to realize that the kaumaha and ‘eha I felt at Joseph’s grave while talking with him, which brought me to tears, was not Joseph feeling sorry for himself and grieving at what his short life had become. It was grief for what we have become. We have indeed forgotten…