Talking Story

Lehua Parker

Lehua Parker is originally from Hawaii and a graduate of The Kamehameha Schools and Brigham Young University. So far she has been a live television director, a school teacher, a courseware manager, a sports coach, a theater critic, a SCUBA instructor, an author, a web designer, a mother, and a wife. Her debut novel, One Boy, No Water is the first book in her middle grade Niuhi Shark Adventure Series. She currently lives in Utah with her husband, two children, four cats, two dogs, seven horses, and assorted chickens. During the snowy Utah winters she dreams about the beach.

Mark Panek’s Big Happiness tells the true story of Hawaiian sumo wrestler Percy Kipapa and his tragic murder on May 16, 2005. On the surface, the investigative journalism narrative reads as a mystery, a meditation on what it means to be a modern Hawaiian, and a commentary on the ice epidemic and the tangled Yakuza-Hawaii webs of commerce, money, and prestige. It’s compelling and raw. Knowing one of the key participants personally, I found it both hard to read and tough to put down.

You see, it’s also the story of one of my childhood calabash cousins, Tyler Hopkins.

After I left Hawaii for the mainland, Tyler went to Japan and became best friends with Percy. According to the Mark Panek, who knew the adult Tyler in ways I didn’t, Tyler’s life paralleled Percy’s in every significant way. Big Happiness details how they rose to become professional Hawaiian sumo wrestlers in Japan and what happened after they retired and returned to Hawaii.

I remember when Tyler was first going to Japan. He told me about it at my wedding reception at Mid-Pac Country Club thirty-one years ago, the last time I saw him in person. He was happy, and the extended ‘ohana was excited. Sumo was something my big-hearted and athletic cousin was sure to succeed at. His future was assured. Good for him!

Tyler’s sumo name was Sunahama. Living far from Japan and Hawaii before the age of internet video, it was hard for me to follow his career. Over the years, whenever I met up with my calabash Hawaiian ‘ohana, I asked aunties, uncles, and cousins for updates. Each time I was told he was doing well—first climbing the sumo ranks and then retired and working in Hawaii. Tyler was always on the verge of doing something—tourism with Japanese groups, teaching Japanese, finding his groove as a school counselor, or starting a new business venture.

Fantastic! Omedeto!

In Big Happiness, Mark Panek paints a different picture.

I knew to be a foreign sumo wrestler in Japan would be rough. I knew the pressures local kids face to “make good.” I knew how the ideals of sacrifice of self for a greater good—however that’s defined—were ingrained in Tyler. Suck it up was something our uncles told us all the time, and it applied to everything from wiping out on a wave and spitting sand to breaking a bone playing baseball to studying hard in school when playing seemed more fun to never, ever failing to be loyal to ‘ohana no matter what the personal cost.

I even suspected how the Yakuza would be involved.

But what I didn’t understand was ice. Or how much that changed Hawaii in the years after I left. I also didn’t think too deeply about how few opportunities Tyler would have had once he returned to Hawaii. Unlike Japan, there aren’t cushy jobs in corporate America waiting for retired sumo wrestlers.

I’m old enough to know that there really wasn’t anything I could’ve done to help Tyler. But my heart hurts when I remember the kid I had to swim out and rescue when his raft went out too far at Waimanalo Beach or the time we made homemade pizza and Tyler complained I added too much cheese. “No such thing,” I said. “Yeah,” he said, rubbing his opu and the scar he got when he fell through a glass shower door and almost died, “there is.”

But mostly, I can see all too clearly a moment Mark Panek describes during the trial where Tyler almost snaps. I thank God that Mark intervened.

Big Happiness by Mark Panek is available as a paperback and eBook from Amazon. For anyone wanting an insider’s view of sumo wrestling or the life of local boys in Hawaii, this book is a must read. Compelling, real, and full of heart and tragedy, it’s a story of sacrifice, privileges of race and class, and the devastating effects of ice and all the vested interests in keeping the status quo.

Matthew Kaopio’s Written in the Sky is one of those rare books told from a kid’s perspective that’s not for kids. It’s raw and real, and certainly true to the experiences of many homeless kids in Hawaii, but it’s not one I’d give to a kid the age of ‘Ikauikalani, the abandoned Hawaiian kid at the center of the story. The language is coarse, the action violent, and the circumstances bleak. But for anyone high school or older, it’s a must read in the cannon of Pacific Literature.

Fo’real.

Written in the Sky tells the story of ‘Ikauikalani, a middle grader who is adrift after the death of his grandmother. Through ‘Ikaui’s daily experiences, we see firsthand the effects of mental illness, drug abuse, bullying, and dispossession faced by the homeless living in Ala Moana Park. We see how ‘Ikaui struggles to eat, keep clean, and fill his days. There’s real physical danger of death as well as a fear of spiritual death if ‘Ikaui’s swept up by social services. But in the middle of a survive or die situation, there are remarkable moments of grace that allow ‘Ikaui to thrive, to choose to be someone who helps instead of hordes, and to ultimately create a family—an ‘ohana in the truest sense—where there were once only strangers in Ala Moana Park. The kindness of college students, fast food workers, guardian angels, and others allow ‘Ikaui to discover who he is, connect his amazing gifts with his ancestral past, and heal generational wounds.

It’s a book that can be read on many levels. To say it’s about kindness triumphing over evil dilutes what I think is the real message at the heart of the story. I loved the way traditional Hawaiian culture and values were woven into the narrative.

For me, the one jarring element was the Indian guest lecturer who gives ‘Ikaui insight into his gifts. While I appreciate the pan-world, indigenous peoples, we-are-all-one perspective, I would’ve have liked to have seen this insight come from a kupuna. It’s a small rub in a beautifully paced novel and doesn’t really distract from the overall story. However, it’s an odd choice that rings true, and I wonder if the author based some of this novel on his own experiences or on people he knows.

Written in the Sky by Matthew Kaopio is available in paperback and eBook from Amazon. If you love Hawaii and Hawaiian literature, this is an exceptional book.

The 19th Biennial Conference on Literature and Hawai’i’s Children takes place June 7-9 at Chaminade University in Honolulu, Hawaii.  I’ll be hosting two workshops–one specifically for teens–all about writing fiction in authentic Pacifica voices and answering questions about traditional and self publishing.

On Thursday, June 7 at 7 pm, the Honolulu Theater for Youth will be performing excerpts from works by Lee Cataluna, Patrick Ching, and Lehua Parker. The performances are also FREE, but you need tickets. (Link below)

The conference is FREE for all attendees, but you have to register. Teens will need parental/guardian permission to participate. (Link below)

Download the flyer with the schedule and more info.

Conference Registration

Free Tickets to Honolulu Theater for Youth performances of work by Lee Cataluna, Patrick Ching, and Lehua Parker.

Hope to see you there! Be sure to come by and talk story with me!

I’m five years old, laying on the carpet in our living room in Kahului, Maui. Evening trade winds tiptoe through the lanai door, bathing the house with the scent of Mom’s gardenia and naupaka bushes. On top the tv, an animated Santa Claus dances with a big red sack, singing about ashes and soot. My eyes dart to the flimsy cardboard cutout of a fireplace and chimney taped to the wall next to the Christmas tree. Panic bubbles. I can’t breathe.

Aiyah!

“Dad!”

He doesn’t even look up from the Honolulu Star Bulletin. “What?”

“How does Santa Claus come into the house?”

“Down da chimney, lolo. You deaf or wot? Jes’ listen to da song.” He turns a page.

I bite my lip. I have to know. “But Dad, Mom bought our chimney at Long’s. It doesn’t connect to the roof. Plus we no more snow! How da reindeer gonna land da sleigh on top da roof if no get snow?”

He flicks the edge of the newspaper down and peers at me. He shakes his head. “Moemoe time, Lehua. You need your rest.”

Tears well. No Santa. No presents. So unfair. Mainland kids get all the good stuffs. I try again. “Dad, fo’reals. Is Santa going skip us?”

Dad presses his lips tight and gives me small kine stink eye. He clears his throat and looks around the room. When he spocks the lanai door, his eyes light up. “You ever seen a house in Hawaii with no more sliding door?”

“No.”

He nods. “Maika‘i. Every house get sliding doors. Das because in Hawai‘i, Santa comes through the lani door instead of down the chimney. In Hawai‘i we invite our guests into our homes like civilized people. We no make dem sneak in like one thief.”

I tip my head to the side, thinking. “But what about da reindeer?”

Dad clicks his tongue. “Da buggahs magic, yeah? They no need land. They just hover in the backyard and wait for Santa fo’ come back. Mebbe snack on da banana trees. Now go to bed!”

It’s not the first time I have to perform mental gymnastics to bridge what I see in movies, tv, and books with my oh, so different reality, but it’s one of the most memorable. At school the teachers try to prep us for mandatory standardized testing, tests we island kids consistently score lower on than our mainland peers.

“Class, what does it mean if the trees have no leaves?” Ms. Yamaguchi asks. “Lehua?”

“Uh, da trees stay make die dead?” I say. “Dey nevah get enough water?”

“No! It means it’s winter! The correct answer is winter! Coodesh! Pay attention. You kids trying fo’ fail?”

Sigh.

It would be many years later, when I am in college in Utah and walking through a virgin snowfall along a wooded path that I finally understand the imagery and symbolism in Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” in ways more profound than no leaves equals cold equals winter.

Which brings me, finally, to my point.

We need diversity in literature. Kids need access to stories that resonate with their experiences, that are full of people they know and love, that show themselves—their fully authentic selves—as powerful, valued, and real. We need Pacific voices raised in song, dance, print, film, tv—all forms of media, some not even invented yet.

I remember the profound impact of hearing Andy Bumatai, Frank Delima, and Rap Reiplinger on the radio. Hawaiian music, for sure, all the time, but spoken words, Pidgin words, so fast and funny, just like Steve Martin and Bill Cosby! To this day, my old fut classmates and I can still recite all the words to “Room Service” and “Fate Yanagi.”

That’s powerful.

And finally, I find them. Words on paper, in libraries, in books. Stories by Graham Salisbury, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Darrell H. Y. Lum, Kiana Davenport, and Lee Tonouchi open my eyes to the possibility of using my history and experiences, my voice, to tell stories to an audience that didn’t need long explanations about why whistling in the dark is not a good thing, that a honi from Tutu was a given, or that wearing shoes in the house is the ultimate outsider insult.

I could write stories where the burden to bridge is on the mainland, not the islands. I could write stories for kids in Waimanalo, Kona, Hana, Lihue.

But there’s a catch. The reality is that there are many more readers outside of Hawai‘i nei than in it. Books for niche audiences are a tough sell for traditional publishers who are driven by the bottom line. And while self-publishing or small press publishing is viable for genres like romance, thrillers, and sci-fi, it’s next to impossible for middle grade and young adult books who need the vast marketing channels of a traditional publisher to reach schools and libraries.

I try not to let that matter.

On the mainland, I tell people my books are not for everyone. If you don’t know the difference between mauka and makai, you’re probably going to struggle a bit with the language. You’ll miss a lot of the in-jokes and clues as to what’s really going on with the characters and plot. You’ll have to work a lot harder.

But it will be worth it.

Promise.

I’m not a gun gal.

Let’s get that straight from the beginning. I don’t conceal carry, although I’ve heard the certification lectures often enough that I could teach the classes. I don’t own a gun. Until last weekend, I’d probably shot a firearm half a dozen times in my life. Someone else always loaded the gun and made sure I didn’t shoot anything I wasn’t willing to destroy.

My husband, however, is a gun guy. That makes our house a gun house. And while he has extensive training and skill—seriously ridiculous amounts in the minds of those who are not Tribe Gun—I have not.

When we got married, the deal was no mounted animals or parts of animals in the house or garage. He agreed as long as I promised never to make spaghetti sauce with mushrooms ever again. He wouldn’t ask me to go on a hunting trip; I wouldn’t make him go to a poetry slam open mike night.

Compromise and communication are how we roll.

After 30+ years of this, I finally decided that it was pretty foolish to be surrounded by guns and ammo and have no idea how to use them—even if it was just to make sure the safeties were engaged and the guns unloaded. I was tired of wondering what I would do if—heaven forbid—he was out of town and I opened a drawer or a glove box to an unhappy surprise that should’ve been in the gun safe.

So I said I’d take a beginner’s two-day defensive handgun course at Front Sight Nevada if he did it with me.

To my husband, it was Christmas and Father’s Day and birthday and Halloween rolled into one. He immediately ordered me a gun belt and started gleefully packing for our trip.

At Front Sight, the smartest thing he did was to pair up with our son instead of me at the range. As I worked through fundamentals with two different women on the firing line (high-fiving and whispering sisterhood words of encouragement of what to do next to each other), he proceeded to shoot shot after shot through the same quarter-sized bullet hole with his non-dominate hand, à la Inigo Montoya.

I started calling him Iggy.

To my surprise, in just two days I went from not knowing a thing about guns to knowing how to safely load, unload, clear a malfunction, and fire a gun in controlled pairs. I hit targets in all the right places.

I’m still not going to conceal carry. I’m still not owning a gun.

But I get it now. Just a little.

Purge.

It’s my mantra for 2018.

If I were hiding the truth, I’d say something softer like simplify. Thanks to a bunch of silly horror movies, people think of mayhem when they hear the word purge. But it’s not chaos that I’m embracing this year; it’s the opposite. I’m chasing the calm that comes after a cathartic release of unwanted feelings, things, memories, and conditions that have kept me stymied for far too long.

There’s been a war inside of me over the safety of not trying and the desire to do the work I was meant to do. I know now that a lot of the barriers are of my own making. I’ve seen where I’ve wanted to go, even found the path, but I’ve been afraid of what could happen if I head there. Based on previous experiences, the journey could be really rough and uncomfortable. Rejection sucks. Period. However, the only thing I have control over is whether or not I head down that path.

For a long time safety won.

2017 was the start of a slow, reluctant burn. I knew significant changes were needed, but I buried my head in the sand. As long as I was focused on doing good things for other people, I still felt like I was making progress toward becoming what God needed me to be.

But like a sweater with an itchy tag, there was always a twitching between my shoulder blades. Most of the things that took a lot of my time only fed other people and their dreams. While I could ignore the niggling that my own dreams were getting sidelined, I couldn’t ignore the impact this was having on my family.

It took a trip back to Oahu, fan letters from kids, long swims at Waimanalo Beach, talks with the ancestors, the #MeToo #KidLit movement, introspection, and embracing my soon-to-be-empty-nester life for me to commit to throwing gasoline on the fire—to purge for real—and walk a new path. Call it a mid-life crisis, a post-child rearing phase, becoming a Crone Goddess—what have you—I’ve finally seen my real self and know that I’m too old and wise to stay enmeshed in the world’s shibai any longer.

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

As my husband reminded me, I’m not who people see. Who they see is really a product of their own experiences and expectations. Most can never see the real me. That doesn’t take away one iota of who I am.

Purge.

It’s started with my home, with removing what doesn’t work, reimagining spaces that do, and making the changes happen. Late spring, I’m planning to park a 30-foot horse trailer in my driveway for a month. Seriously. It’s the only way to deal with the junk that accumulates when a family of pack rats lives in the same over-sized space for twenty years. The pre-sorting has begun, but we’re finding that stuff is surprisingly hard to let go. We have a lot of money tied up in stuff. We bought this once. We might need it again. Or someone else might. You never know. Better to have it and not need it than the other way around, right?

Not anymore.

Purge.

I’ve recognized that somebody does need these things, now and not someday. Anything we don’t need—high chairs, old rugs, old furniture, baby clothes—and still in serviceable condition is heading to charity. I’m throwing the rest out. I’m done pretending I’ll have a garage sale. That’s just more busy work getting in the way of real work.

But purging is more than getting rid of stuff; it’s getting rid of unwanted feelings and memories. The half-truths and lies we tell ourselves are like deep-fried crack cocaine rolled in cinnamon-sugar and topped with whipped cream. They distract us from understanding the why behind our actions. They give us a feel-good boost that only leads to addiction and diabetes; not the health we desire and deserve.

In my adult life, when things have been mostly safe, I’ve swallowed too many awful things in the guise of doughnuts and ice cream, burritos and burgers. I can’t any longer. It took a trip to the ER for me to figure out that at my hidden core I thought death would mean escape from the effects of childhood trauma, and my suicide weapon of choice is food. Addicts can live without cocaine. Alcoholics can live without booze. Everybody needs food. It’s frustratingly complicated. For now, I’m satisfied that I’ve named the beast. What can be named can be faced.

During a purge, all that’s ephemeral evaporates like smoke. What’s left is more precious than gold. If you’re still here with me, thank you. I promise I won’t hide any longer. Things will be real—battle-scarred and held together at times with spit and duct tape—but true. The words that are coming are those that I’ve held back in fear. But with a purge comes freedom. I no longer care if people see me, for I have seen myself.

Mana wahine.

Crone Goddess.

Purge.

 

Note: Tales From Pasifika is a website dedicated to reviewing stories that explore Polynesian and Oceanic cultures and themes. If you’re looking for a good book that fits into the Pacific-Lit category, this is the place. The following is an excerpt from their review of Rell Goes Hawaiian, one of the five novellas in the Fractured Beauty boxed set. To see the full review, click here.

Tales From Pasifika Review

Summary

When Rell comes to Hawaii with her stepmother, Regina, and two bratty and more-than-annoying stepsisters, she realizes it isn’t to celebrate her 18thbirthday. Instead of having fun, she needs to sign papers, take care of her stepsiblings, and do whatever Regina tells her to do.

The girl’s life changes immeasurably when her stepsisters push the sacred aumakua stone into the saltwater pool at Piko Point. Suddenly, with a little help from a special wagging friend, Rell gets more that she has ever wished for.

Review

A contemporary ‘Cinderella’ story set in tropical Hawaii? Why not! You would think that this clichéd theme couldn’t result in anything interesting. After all, we all know how the tale goes. But in this case, you may get slightly surprised.

First and foremost, this novella takes readers back to Lauele Town, so well-known from Lehua Parker’s Niuhi Shark Saga. You get the chance to catch up with the old characters – uncle Kahana, Ilima, Jerry Santos, Tuna to name a few – and get to know them better or see them in a different light. Bringing back individuals from previous novels is always a treat for loyal fans. Especially if the author makes sure to further develop their storylines or add some extra layers to their personalities. What has Jerry, the surfer who witnessed Jay’s accident in the ocean, been doing? Is uncle Kahana still the guiding spirit of local community? And what about Ilima? Could she act as a fairy godmother? Obviously, she could (in Lauele Town, anything is possible), but don’t expect her to be that I-am-here-to-make-your-dreams-come-true type of a godparent. She has her own hidden agenda. Plus, with four legs and a tail she just couldn’t be your ordinary fairy, could she?

Along with the old characters, a few new ones make an appearance. Typically for a fairy tale, there are heroes and villains – and in this case it is not hard to guess who is who. Rell and Regina, the two new introductions and main characters in this story, are plausible and decently crafted, but perhaps too obvious as ‘symbols’; they lack a little bit of substance. But let’s bear in mind this is a novella, so not everything can be achieved.

Now, while the overall plot is somewhat predictable, the specific scenes are not. There are quite a few surprises thrown in, and I have to say they really keep things interesting. Even though you can foresee the ending, you are not able to guess the sequence of events that lead to it. Add to this a tropical island setting, traditional Hawaiian folklore, and a Polynesian vibe, and you get the best Cinderella tale possible.

Reading this story is a pure pleasure. It is a very engaging and even more enjoyable piece of literature, chock-full of Aloha spirit and effortless wisdom, which make it perfect for children and adults alike. So visit Lauele Town; I promise, you won’t regret doing so.

Mahalo, Tales From Pasifika! You can find Rell Goes Hawaiian in Fractured Slipper on Amazon. More in the Fractured Series by Fairy Tale Ink coming soon.

Note: Tales From Pasifika is a website dedicated to reviewing stories that explore Polynesian and Oceanic cultures and themes. If you’re looking for a good book that fits into the Pacific-Lit category, this is the place. The following is an excerpt from their review of Nani’s Kiss, one of the five novellas in the Fractured Beauty boxed set. To see the full review, click here.

Tales From Pasifika Review

Summary

Nani has always known that one day she will marry Arjun. Even though she doesn’t know him very well, even though she is not sure she really loves him, she understands this is her destiny. Their parents arranged it a long time ago and Nani must fulfill their wishes. If only it was so simple. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Arjun is dying. Since he collapsed, he has been locked in stasis in a medi-mod. What if he doesn’t survive? What will happen to their future? Risking everything, Nani is desperate to bring her fiancé back to life.

Review

Is it possible to write a futuristic story anchored in traditional cultures? You have to admit, it is no mean feat. Lehua Parker dared try to do just that. And I think it’s safe to say she has succeeded.

‘Nani’s Kiss’ is a sci-fiction version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (only the beast is not who you expect it is), which takes from Hawaiian and Indian cultures. It’s a rather unusual mix and one that can be easily ruined. But Lehua Parker managed to keep the right proportions of all the elements, thanks to which the novella makes an interesting read.

The storyline engages the reader right from the beginning, and as it evolves you become more and more curious as to what will happen next. The unforeseen twists and turns keep you riveted and don’t let you get bored even for a short while. However, they also require your undivided attention.

I have to warn you that this novella is not the easiest to read. If you want to follow the plot, you really have to concentrate on the words. There are a lot of fictional names of characters and places you may simply have trouble keeping in mind. They make the story slightly confusing, which for some readers may be a minor put off.

The characters themselves are incredibly well-built for such a short tale. They are believable, and we must remember that the novella takes place in the future, and easy to relate to. With their hopes, dreams, and fears, they are like ordinary human beings. And despite the fact that their backgrounds are not as clearly shown as we would all want, you get the feeling that you know their past quite well.

Now, although the story isn’t set in Hawaii, the local customs and practices are very noticeable. Especially the tradition of tattooing. But forget about permanent drawings here. In the world the author has created, nano-bot tattoos appear and then dissolve, only to reappear on a different part of a person’s body. The images they form reveal the intimate secrets of one’s heart and soul, and for a novice are impossible to hide.

The idea – a brilliant idea – of giving a futuristic twist to one of the oldest Polynesian traditions shows how the past can connect with the future. It also reminds us that some things in life should never be forgotten.

‘Nani’s Kiss’ is without a doubt a very interesting novella. The concept is truly fascinating, so I am positive you won’t feel let down when you give it a try. I definitely recommend it!

Mahalo nui nui, Tales From Pasifika! You can find Nani’s Kiss in Fractured Beauty on Amazon. More in the Fractured Series by Fairy Tale Ink coming soon.

fractured-slipper-coverIlima, everyone’s favorite dog who isn’t a dog, is back in a new adventure!

In Rell Goes Hawaiian, you’ll catch up with Ilima, Uncle Kahana, Jerry Santos, and other characters from The Niuhi Shark Saga in a newly imagined version of Cinderella.

When Rell Watanabe is summoned from the mainland by her stepmonster Regina to Poliahu’s estate in upcountry Lauele, Hawaii, she should’ve known it wasn’t to celebrate her birthday. Despite Jerry Santo’s aloha hospitality, being in paradise isn’t all fun in the sun. Rell spends her birthday signing papers, taking care of her bratty stepsisters, and preparing for a big auction to benefit the International Abilities Surf Camp sponsored by Jay Westin and Nili-boy.

After Rell’s wicked stepsisters push the sacred aumakua stone Pohaku into the big saltwater pool at Piko Point, things rapidly fall apart. Banned from attending the auction, Rell wishes on a star and gets waaaaay more than she bargained for when Ilima shows up to settle a score.

Things take a sinister turn when Rell discovers the real reason Regina is sponsoring the auction and her plans for Rell’s family land in Lauele. It’s going to take more than Ilima’s bibbitty-bobbity-boo to make things right—but don’t call ever call Ilima a fairy godmother.

Rell Goes Hawaiian is a magical realism story where the supernatural and the ordinary live side-by-side. Menehune and other Hawaiian legends of gods and goddess walk Lauele Town. Don’t blink or you’ll miss them.

Rell Goes Hawaiian is a novella included in Fractured Slipper, a boxed set of 5 Cinderella novellas by award-winning and best-selling authors. Fractured Slipper is Book 2 in the Fairy Talk Ink series.


fractured-slipper-boxset-transparent-smallUntil January 18, 2018, you can pre-order the eBook of Fractured Slipper for only 99 cents!

Amazon

Barnes& Noble

iTunes

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Indigo

Angus& Robertson

 

 


 Fairy Tale Ink Series

fractured-slipper-coverBook 1: Fractured Beauty

Includes Nani’s Kiss, a tale of Polynesians in space.

Book 2: Fractured Slipper

Includes: Rell Goes Hawaiian, a Lauele Town Novella

uncle-bradOkay, everyone. I need you all to lean in close. I’m going to tell you something you don’t know.

Uncle Brad was a secret agent.

To my eleven year-old self, there was no other explanation. In the 1970s, he was double-o seven cool in his aviator sunglasses, slacks, slim-cut collared shirts, and pointed Italian loafers. His hair was always perfect, and there was never a hint of a five o’clock shadow. He wore a fancy silver watch and carried a cigarette in his hand like a sixth finger.

He even smelled good.

The summer I turned eleven, back in the -ee days when Ken was Kenny and I was Shelly, I shared my suspicions about our secret agent uncle with my cousins, Kenny and Lori, and my sister Heidi.

They agreed.

That summer, at family gatherings during Strawberry Days, 4th of July, and Pioneer Day, we spent a lot of time doing our own spying from the tops of Grandma’s maple trees and peering out from behind the lilac and bayberry bushes. Kenny was in charge of the notebook where we recorded our observations. We waited patiently for Uncle Brad to use his fancy watch to contact his superiors and disappear in a silent helicopter that we knew would land out by the apple trees.

But Uncle Brad was a pro. We never caught him doing anything more exciting than blowing smoke rings. Decades later, when I told him about that summer, he laughed and laughed. I found out last night from Aunt Susie that some of the joke was on us. He told her that he never liked wearing aviator sunglasses, but he wore them because he knew the nieces and nephews liked them.

To be fair, when I was even younger, I was convinced that Aunt Betty moonlighted as Doris Day in movies. As I child, I may have had an overactive imagination.

And while Uncle Brad wasn’t a spy, it wasn’t my imagination that told me he was something even rarer: a person who loved each of us unconditionally.

Human life is messy. No one understood that better or had more compassion for messy than Uncle Brad. He had the gift of seeing each of us as who we truly are. He cheered our successes and mourned with us through our trials. I know of several occasions when envelopes full of hope, sympathy, and cash simply appeared when times were tough for many of us. During one of the last conversations I had with him, when he was so sick that he couldn’t hardly speak, he wanted to know how one of the cousins was doing and what he could do to help.

From his deathbed, he wanted to help.

Uncle Brad was quick with a hug. There was a law that you couldn’t go to Provo Towne Center without stopping into Sears to see him.

Like a master spy, Uncle Brad worked quietly behind the scenes. After his retirement, at family gatherings, he was the first to arrive and the last to leave. A wiz at setting up tables and chairs, he never let me carry a box to my car.

He made Kevin do it.

Uncle Brad was never the center of attention, but he loved to talk with people one on one. He always wanted to know what was going on in our lives, and he showed how deeply he cared by remembering the tiniest details about what we told him. Years later he’d ask how something had turned out. If it was important to us, it was important to him.

But as much as he loved his nieces and nephews, his greatest joy was in his daughter Katherine and in his grandsons. He loved them fiercely.  I remember the delight in his eyes when he told me about how smart Katherine was to be able to juggle so many things at work, how amazingly well Kyle sang at three, how Chaser learned to drive, or how naturally Gunny played ball.

Like many men of his generation, his focus was on providing for his family. He worked long, hard hours. He was a patriot who served his county in both the Navy and Army. When I asked him why, he told me that he just had to see how the other half lived–and who had the better food. I remember him golfing, camping, and fishing, but I think I was in my thirties before I saw him wearing a pair of jeans.

James Bond didn’t wear jeans, either. Just sayin’.

As his health deteriorated, we saw him less and less. Family celebrations became too much for him. During the last years, I know he dreamed of drinking a tall glass of water or an icy Coke—neither of which was possible for him to do.

Earlier this week Aunt Betty sent me this:

“I know that Brad’s cancer was a terrible disease, and I saw Heavenly Father’s love helping my husband to get through it. Because my husband was a kind and loving person, he chose to trust in our Father in Heaven as he faced such a grueling four year battle. I saw his faith and love for the gospel grow tremendously. He was able to receive his temple endowment and be sealed to me forever. In the last few days of his life, I asked him several times if he was afraid. He always said no. When I asked how he was feeling, he would sometimes ask for pain medication, but always told me he was fine. I am so thankful for him and the courage he showed. He is and was the bravest person I have ever known.”

I was there in the temple when he was sealed to Aunt Betty. He was frail, and I remember how physically difficult it was for him to be there. Just last week, Uncle Brad told my mother, the original Kathy, that he wished he’d had the opportunity to be a temple worker. He thought he’d be a good one.

I work in the Provo Temple in the baptistery. I testify to you that the veil has two sides. Without a shadow of a doubt, I know that he is there, loving us all unconditionally. Heaven is full of guardian angels. He is still here, supporting us through our trials and cheering our successes. If you close your eyes, you can feel him wrap his arms around you in a hug.

Aloha ‘oe, Uncle Brad. Until we meet again. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.