My Kuleana

by Melissa Llanes Brownlee

“Grandpa wea you stay?” I open the door to his room but he isn’t there. Mom is going to give me dirty lickins if I don’t find him quick. “Grandpa! Mom said you gotta come take a shower right now.” I close the door and walk down the stairs to his garden. He’s sitting on his stool. His left arm cradled on his lap. His right hand pulling weeds. He’s not wearing a hat and I know I’m going to get yelled at because it’s my job to make sure he’s clothed and fed.

Every morning before school, I have to make his oatmeal for his breakfast and his soup for his lunch thermos. I have to walk them down to his room under the house. I have to open the door to the smell of shishi and something much stronger, something that pushes down on me. I have to place the tray of food on the table we got from the industrial area, a big wooden spool I imagine once held cable for an elevator. An elevator at one of the resorts in Waikoloa that goes to a suite that I will see when I am rich and famous one day. One day, when I don’t have to do anything for anybody but myself. I don’t know what will make me rich and famous but I know I will be and my house will be on Robin Leech’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And everyone in my family will want to live with me and I will laugh at them and say no. It will just be me and my very handsome husband with green eyes and dark hair. In my dreams of being rich and famous, it’s never anyone from Hawaii. Never John. It’s always someone from the mainland. Some haole I’ve seen in movies or TV. I want a child with green eyes and dark hair, a child with red hair and green eyes, a child with blond hair and blue eyes, a child with blue eyes and dark hair. I know that if I find a handsome haole for each of my beautiful children, I will be so happy. Anytime I see a shooting star or blowout my candles, I always wish to be rich and famous, because I know that if I am rich and famous, I will have everything I have ever wanted. “Hey grandpa,” I always yell, “your breakfast stay ready. I gotta go school. Make sure you take your medicine, okay? No make me watch you swallow ‘em, or mom going be mad”. I hate that I have to do this every morning.

I can hear a low grumble as he tries to stand up. I know he doesn’t want to get up. I know he doesn’t want to take a shower. He lurches up the stairs, past his room, and into our garden. He avoids the white sandstones my mother had my father place as a footpath. Their unevenness at war with his own. He walks past the mango tree. It isn’t in bloom yet but I imagine green mangoes, sliced in shoyu and vinegar, or ripe and juicy as I bite through the skin, peeling it with my teeth as mango pulp slides down my chin. He hitches himself around the tangerine tree, branches scratching at his exposed and permanently dark arms.

He’s angry. He doesn’t want to shower naked in front of me, he gestures. I tell him he has to because she said I have to make sure he washes all of himself. I turn on the shower for him as he takes off his frayed shorts, held up with rope, and his worn t-shirt. He struggles pulling it over his closely shorn head with one arm. I’m adjusting the water temperature of our outdoor shower, because mom doesn’t want him showering in the house as I see him. I help him pull the shirt over his head. He isn’t grateful. His eyes are filled with spite. I get angry. I don’t want to be here either. I don’t want to be bathing my grandfather. Shaving his face. Making sure he washes his boto. I don’t even want to look at his boto.

I lay his clothes on the bougainvillea bush that frames our yard. He enters the warm stream. I look at him. I make sure he washes himself or else I’ll get it. “Grandpa no forget to wash everywhere. Mom going be mad if you don’t clean yourself.” I motion my hand towards the lower half of his body. He grunts, his anger matching mine. He turns around to face me, scrubbing his body, so I can witness him. Water hits me. I stare, not because I want to but because I have to. My mother’s voice ringing in my ear. You make sure he wash himself good, Leilani, or else. You make sure he scrub his boto, too. Remembering this, I cringe. This isn’t right. I don’t want to watch him do anything in the shower but my fear of her fuels my irritation with him. “Grandpa, hurry up. I gotta do my homework. I like shave you already.” He gestures that he is ready but I tell him to brush his teeth first. I watch him try to put toothpaste on his toothbrush. We both know he can’t but he tries anyway. Finally, I just take the brush and tube from him and do it. I give it back to him without looking at him because I just can’t take another stink eye.

He brushes his teeth. I don’t have to watch him do this. I glance at the anthurium garden my mother planted under the eaves of the porch. Surrounded by crabgrass and rocks, their obake-shaped heads cluster around each other. I hated working in there. Pulling weeds, cutting anthuriums and watering – all for her garden. He coughs and spits, almost choking. I hit his back, trying to help him. He coughs harder. His spindly body shaking as he heaves. “Rinse your mouth grandpa, then I going shave you.” He rinses and spits. I get the soap and make a lather, applying it to his damp face. I pick up the disposable razor as he stretches his face. I try to slowly glide it down his cheeks, not pushing too hard. I don’t want to cut him. I work my way towards his mouth and he stretches even more. I run the blade over his upper lip and chin. His skin isn’t taut enough and I pull it to get the razor closer. I become mesmerized by gray stubble and lined skin, soap pooling and dripping. I don’t meet his eyes. I don’t want to think about anything but the next section of his face. I rinse and shake the razor in the shower’s stream. The stiff hairs cling, refusing to let go. “Okay, all pau now, grandpa. Make sure you wash your okole too.” He growls as he turns into the stream again.

I get his towel off the bush. He takes it from me as I reach to turn off the shower. He tries to dry himself. His one hand wiping weakly over his chest and downward. I don’t remember a time when he didn’t have a stroke but I hear the stories of his drinking and fighting and fishing. He was a strong and scary man, but now all I see is my grandpa who can’t even wipe himself dry. I help him because he’s taking too long. I can feel his anger but I just want this to be over with. I dry one leg and then the other. I wipe his back side and dry his hair. I put the towel back on the bush, and I get his clean shorts and tell him to put his legs in. He leans his good arm on my bent shoulder as he lifts his legs one at a time into his shorts. I pull them up as he tries to help me with his good hand. I get a clean t-shirt and pull it over his head, first guiding his good arm, then his bad one. I pull it down. “Okay grandpa, I going get your dinner. Go back to your room.” He puts his slippers on and stomps slowly off to his room under the house, trying to lift his bad leg as I watch him go. I gather his dirty clothes and put them in his basket in the laundry room before opening the screen door to the kitchen. 

“Leilani, did grandpa clean himself good?”

“Yeah, mom, he did.”

“You sure? I not going have to check him?”

“Yes, mom, I stay sure.”

“Okay, go do your homework. I going tell you when his dinner stay ready.”

I walk to my room down the hall. I want to close my door but I can’t. I got so much homework. I open my math book, my hands tracing the scribbles and doodles on my brown paper bag book cover. I see Leilani loves John written over and over and wonder what John would think about me having to watch my grandfather shower and having to shave and wipe and dress him. I don’t think he’d want to hold my hand or even kiss me behind the cafeteria. I imagine him pulling me along behind him as we sneak away during lunch recess. My hand hot in his. “You doing your homework Leilani? You better not be drawing on your notebook again. You know what your math teacher said about you always drawing on your notebook.”

I remembered him taking my notebook in class and flipping through the pages, turning it over in his hands. “Leilani, you do know this is math class, right? Why are you drawing on your notebook?” I didn’t say anything. I was so embarrassed that he was actually looking at my notebook. He could see all my crazy doodles of hearts, robots, stars, flowers along the edges of my polynomials and factorings. I could hear my classmates giggle and laugh.

“Ho, Leilani is going get it now.”

“Better watch out Leilani! He going see the pictures of John.”

I sank down as my teacher just kept flipping through my notebook. I prayed for the bell to ring. “Leilani, I am going to have to take your notebook. I think I will need to call your parents too.” I really hate him.

When my mother got home from work that night, she told my dad to get the belt. “Leilani, you know how shame you made me? Your teacher wen call me at work. He wen tell me that you was being one bad student, always drawing in your notebook. Take your shorts off right now.” I didn’t want to but I knew it would be worse if I didn’t. I started crying as I took off my shorts. “Don’t you cry. This stay your fault. I going make you cry. Bend over the table right now.” I hoped it was my father who would give me the belt. As I tried to stop from crying, fire erupted across my okole and I almost cried out loud but I stopped myself and sobbed. “You better not cry. If the neighbors hear you, you really going get it.” Again, she hit me and it was hot and cold at the same time. My tears and hanabata ran down my face and into my open mouth as I tried to breath without screaming. I put my hand in my mouth as the next lash hit me. My cries passed through my fingers and she screamed for me to be quiet. “If I ever get one call from your teacher at work, the belt not going be the only thing you get.” She hit me two more times, and I tried not to fall, my sobs shaking my whole body.

“I stay doing my homework mom.”

“Okay, you better be. Your grandpa’s dinner going be ready soon.”

I work on some factoring as I wait for her to call me to the kitchen. I was so lucky John didn’t know about my notebook. I would be so shame. I think about his soft brown lips as he leans down to kiss me.

“Leilani, come get your grandpa’s dinner.”

I close my notebook and get my grandpa’s tray from the kitchen. I walk quickly down the cement stairs to his room. His door is open but he’s not there. “Grandpa, you was supposed to wait for your dinner. Wea you stay?” I hold my breath as I put his tray down. I don’t want to smell the food and his room. I walk down into the garden. I see him, again, pulling weeds. “Grandpa, you only going get dirty again. You know you not supposed to go into the garden after you pau shower. You know she going get mad at us.” He just keeps pulling weeds, his head bent as he leans forward. “Grandpa, come eat. It’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Stay ono, you know. Come eat before it gets cold.” I hear him cough as he leans back. His darkened and crinkly skin moves across bones and saggy muscles. He pushes himself off his chair, lifting his shorts with the wrist of his bad arm, so they don’t slide down his hips.

I turn around and wait for him at the door of his room. I watch him slowly come up the stairs. I have to make sure he eats all of his food. Sometimes, when I come home from school and bring his tray to the kitchen, there is still food on it. I know that if I tell mom that he hadn’t finished his food, she’d yell at him, so I try to throw it away before she sees it. I don’t know if he notices but I know that if I don’t do it, he’s not the only one who will get yelled at. He doesn’t look at me as he comes in. He lowers himself onto his chair and prays. I can barely understand what he’s saying. Sometimes he prays in Hawaiian. Sometimes he prays in English. I hear him say amene as he raises his head and grabs is spoon.

I don’t want to watch him eat but I have to stay there until he is finished so I look out the door. My mother had some contractors put in a terraced garden right next to the house. The concrete was just wide enough for suntanning. When I wasn’t busy with chores or homework, I would come lay out in the sun. It felt good to stretch out. The hot sun warming my skin. I’d dream of faraway places, faraway people, faraway boys. I dream of kissing John at the school dance. He pulls me close to him in the dark. His arms wrapped around me. Our bodies moving. I feel his breath on my neck. I hear a loud cough behind me. He’s eating too fast again. I turn, walking towards him. I hit him on the back, hard. “Grandpa, I always tell you no eat fast. You gotta chew your food or you going choke.” He keeps coughing, food and spit spraying from his mouth. I get his rag and try to wipe his face but he moves away.

“No,” he growls.

I drop it on the table and keep hitting his back. Finally, he stops. “I told you. See what happens? Eat slow. We don’t want mom coming down here.” He picks up his rag and tries to clean himself. Pieces of meat and potatoes stick to his face. I want to help him but I know he’ll just get mad. He picks up his spoon again. He’s almost finished, and I can get back to my homework.

I look out the one window in his room. I feel the evening breeze washing some of the smell away from me. I can’t see the ocean from here because his room isn’t high enough but I can see the rows of papaya and banana trees. I can see the overgrown grassy bushes in the lots behind our house, where, every day, my grandfather slowly picks and pulls them down making more space for himself. My mother yells at him not to do it but he doesn’t care. Every day, I notice that there is more garden and fewer bushes. Dirt stamped down by his lurching walk. Rocks lined up, making places for the things he wants to grow. I don’t understand why he does it. I would rather watch TV all day then go in the sun and work in a garden.

“You almost pau?” He coughs a little and says yes. “You like me turn on the TV?” He doesn’t answer me, so I just wait until he’s finished. I watch as he shovels mashed potatoes into his mouth. I take his dishes when he’s pau and walk back up the stairs. It’s getting dark but I hurry because I am finally done. I put his dishes in the kitchen sink.

“You better wash them good,” my mother tells me.

“Yes, mom.” I wash them as I stare at the geckos hunting moths on the kitchen window. Their heavy bodies bending the screen inwards.

“Stop daydreaming Leilani or else.” I finish the dishes and go to my room. “You better be doing your homework. No let me catch you reading.”

“Yes, mom.” I open my math notebook, my fingers tracing the hearts around my name and John’s. I pick up my pencil and trace it over and over, making a space for myself.

Originally published in Baltimore Review. Click here to read Melissa’s reflection on writing about caregiving.

Melissa Llanes Brownlee (she/her), a native Hawaiian writer, living in Japan, has work published or forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Reckon Review, The Hennepin Review, Cheap Pop, Milk Candy Review, Lost Balloon, Atlas + Alice, Fictive Dream, Five South, and Cotton Xenomorph. She is in Best Small Fictions 2021, Best Microfiction 2022, and Wigleaf Top 50 2022. Read Hard Skin, her short story collection, from Juventud Press. She tweets @lumchanmfa and talks story at

%d bloggers like this: