Ha (Breath)

Thomas James O’Connor, my Dad.

As a teen, my asthma would often send me to the TV room in the middle of the night, where I would sit in a chair with two or three pillows piled onto my lap to support my hunched shoulders as I willed myself to breathe. Reruns of McHale’s Navy and Combat and the late night movie provided some companionship as I bargained my way through an attack, begging God to make it stop and finally cursing God for the lungs that have failed me my entire life.

Some nights, as I made my way downstairs to sit vigil through another attack, I would see my dad sitting in front of the TV dealing with his own breathing issues from emphysema and congestive heart failure, courtesy all the cigarettes he smoked during WWII.  These late nights of shared misery formed a bond between us. I learned the great lesson of empathy and how to sit with the suffering of another even when there is nothing to do but witness.

My dad lost his battle for air the second week of my freshman year of college. He was only sixty years old. He had suffered so much that it was a relief to finally lay him in the ground at Arlington National Cemetery, surrounded by the fallen from the Vietnam War. I continued to deal with my worsening asthma adding more and more medications and allergy shots to my arsenal. I have had my share of emergency room visits, adrenaline shots, inhalation therapies. I grew to fear any activity that would take my breath away – so frightful that it would not return.

This quest for air has consumed much of my conscious thought, and unconscious as well. The image of my dad on submarines during his naval career worked its way into my mind as I struggled for breath. I would imagine the sub slowly rising to the surface as my breathing eased up. Sometimes I would dream of submarines only to wake up in the throes of a full-blown asthma attack.

I had a lot of conversations with God about my asthma. It’s no wonder that in my several years of Religious Studies, the Book of Job remains my favourite. Job knew that his suffering was not a result of any bad actions on his part, as much as I knew that my asthma was not psychosomatic, no matter what our so-called “Friends” said. Job sat on his dung-heap and I sat hunched over my pillows and the only comfort either of us had was that God was with us. Somewhere out there in the whirlwind.

A year and a half after my dad’s death, my mom decided I should spend the summer in

uncle joe
Joseph Kunane, Great Uncle

Hawaii. Arrangements were made for my uncle to pick me up at the airport. Walking through the baggage claim in Honolulu, after a non-stop flight from Dulles, I could see my uncle and his family in the distance. However, before I got to them, I was intercepted by an old Hawaiian man who layered me with leis and put his face close to mine so that our noses touched. I could feel his breath mix with my own. This traditional Hawaiian greeting was being bestowed on me by my great-uncle, Joseph Kunane, who up until that moment, was a stranger to me. Uncle’s skin was blackened by the countless hours spent in the waters of Waikiki where he was a local “character”. The deep crevices in his face spoke of a hard, but well-lived life. His hands were warm like the sun. His eyes sparkled. And he called me by my name – Ku’upuaonaona. Uncle Joe has been one of the biggest surprises in my life. Being as close to my mom and grandmother as I was, I wondered how did I miss the stories of Uncle Joe? The mystery remains to this day. But the memory of his Aloha and the sharing of breath as I stepped into our ancestral realm of Hawaii, is engraved on my heart.

I have been told that the word “Aloha” is comprised of two words: Alo (share) and Ha (breath). Now, on the continent we tend to avoid each other’s breath. A handshake, kiss on the cheek, or hug will generally suffice as a greeting. But this measured drawing together of two heads and two noses who share the same space and same air at the same time – this act causes time to pause so people can recognize that aloha (love) is present.

In his famous sermon known as the Aloha Sermon, Rev. Dr. Abraham Akaka, then pastor of historic Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu, spoke of the meaning of aloha on the occasion of the admission of Hawaii as the 50th state of the Union. (It’s good to keep in mind that Hawaii is called “The Aloha State” because of this sermon – it was not the product of a tourist PR campaign.) The whole sermon can be found here. I’m fond of this passage:

“Aloha ke Akua” – in other words, “God is Aloha.” Aloha is the power of God seeking to unite what is separated in the world – the power that unites heart with heart, soul with soul, life with life, culture with culture, race with race, nation with nation. Aloha is the power that can reunite when a quarrel has brought separation; aloha is the power that reunites a man with himself when he has become separated from the image of God within.

Thus, when a person or a people live in the spirit of Aloha they live in the spirit of God.

When my father and I sat in the light of the TV during those long nights, many years ago, struggling with what little breath we had, we were sharing aloha in it’s most literal sense. We envisioned that heavenly place where breathing was effortless and restorative and silent. Our version of the “Peaceable Kingdom”. And even though we were strangers to each other, Uncle Joe’s greeting and welcome was an invitation to me to breathe in the love of ohana, family – to unite with that which had been separated.

My father and Uncle Joe taught me never to take breathing for granted. Or love, for that matter. When we share these, we touch upon the sacred and with that comes the revivification of the spirit and the certitude that the struggle is worth it.

Note: Kahu Akaka performed the marriage ceremony of my parents at Kawaiahao Church in 1953.

6 thoughts on “Ha (Breath)

  1. You have a wonderful story telling gift, Deb. I hope you keep on telling your story. It’s a fascinating word picture and I’m enjoying every word.


  2. This is a beautiful story. I love how you juxtaposed your asthma with the word ha and it’s Hawaiian meaning. And I don’t think you are a white Hawaiian. You are Hawaiian. You need to own that. There are not enough of you left on this earth.


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