Life is struggle. That's what Kealoha* has known for all of her 32 years. The earliest years were the worst.
"My father hit my mother all the time, and they were both on drugs. He was in music, and there were a lot of parties in that industry. I remember getting up in the middle of the night and nobody would be home. My older brother and I would have no idea where they were," she recalls.
It was up to her brother, then about six years old, to care for them. She was about three. More days than they care to remember, he would feed them breakfast and walk them to school. "He would drop me off at preschool and then get himself to his school. It was about a mile walk," Kealoha relives.
They wouldn't see their parents until they came home from school. She sums up, "I just remember being scared all the time. I blocked out a lot because it was so horrible. It was always just us, and we're close today."
She remembers the ambulance coming over to take her mother away after many fights. "I remember seeing her in the back of the ambulance and her face being all purple," describes Kealoha. The worst was when her father threw her mother off the second floor balcony of the apartment they lived in.
Kealoha was five. Their mother was hospitalized for weeks and the apartment evicted the family, so their mother's mother took them in.
The fall damaged her mother's back so badly she could never work again, and suffers back pain to this day. That was nearly 20 years ago. Kealoha's mother has been living off Social Security checks.
Her parents reunited, but this time without the approval of the families. Banned from both grandparents' homes, they had nowhere to live, so they found themselves in a tent at Waimanalo Beach for a year. "It sucked. I was always cold and hungry. There were lots of drunk and crazy people around us at night. My brother and I had to walk to school," she flashes back.
There are lapses in her memory due to the trauma, but at some point, her paternal grandmother took Kealoha, her brother, and her mother in. Her father was not welcomed.
During this time of separation, their father would come by the house to visit the children, but his parents would always chase him away. "I remember my parents were fighting, and he asked me to come outside to see him. My grandmother wouldn't let me, so he finally left. That was the last time I saw him alive," Kealoha recollects. She was six.
She learned later that day, police arrested him for theft of items which included a coloring book. He hung himself in jail. "I felt guilt for decades because that book was probably for me," she reveals. "I always blamed myself. I thought maybe if they divorced, my dad would still be alive."
Kealoha's mother numbed her pain by staying "always high on painkillers." She quickly found and moved in with a new boyfriend on Hawaii Island. He was equally as abusive as her husband. "He beat her all the time. Every time seemed like the worst. He broke her arm once," recounts Kealoha.
She was now seven years old, and thought the abuse was her fault. She tried to sleep at friends' homes to avoid going to hers.
"Second and third grade were a blur. I was always on the run, hiding from him. If we were bad, he'd make us kneel on raw rice on the corner for hours, or hit us on the back of the legs with a fly swatter. If my mother tried to intervene, he'd hit her."
Her mother finally left this boyfriend about a year later, and moved back to Oahu into the maternal grandmother's house again. That, too, was short lived. Less than two years later, this grandmother died of cancer, and the family was about to become homeless again, unable to afford the rent using just her mother's Social Security income.
Again, Kealoha's mother self-medicated on a "drug binge" before simply walking out on the children. "She left one night and didn't come home. After a few days, my brother called my paternal grandmother, and she came to get us.
From fifth to seventh grade, Kealoha and her brother lived with their grandmother. One day, two years later, her mother reappeared. Kealoha still has no idea where her mother went during this time, but her mother took the children and moved them back in to her abusive ex-boyfriend's Big Island house, because they'd reconciled.
"I hated it. I moved in with an aunt for most of seventh grade, then begged my grandparents to take me in. She felt she was too old to raise a child, but finally agreed, so I lived with them from eighth grade through my senior year of high school," she states.
Her brother chose to stay on Hawaii Island and look after their mother, who eventually left the abusive boyfriend, only to replace him with a new man who also hit her.
Two years passed. Kealoha was now in the ninth grade when her mother, her mother's boyfriend, and her brother came to visit for the weekend. "My mother and her boyfriend said they were going to run errands, and never came back. After two days, my grandmother realized she would be raising my brother, too."
The trauma, the instability, and the guilt over her father's suicide created a deep depression, and by high school, Kealoha started dealing with the pain by cutting herself "with razors, with anything I could get my hands on." She holds out her forearms to show me the scars.
The school noticed and assigned her to a therapist, Miss Pam, for anger management. It was a pivotal time for Kealoha, who learned to let go of the grief and guilt. She's still grateful to this adult who cared.
At age 17, she started dating a classmate and moved in with his family, where she remains to this day. She dropped out of high school and has been working ever since.
A few years later, Kealoha became pregnant with their first child. She didn't want children and some early medical problems indicated she could never bear a child, but at age 20, she got pregnant.
"The happiest moment of my life was when he was born. I just saw life differently. I wanted to give him the life I never had," she affirms.
It also helped her find peace with her mother. "I hadn't seen my mother for nine years, but I kept tabs on her through my brother. I wanted her to meet my son, so I flew her to Oahu."
Her mother apologized profusely for all the mistakes of the past. "I forgave her. I was a mother now. I understood her struggles better, of raising children and trying to balance your life, and it was OK. I got it." Now they speak or visit weekly.
In 2007, she had a second child, a girl. That's when her relationship with her boyfriend started to crumble into disinterested roommate status. "I love him, but I'm fed up. I'm tired. We live with his parents, but I do all the work. I cook and clean. I care for the kids." She attributes it to the stress of having two children.
She says her boyfriend has a major gambling problem, such that he is in debt and didn't contribute to the children's Christmas gifts last year, nor does he pay on the rare times they go out. Mostly, she says, he's absent. "I tell him, 'I wish you were in jail so I'd at least know where you are.'"
Kealoha has warned her boyfriend if she had someplace to go, she wouldn't be there. But there is no place right now.
For someone without a high school diploma, she found herself a relatively well-paying job, though it's labor-intensive (lifting 50 pounds sacks) and she's on her feet all day. The hours coincide with the school day, and she chauffeurs her children to activities after-school before going home to the homework/ dinner routine.
"I'm sad, sometimes. I'm tired of struggle. I never thought I'd end up like this. I imagined myself childless, living in Manhattan, reporting for the New York Times. Yet here I am on this rock, after all these years," she sighs.
Kealoha has never left this state, and dreams one day to take herself and her children to Disneyland.
Despite the many hardships, she asserts she wouldn't change a thing. "It's made me who I am, and I like to take care of people. I might like to be a teacher now, help kids, especially those who have a hard life."
Kealoha maintains she learned from her parents' missteps, so she doesn't drink, do drugs, or abuse or neglect her loved ones. She won't even take aspirin for a headache. She has no criminal record.
She gives what she can to those in need, even though she lives paycheck to paycheck herself. She's hyper-responsible, caring for her grandparents until their death.
She's tired, but she does it for her children. "If I don't do it, who else will? I want to give my children what I didn't have growing up. I want them to live in one house, go to one school, know stability. As a child, I had friends with loving homes. I've created that for my family now."
Kealoha also found inspiration through her children to complete her high school education and get her GED in 2003. "When I had my first child, I knew I had to do more. I didn't want to be just another statistic. Maybe one day I'll have the time to go to college. I think about it a lot. I regret that I didn't," she declares.
She's extremely proud of her GED. The diploma is in a special hardcover frame, and she adds with delight that she scored a 97% on her test.
What I find most amazing about this woman is how positive she is, given the amount of trauma visited upon her in her youth, and the disappointment and fatigue of her current situation. She is someone I know through our children, and she is never without a smile. She is kind and caring, and I would have never guessed any of this if she hadn't told me.
"My children are everything," she expresses. "They are both amazing in different ways. My son is caring, sensitive, and always knows how I feel. My daughter is bright, brilliant, and popular. She's going to get the college scholarship and become a doctor. She's going to travel the world. She really wants to leave Hawaii. My son doesn't, and he's going to be the one taking care of me in my old age!"
For now, she lives life through her children. And she waits with hope and faith for what life brings next.
*Name changed to protect her privacy.