Let Us Be Antibodies

Kristiana Kahakauwila

In one of my earliest memories I am reaching upward, waiting to be lifted onto my father’s shoulders. We are strolling 2nd Street, a pavilion of shops and restaurants near our house in Long Beach, California, en route to frozen yogurt. Two vanilla cones: rainbow sprinkles for me, chocolate for him.

This is our weekend routine: Saturday afternoons our escape. My mother is the type to shop at health food stores even before that was a thing, to have banned white rice and cured meats from the house. No candy. No chocolate. Saturdays with my dad are different. We are a team—a team whose sport is eating frozen yogurt.

There are those Saturdays he cannot lift me atop his shoulders. The handful when he cannot lift himself out of bed. On those days his breathing is labored, the act of inhalation exhausting. My father is a severe asthmatic, and though athletic and otherwise healthy, when dust or fungi, bacteria or other pathogens enter into his body, his immune system fails to properly resist their effects.

When I’m a teenager, my dad and I turn the annual family ski trip into a father-daughter adventure. We fly to Park City for my spring break. The next year we drive to Mammoth. My mother makes the arrangements: books the condo, works the finances, tells us which shop has the cheapest rentals, and where to find the grocery store. We dutifully call her each evening but, I hate to admit, I don’t miss her. I like these days with my dad, peering into crevasses from the ski lift, following the lines his skis make in the snow. In the evenings he cooks spaghetti with sausage or burgers with bacon. After, I study for my Advanced Placement exams while he watches baseball on the television.

My dad is kanaka maoli. Native Hawaiian. On the mountaintop, that sun so close you could lasso it, his skin turns impossibly dark. We get raccoon eyes from our goggles. It is he and his Hawaiian friends—the ones I call uncles—who taught me to ski when I was four. Years later, as an adult, I think to ask, Why skiing? I learn that he had never seen snow until he was in his mid-twenties. But his friends, all outrigger paddlers, needed a sport for the off-season, so they chose the most unlikely, the biggest lark. They’ve always liked a good joke, and a bunch of Hawaiians on skis is it.

When I was a child, my mom was often asked if I was adopted. She of Norwegian-German extraction, skin so fair it burns in the first five minutes of summer. Hair a brilliant red. Her family says I have her eyes. We agree my nose is a mix of parentage. The rest, my dad: my coloring, my mouth, my jawline. All his.

It’s not that I’m not close to my mom. I’m her in so many ways, become her more as I age. (No candy in my house, either. No bacon, to my fiancé’s chagrin.) But we are close in a way particular to mothers and daughters—as extensions of one another, we recognize in the other what we least like in ourselves.

With my father it’s different. I am his little girl. Always will be. At the movies he still covers my eyes during sex scenes. He did this recently. I’m 35. But I don’t mind being his little girl, his sweetheart. We see in each other the best part of ourselves, and so to please him is to please myself. His happiness is worth more than any other’s, because it is my happiness, too.

I used to, as a child and even adolescent, love to nap with my dad. He worked the night shift for three-month swings, and in those weeks he would sleep during the day. He preferred a mat on the floor, rather than the marital four-post bed. The mat was a holdover from his childhood in Hawai‘i and remained useful for finding a cool spot to rest in the midday Los Angeles heat. I’d come into the room and lie down next to him, match my breathing to his. He smelled like jet fuel—no surprise for an air-freight manager—and the husky-sour scent of his medicines, the prednisone and albuterol and other asthma medications that have been a mainstay of his, of our, life.

I described these naps recently to a friend, and I watched her expression as she struggled to overcome her concern and fear and confusion. I realized, watching her, how fortunate I have been. I associate my father and uncles with safety, warmth, the slow intake of breath. In Hawaiian, aloha means to share breath. My relationship with my father is one of aloha.

I realize this is not the case for many other women, especially those within indigenous communities. But I was gifted early with my dad, this great example of a good man, and thus my life has been filled with many good men.

During and since the election I have been thinking a lot about what it means to have a good person in a child’s life. Not a perfect person—my dad’s not perfect—but a good person. And I think having a good person in one’s life means building a foundation of self-worth, means increasing resistance to outside influences that will claim you have less value. Good people support who you are, all of you. And that support gives you strength, resilience. A good father or uncle, mom or aunt; an exceptional sibling, adopted family member or friend: They are like antibodies. It’s not that viruses or pathogens—those cruel words someone says about where you come from; the way, as a woman or person of color, you can be dismissed in a meeting; the bizarre attempts certain people make to assure you that their seeing you as less than them is a way of protecting you—cannot enter. They do enter—your body, your world, your heart. But having the right people, men and women, means you have the antibodies to resist that hurt, the strength to understand that those viral happenings are not true.

Here’s what I find so amazing about antibodies: Though they are formed in response to a single pathogen, a single sickness, they stay in your blood. They stick with you, for a lifetime, protecting you, maintaining your resistance, giving you strength, again and again and again.

When I lie next to my father, when I match my breath to his, I feel what it means to be him. To inhabit his inhalation is to inhabit his world. This is an act of empathy, of understanding. Sometimes I imagine myself as his protector, just as he has been mine. I cannot fix his asthma. I cannot take it away. But I like to think—and I suspect he would agree—that all those years of ski adventures and frozen yogurt and movies I have only viewed in fragments were a kind of resistance to the effects of his illness.

I want, in the days and weeks and years to come, to think of myself as an antibody. To be your antibody. That sounds so intimate. It’s meant to be. An antibody offers more than support—it gives protection. To be an antibody is to believe in someone else’s worth. Every one else’s worth. It’s the love of life, every life, but especially those lives that are unequally threatened by our—our, we make them—systems, institutions, and government. It’s the commitment to fighting pathogens and to resisting their effects.

Such an effort takes empathy, understanding. It takes listening. Solidarity. Hope. Action. It takes love. Aloha. That sharing of breath. Inhaling a life—a father’s life, a daughter’s, a neighbor’s, a stranger’s—and holding it inside our lungs, our hearts, our own selves.

Kristiana Kahakauwila is a hapa writer of kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian), Norwegian, and German descent. An associate professor of creative writing at Western Washington University, she is the author of This Is Paradise: Stories (Hogarth, 2013). She is currently writing a novel set on the island of Maui.
Published March 15, 2017
© 2017 Kristiana Kahakauwila