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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 24, 2007

Continuing Israel's legacy of love

 •  Israel Kamakawiwo'ole special
Video: Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole: "How to love unconditionally"
Video: Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole: "He taught me not to go backwards"
 •  Wai'anae med center tuning up its future

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

In the decade after losing her husband, Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole, 45, has lived quietly, raising the couple's only child, Wehe, now 24, and finding delight in her four grandchildren.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole toured the Waianae Coast Comprehen-sive Health Center on Friday after a luncheon and $60,000 donation to the clinic by a group of local companies, including The Advertiser.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The depth of Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole's fear showed itself one evening as the tears poured. Not yet a widow, but aware that was her destiny, she turned to her husband and asked him why she was crying alone.

With that steady voice that lifted spirits whenever he sang, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole told his wife that he was happy with his life. He told her that she and their teenage daughter would always be fine and to love each other unconditionally.

The words gave her strength, dried her tears. Eight months later, the popular Hawaiian entertainer was dead. His widow was only 35.

"I think that's why, when it was time for his passing, mentally, I was kind of set for it," Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole recalled recently. "Even family would ask me how come I didn't cry. I believe that's part of God that worked through me to help me to do what I needed to do on a physical basis during his passing. I had to stay more focused on that, instead of wailing on the side."

Tuesday will mark the 10th anniversary of her husband's death from complications of morbid obesity. In that decade, the widow Kamakawiwo'ole shaped her own identity.

Fearful no more, she has become the shepherd of her family's survival.

As her late husband's musical popularity soared to heights undreamed of when he was alive, Kamakawiwo'ole quietly raised their only child, Wehe, and is now a grandmother four times over.

Grandchildren have kept Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole busy.

The 45-year-old grandmother legally adopted her two older grandchildren and is raising them in her Pearl City home.

She packs snacks in the morning, then drops them off at their mother's house nearby so Wehe can take them to a Hawaiian language immersion school. Grandma has taken them to soccer practices and 'ukulele lessons, too. But while sports got nixed when grandma had to referee under a sun she doesn't care for anymore the next generation of Kamakawiwo'oles has already performed on stage, she said.

The two older grandchildren strummed "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," 'ukulele in hand.

"I have to laugh today, you know, because I get so burned out," Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole said. "I just pray for energy and just balance myself, because when I get off balance, that's when grandma gets moody."

Her daughter Wehe, 24, is raising the two younger grandchildren with their father. She declined to be interviewed. Mother and daughter are not as close as Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole would like, but they manage.

"We both bang heads, but then she knows that my love is unconditional," Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole said.

The widow Kamakawiwo'ole, whose mother-in-law once told her that when her husband was on stage, he belonged to the public, has shunned the spotlight. Instead, she favors a steady part-time job in the cardiology department of Kaiser Permanente's Moanalua Medical Center.

But she has been a hard worker since the day in 1982 when her last name changed from Ah Lo to Kamakawiwo'ole. Her husband, nearly three years her senior, was overweight and needed a lot of care.

It took a while to accept her role as caretaker, she said, to stop asking, "Why me?"

"It was OK, because already in my heart I knew from when I married Israel he was sickly," she said. "I knew in time, I would have my time. I was always like that with him. His health came first and his happiness for whatever he needed to be done came first."

She was so busy taking care of her husband, whose unexpected weight-related illnesses were numerous, that the couple had only one child.

"I had to stop at one because I was too challenged already, with working, taking care of him, and unexpected sick time," she said. "I was like a single parent when Wehe was going to school and stuff."

When her husband died, she struggled to cope emotionally for nearly a year, losing lots of weight and trying to fight off depression.

"I would have to tell myself to do all of the things I wanted to do that I couldn't do," she said. "I used to travel, go to the outer islands, see my cousins, go to the Mainland. You have that space for a while, and I had to learn how to fill it."

Her grandchildren helped with that. Because their mother was so young, Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole said she stepped in to help. She may dream of a lap pool in the backyard and learning to speak Hawaiian, but the grandkids are undeniably the light in her life.

They're soft-hearted and loving, she said.

"And I always tell everybody, 'Must be coming from Israel,' " she said.

The oldest grandchild is a 7-year-old girl, the next two are boys, 5 and 2, and the youngest is a girl who will turn 1 in August.

They enjoy singing often in Hawaiian and the older two have been taking 'ukulele lessons for nearly a year from one of the best-known 'ukulele instructors Roy Sakuma. In time, they will inherit their grandfather's remaining instruments.

They are not old enough to completely understand the impact "Papa Israel" had on the Hawai'i music scene, but many of their friends want to know if they can sing like him.

"They know his voice," Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole said. "And actually, the third one, once 'Over the Rainbow' starts with 'Oooh,' he starts singing 'Oooh.' They all like to sing. The boys got the rhythm. My granddaughter has no rhythm. She's kind of off balance. But, actually, the boys do have rhythm and they like to dance."

When Kamakawiwo'ole listens to "Over the Rainbow" or the medley her husband created when he paired it with "What a Wonderful World," she often imagines Papa Israel with his grandchildren.

It can make her sad, but not weepy.

"Life is short, so make the right choices, because the choices you make in life are what's going to set your path," she said.

After her husband made peace with his fate after he stopped crying, Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole said he knew he had made the right choices. He had accepted the good and the bad.

As did she.

"I'm pretty much content and happy with the peace that we ended things with," she said. "How it ended, it was forgiving and filled with unconditional love. Everything was with reason and purpose."

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com.