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The Meaning of Hānai

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

In Hawaii, hānai is the practice of informally (and sometimes formally) adopting someone into your family as one of your own, regardless of their age. This tradition of 'ohana (family) and aloha (love, but more literally: the breath of life) gave me, an 18-year-old wayward orphan newly transplanted in Hawaii, someone to call "Mom."

I'd grown up in Northern California, raised by my maternal uncle (who I called "Dad" since I didn't know who my real father was) and his partner. I didn't have a close relationship with my own mother who had abandoned me when I was 11 months old, and by the time I was 15, had disappeared and was believed dead. My grandmother, a loving but stern woman who didn't take shit from anyone, was the closest thing I had to a mom, and our relationship was strained at best.

Our family was, by definition, broken. We'd never been very good at unconditional love and our deep family history of trauma, abuse and pain meant that I was a fragmented version of myself when I arrived in Hawaii on military orders with my husband and infant son. It was hard to be on the receiving end of acceptance and aloha, when I didn't know how to give that in return.

That's why, when a tall, happy New Englander arrived at my front door in Hawaii with a wide smile, I wasn't prepared for a life-changing relationship. The woman's name was Sue and she was a 20-year Navy veteran who served as a registered nurse in the military before retiring in Hawaii and joining the Navy's New Parent Support Program, a service meant to help young Navy and Marine Corps families by connecting them to home-visiting nurses who would offer advice and resources.

It was my seven-month-old son's pediatrician, Dr. Terp, who told me in no uncertain terms, that I was going to be in the program, whether I liked it or not. I didn't want someone coming to my house and telling me what to do. I had been raised to believe that outsiders usually meant trouble. So when Sue began her weekly visits to our home, I put up a wall of defense.

Every week, without fail, Sue showed up on time with a smile and her trademark East Coast accent. If she sensed that I was hesitant to let her in, she never showed it. She brought pamphlets for me and cardboard books for my son, and occasionally, a special snack or treat for us to share. She'd make herself comfortable on the borrowed wicker couch in our nearly-empty living room, and ask me how I was feeling, how my day was, and what I liked.

When I answered, Sue listened. I mean she really listened. She understood me when I complained about my husband or how stressed I was being at home all day with an infant. Then, a few weeks into our sessions, Sue said something to me that no one had ever said before.

"You know, you're a really good mom."

I didn't know how to accept that compliment. I knew it wasn't true. I'd been an impatient mom, prone to outbursts, and I lacked some of the most basic maternal instincts such as cuddling my crying child. It was Sue who helped me understand what my son needed when he fussed, and how to practice self-care when I felt emotionally depleted.

I didn't want to admit it to her or to myself, but I'd come to count on those weekly meetings. In our three years together I had grown, eager to match the version of myself I saw in Sue's eyes.

Sue knew that I had been a teen mother and a high school dropout, but she never looked down on me. When I was in her presence, I felt like I was important and valued, which was something I'd rarely experienced in my life until then.

Through deployments, pregnancy and the birth of our second son, marital discord and my eventual decision to separate from my husband and move off the island with our kids, Sue was there supporting me and comforting me along the way. I didn't want to admit it to her or to myself, but I'd come to count on those weekly meetings. In our three years together I had grown, eager to match the version of myself I saw in Sue's eyes.

The last day Sue came to my house as my visiting nurse, she brought a book I'd never heard of before, "Oh the Places You'll Go," by Dr. Seuss. After she left, I read the book and ugly cried. In some of the simplest language imaginable, the book managed to prepare me for the big journey I had ahead—where I would have to figure things out on my own and do the best I could, knowing that sometimes it wouldn't be easy—but that ultimately, I would survive.

Throughout the next few years, Sue and I kept in touch via email. When big events happened, like reconciling with my husband, or taking my GED, I'd reach out to Sue to share the news. As often happens, we emailed less and less, and eventually we lost touch with one another.

In 2007, the stars aligned and my husband was re-stationed in Hawaii. Just a few weeks after moving back to the island, I spotted Sue walking down the road as I drove past. I immediately pulled the car over on the other side of the road, yelled out her name, and when it was safe, ran across the street to embrace her.

Six years had passed since we'd seen one another and three since we'd exchanged emails, and yet, it was like no time had passed at all.

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

From that moment on, Sue and I got together regularly for coffee dates where we would catch up on life. No matter what it was, Sue listened and encouraged me, and even opened up and shared her amazing life with me, too. No longer was Sue my home nurse and I her client. Over the years that followed I realized that I saw Sue as a mom, someone who offered guidance, wisdom and love without ever expecting anything in return.

I don't know exactly when it happened, but at some point, I began to refer to Sue as my "hānai-mom" and Sue claimed me as her "hānai-daughter." I looked forward to visiting with her and sharing my ideas, as well hearing about her life which was rich with volunteer work, travel and family. It was Sue who looked me in the eye and told me she wanted me to go to college, and it was Sue who cheered me along the way and celebrated with me when I received my degree.

We don't have to be related by blood to be family and we don't have to give birth to a child to love them and help them find their best selves.

Since meeting Sue, I've changed from that young, broken girl I once was. I know that in many ways, it's because of Sue, my hānai mom, that I was able to believe in myself and become the woman I am today.

Although we've since moved from the islands again (courtesy of the military), I have not lost touch with Sue. A few weeks ago, I took a trip back to Hawaii and got to visit with her for two days before returning to the mainland. Seeing Sue felt like coming home and it's something that I'll always cherish.

Our relationship also taught me something: we don't have to be related by blood to be family and we don't have to give birth to a child to love them and help them find their best selves. If Sue could take a broken teenage girl and help her become a strong, independent woman, imagine what each of us as women and mothers can do for those kids out there with no one to guide them on their way.

The spirit of hānai is a beautiful thing that I'll carry with me always. We don't have to be Hawaiian or live on the islands to let someone else know they are important, they are loved, and they have family no matter where they came from or where they go.

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