American Poem

I heard a car pull up and stop behind me. Looking back, I watched a woman emerge slowly from the driver’s side door. Coming around to the curbside, she slid her hand along the car’s body, looking as if she were feeling her way.

When she made it all the way around the passenger side door, she stopped. She wore a long green mu’umu’u. Leaning back against the car body, she rummaged in her pocket for a moment, then produced a pair of those large sunglasses, the wrap-around ones that fit over your own glasses. Which was odd, because she wasn’t wearing any glasses. Sometimes there really is no accounting for taste. Then she reached in her other pocket and pulled out a short white stick-like object. With a flick of her wrist, it telescoped out into a long white cane.

I thought about this for a second. This veterans’ cemetery, while not brand new, was still very new, and the rows of gravemarkers in this section did not begin until maybe 50 to 60 feet from the curb. The woman began tapping her way from her car toward my general direction.

Why was no one assisting her? I worked for many years with persons with disabilities, so I definitely recognized a blind person when I saw one.

I thought about this for another second or two.

I did not, however, recognize a blind driver when I saw one – although I did once have a student who used her cane like those old-time car curb-feelers so she could, very slowly, ride her bicycle without veering into the street. I used to watch her pedal along, greatly admiring her ability to never be killed by a passing motorist.

As she moved closer to me, I could see that the woman was wearing an extraordinary circular haku head lei, woven using a wide array of ferns, leaves, and flowers. I don’t think I’d ever seen one so stunningly quite large and full. The weight of it must have been a tad heavy. I wondered almost how her head and neck could support it. “Well,” I thought, “if she made it herself, she is, after all blind, so maybe she couldn’t tell how oversized she was weaving it.”

“Excuse me,” I called out. “Can I help you walk somewhere?”

I assumed she was looking for some plot, but without trying to be funny about it, in a veterans’ cemetery, one grave plaque looks just like the rest. Or feels just like the rest? Would she stoop down and feel it like a Braille text? Couldn’t be.

Although the letters are all raised. Geez, could you imagine feeling your way from one to the next, searching for one in particular?

Perhaps she hadn’t heard me. Could she maybe be deaf-blind? I stood up and walked toward her as she slowly tapped along. About 10 feet from her, I said a little louder, “Excuse me, can I help you get somewhere?”

She stopped and reached for her ear. Pushing back her hair, she began fiddling with what was obviously a hearing aid. Not deaf and blind. Not yet, at least.

“I’m sorry?” she said

She was Japanese, or at least a large part so. Under the extravagant circular lei, she had salt and pepper hair. Her skin was very smooth. It was hard to tell her age. I figured maybe she could have been anywhere from middle-ish 50 up to, say, maybe my age, or a little more?

“Sorry,” she said, “I didn’t quite get that.”

“Do you need help?” I asked. You never just go ahead and grab a blind person, forcing your assistance upon them. Number one, they can’t see you coming, and how would you feel if someone suddenly touched you out of the blue? Number two, they may damn well not need any help at all. Most have plenty of coping skills well in place.

Driving, I’m not sure.

“Oh, my apologies. I think my hearing aid batteries are dying. I would love to get your help.”

I stepped up to her and turned to be at her side. “My elbow is right here.”

She reached up and held my elbow lightly. “So which way are we going?” I asked.

“It’s straight ahead from here.”

I nodded a little skeptically – not that she could see this. I proceeded slowly.

“You must do this pretty often,” I said.

She chuckled. “Yes, you can believe I’ve had a lot of practice.”

“But how do you find whom you’re looking for? I didn’t see you line up from any particular indicator by the curb. Do you count steps?”

“Oh no,” she said. “At my age I’d probably forget the number of steps anyway.” We both laughed.

“You don’t actually feel the lettering on the gravemarkers, right?” Her haku lei gave off the most heavenly scent.

“Oh my, no. I’d be here for days if I were doing that. No, I just tap my way along.”

“Along until, ah, what?”

“I have to walk farther here because it’s a fairly new cemetery, so the graves are a longer way from the curb. At many cemeteries the graves are nearly right up to the street, the oldest ones most certainly.

“I simply park, step out, reach down, and find a marker in the old graveyards.”

This was getting a touch obtuse for my senior brain.

“But how do you know which one of your relatives or friends it is whose buried at what point?”

“Sorry?” she said.

“Do you have memorized parking positions at each of these cemeteries?”

“I’m terribly sorry,” she said. “I apologize for not understanding your question.”

Well, she was damn polite to be sure. But not the greatest question-answerer I’ve ever encountered.

“Ah, Ma’am – “

“Oh, please. Call me Grace.”


“Okay, Grace, thank you, I’m Lanning. Who –“

“Lanning. I love that name. You’re the only person I know with that name. So unusual, you know.”

“Yes, yes, so I’ve been told. But, Grace, who do you know here?”

“Why, you of course.”

Boy, this was turning out to be a really tough one.

“Thank you, Grace, it’s wonderful to meet you too, but I was actually asking who you know who is buried in this particular cemetery.”

“Buried here?” she asked, sounding truly puzzled. “Why I don’t know anyone who’s buried here.”

I thought about this. “Um, you’ve come to this cemetery today, but you don’t know anyone here.?”

“Lanning, I’m not so old that I’ve lost my marbles.” She laughed a terrifically infectious laugh. I joined in, even though she was kind of confusing the heck out of me. “As I said, I know you.”


“Well, since you mention it, Grace, I hope you won’t be insulted by this question, but might I ask how old you are?” Maybe she was losing her marbles.

“Oh, too old, too old.”

“Like, say, sixty?

“Close, my friend, but no bubblegum cigar for you.” She was chuckling me to spasmodic death.

All right. A slight topic turn had to happen before I started face-palming myself. “Not to be rude or anything, Grace, but what might you be doing here today.”

“Well, Lanning, since you ask – “

It actually sounded as if she were going to answer my question.

“I try to visit every cemetery I can, just to acknowledge those who have gone before.”

I said nothing. I couldn’t think of a follow-up. It’s like one of those moments in Lincoln-Douglas debate when you know you should be making valuable cross-examination points, but you’re blanking like an Alexandre Dumbass.

So this sounded like her hobby or something. Quite a bit odd, if you ask me. We stood there, my mind wandering off. I heard the crow of a rooster from the chicken flock that inhabits the tree-line perimeter of the cemetery.

Grace said, “Lanning, you were visiting someone very near to us.”

I snapped out of it. “Right, right, I was. It’s my mom and dad.”

“Yes,” Grace said. “Can you please take me to them?”

I guided her among the graves.

“Here,” I said. “They’re here.”

Grace let go my arm, flicked her cane shut and placed it in her pocket. Then she reached up and removed the gorgeous head-lei. “Please give this to them.”

“Oh no, Grace, I couldn’t do that. You have to keep that lei. It’s stunning.”

“Lanning, never fear. I will always make another one.”

“No, really. I’ve already put some green ti leaves on their grave.”

“That’s wonderful, Lanning. Not only do those ti leaves invite good fortune, but they also offer protection for your parents’ spirits.”

I nodded, not actually having thought very much about why I was carrying out the instructions of the man with the tangled face who’s face was becoming less tangled.

“And it never hurts to make gestures of good luck for the University of Hawai’i football team when they play against BYU.”

I looked sideways at her to see if this was supposed to be a humorous reference. Apparently not.

Grace asked, “Might you come to visit your parents often?”

I felt a wave of guilt wash over me. It was my turn not to answer.

“It’s important that we honor the dead, Lanning. Without them, we would not be. Without them we would not be who we are.”

Hmmm. I couldn’t let this one go.

“But what about horrible dead people? What if your parents used to beat you?”

“It is our obligation to honor the dead. It is our duty to pay homage to their passing.”

Not to be a wiseass, but I thought I’d see what she had to say to this. “What about someone who is absolutely evil incarnate? I mean, how about Adolph Hitler?”

I waited for an answer.

Finally she said, “I prefer Wahine Volleyball myself, but I root for the Rainbow Warriors in all sports.”

She handed me the haku lei.

She shook her head and sighed. “One day, Lanning, one day I hope to see a woman in the White House.”

I took the lei, knelt, and placed it next to my ti leaves. The wind can be very strong in the area. I used a couple of skewers to tack the head-lei down. I placed my hand on the marker and closed my eyes.

I have no idea what came over me at that instant. Suddenly a massive wave of words swept into my mind. So many things I wanted to tell my parents when they were alive rushed out of my mouth, jumbled and jammed together. I was speaking a kind of jibberish, I think, but everything actually made sense. My hand seemed to reach so deep into the ground that I could touch the faces of my mom and dad. I don’t know why, but I felt like I’d been searching for something, following a trail of riddles, of clues to find something. Something that had been right in front of me all the time. I was, I was . . .

I became so weak I nearly fell over, but somehow Grace grabbed my arm and kept me from doing a face-plant.

I came to, coming back to the surface, emerging from this brilliant haze. “Thank you very much, Grace. Thank you.”

Finally I was able to stand. Facing her, I said, “That lei is, is beautiful, Grace. It’s almost glowing there. I really do appreciate it so very much. My parents would love it.”

She smiled and touched her hand on my elbow. “I’m sure they do.”

“Just curious, Grace, but how are you able to watch those games? I mean when you can’t see the players or anything.”

“Oh, I manage. I wasn’t always blind, so I can listen to the radio broadcasts and picture pretty well what’s going on. I love being there too, to feel the energy of all the fans.”

She startled me, deploying her cane like a ninja swords-woman. I wondered if it were in fact a weapon.

. . .

One time I’d visited the Daoist temple up in the back of Nu’uanu Valley. Sitting out front admiring the architectural style, I gradually became aware of music coming from out back. I went around the corner and found an elderly woman playing the flute. It was rather short and on the stubby side. The music mesmerized me.

When she had finished, I gave her a soft ovation, although I didn’t know if that was at all appropriate. She nodded and thanked me. Probably just being polite. Who knows, maybe I was interrupting her practice and she was pissed, but you couldn’t tell by her facial expression.

“That’s an interesting instrument,” I’d said to her. “It actually looks pretty heavy. You could probably hurt someone with that.”

She’d given me a small smile. “Yes,” she’d said, “it’s a very good weapon.”

. . .

I looked at Grace’s cane, but decided not to ask about it. I turned us around, and we headed back toward her car.

“Watch out for my cane,” she said. “It’s old and nicked up a bit from much use. I wouldn’t want you to get scratched.”


“Okay, that listening to the radio and using your memory, that I can see,” I said, “but here’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. How on earth do you manage to drive a car?”

She burst out laughing. “Lanning, Lanning, it’s not as magical as you think.”

What a psychic indeed. She seemed to know real well I was thinking precisely that it was something magical – magical and a half.

“It’s one of those new driverless cars.”

Well, of course I’d heard about them, and the problems, say, Uber was having with them.

“Wow,” I said, “I didn’t think they were actually all that available to the pubic yet.”

“No,” Grace said, “they aren’t really. But some persons with disabilities have been asked to be beta testers. In particular the blind and people with mobility-related disabilities. Many wheelchair users are involved. These cars will be a great help to all of us.”

Huh. Yes. Well this made sense.

“And I like to sit behind the wheel so people who see me don’t freak out because it looks like no one’s driving.”

We reached her car. She collapsed her cane, again with just a slight flick of the wrist. Without fumbling at all, she grasped the handle and swung the door open. “Do you mind if I hug you?” she asked.

“No, no, not at all.”

We hugged. It was as if some kind of energizing electricity had hit me. I felt like Popeye just after he downs a can of spinach. It felt a transmission of energy more powerful, even, than the energy my qi gong master imparts to you when he intends to do so.

“Grace, I, I . . .”

She dropped her arms, turned, and sat back into the seat.

“Lanning, take good care, and may peace be with you,” Grace said. “Aloha e Planning without the ‘P’.”

She started up the car. “Be seeing you.”

I stared at Grace.

“And you forgot your package of skewers.”

“Oh, ah, yes, I, I did.”

“Don’t hurt yourself anymore with those.”

She closed the door and the car slid away. I looked down at the place where the skewer had punctured my hand up at Punchbowl. I couldn’t find the wound.

Just then behind me, I heard a weedwhacker rev to life. I turned around to look and the sound stopped abruptly. All I saw was a tiny white rabbit skipping among the graves. It paused and raised its nose in the air, sniffing. Then it ran off into the trees to join the chickens hidden in there somewhere.

I’d done everything I had to do. I looked at my watch. It’s an Apple, a first-generation one. I guess I’d forgotten to charge it. The face was blank. I took my phone out of my pocket to check the time. All I saw was message on the screen that said, “It’s time to come home.”

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