By Toutka Wongse-ont
Last night my ear hurt again. Behind…where the doctor cut to patch a hole in an eardrum. That was years ago, but the pain still comes back once in a while. It can be sensitive and even bleed, on rare occasions. I pressed a hand on my ear and it felt better. No pain today.
Outside, the wind blew fierce and hard, a gust that swept through the treetops, scattering leaves afar. The crown flowers shifted in the wind, some lavender, some white. One flower, with its star shaped petals unfurled, stuck straight across tinged with a soft lavender hue and a slightly pinkish center. In the center was the darker purple, crown shaped base, used in many leis. Swaying from side to side, tilting low, almost falling, but it always sprang back and bobbed up and down on branches. Nearby, a red dragonfly clung to a branch. Its body was whirling and swirling in a dizzying bright blur in the wind. I quickly snap a picture with my phone, then it flies away.
I turned to examining some leaves with holes in them. The pale leaves of this type of milkweed shrub were smooth on top, waxy and green, but felt soft and fuzzy underneath—woolly, like caterpillars. Hmm…where were they? I had hoped to catch a glimpse of yellow, black and white stripes, but the Monarch butterfly caterpillars were nowhere in sight. My friend told me that it wasn’t the season for them; she rarely saw one this time of the year. I looked up and saw the dragonfly again. It was struggling against the wind, flying from side to side, diving before it finally landed back on the branch. Its six legs grasped the branch securely. I took three more pictures and admired the strength of something so delicate but so strong against the elements. The red dragonfly was still, nature’s design, with clear crystal wings outstretched against the sunlight, a play of light and color. It shimmered and glimmered, a red and translucent jewel among the sea of white and purple crown flowers. I read somewhere that dragonflies communicate through touch and chemical signals. They also communicate visually, showing off their size and speed in flight. But what if someone experiences loses the ability to communicate? How can a person learn to communicate visually? Can it be expressed through nature?
Loss…is that a sense? What is it? Perception? My mother lost her hearing and became profoundly deaf. Back in 2006, Hawaii experienced forty days and nights of torrential rain that flooded many areas on the island including my mother’s farm in Waialua. The flooding swept through and the murky, swirling waters surrounded her up to her neck and trickled into her ears. Fortunately, she swam to safety and was saved. But so much was lost. The tractor…her animals…the season’s harvest… shelter…and money. Other damage was silent and undetected: in the damp conditions in my mother’s ear a fungus grew for months. As her health gradually declined, doctors remained baffled by what ailed her. Finally she was properly diagnosed, had the fungal growth surgically removed, but also lost her hearing in the process. Living in utter silence, my mother had lost the art of communication.
When mother lost her farm she also lost the “art of communication” with nature; planting, watering, growing and harvesting her vegetables. Instead of being outdoors, she felt cooped up, “dizzy” from being indoors for hours on end. Her sense with nature was off balance. Back in Laos, many people in her village worked in agriculture, tending the livestock, farm plots and rice paddies. They came to know each other, family and friends alongside nature. When political unrest swept through the cities and villages, opposing forces burned and ravaged homes and rice fields. This gust of violence sent many escaping to the refugee camps in nearby Thailand. Thousands of immigrants flooded into the United States in the late ‘70s, ’80s and ‘90s. Some assimilated into the industrial society but some struggled with the language and difficulties in finding employment. These hard working Laotians longed to work the land, in a new land, to be a part of it, part of nature.
Mother lost a part of herself when she moved to Hawaii, but regained it when she learned to work her farm. Growing vegetables and herbs from her homeland as well as new ones in this new country, and whatever was in demand–eggplant, squash, tomatoes, green beans, and more–she would be overflowing with happiness at the truckloads of nature’s harvest. She sold a bounty of nutrient-rich goods to Chinatown and in flea markets. The surpluses were shared with family and friends.
Mother adapted to the language fairly easily and was able to communicate as needed. But after the flood and the loss of her hearing, she needed to adapt to a new language. So she did, by learning to read lips. Like the dragonfly that communicates visually, her gift of lip reading is astonishing and has brought happiness to our family and friends.But we worried about her–what kind of work can she do? She loved to work with the land and in nature.
Some women from the nearby farms brought baskets of supplies to her home. Reluctantly, but with their urging, mother sat down to make a lei. The crown flowers lay, piled in a mixed heap of white and lavender, on the floor. Kukui nuts, shiny, gleaming black, filled a basket. Slowly, mother took a length of thread and looped it through the needle. Awkwardly, she picked up a flower and pushed the needle through it. It came down smoothly. Flower after flower was strung. Alternating Kukui nuts and green leaves for color, she created a pattern, nature’s design, and weaved together pieces of nature, intricately. Before we knew it, it became a lei, a message. In Hawaii, leis are often given as expressions of affection. But on some occasions the lei symbolizes a healing. Ancient Hawaiian chiefs would exchange leis to make peace between enemies. Through nature my mother found the strength to express herself, and the lei, this “art of communication,” gave her peace.
I came to the United States as a six-month-old baby; I have no memory of life in Laos. I cannot make a connection with that world. But what I do know is that through my mother’s stories I’ve created new memories and made sense of her connection with the surroundings, the history of the lei and the land–nature, working it, loving it, learning the “art of communication” with it.