Spring break begins this Friday, and it seems that half of my community will head to Hawaii for the week. After one of the wettest, coldest winters on record, who can blame them?
Nevertheless, I’m often struck by Hawaii’s allure. When I think of those Pacific islands, I don’t envision sandy beaches, thrilling waves, luaus and poolside Mai-Tai’s. Instead, I recall time with my oldest brother in the impoverished, rural Puna area (where he taught high school), near the end of his too-short life.
Fortunately, those melancholy thoughts are bolstered by warm memories of the visit my mom, daughter and I made when Rick was still ambulant.
My mother dislikes travel and detests hot weather, so I never expected to visit Hawaii with her. However, when her first-born was ill, she flew to the Big Island with me and her then-two-year-old granddaughter. (I left the boys at home, as they were old enough to attend summer camps during the day, while Dad worked.)
The trip – probably the first and only one we three would take alone together – proved therapeutic on many fronts.
Because the Puna area isn’t teeming with tourists, hotels are scarce; we were fortunate to find rooms in the Kalani Oceanside Eco-Resort, less than a mile from my brother’s home in Pahoa. This New Age retreat and cultural center, which offers wellness vacations as well as hula lessons, is hidden away on a lush 120-acre parcel, a stone’s throw from the ocean. We rented two tidy rooms in a small guesthouse, which also housed a prosperous ant colony, several two-inch-long roaches and a couple of shy gekkos, who darted across the walls every evening.
We soon realized that the center catered to extremely earthy, hippie-ish people, and that its retreats drew same-sex crowds. A set of rules posted near the pool announced “Clothing Optional After 7 pm,” but many swimmers didn’t wait that long to shed their suits. The image of my 70-year-old mother, with her button-down shirt and nicely pressed khaki pants, and my toddler, in her favorite pink one-piece, relaxing poolside when a couple of buck-naked, clean-shaven men arrived for water play still makes me chuckle. “Out of place” wouldn’t begin to describe us.
We were able to laugh about our “educational” lodging choice, and to enjoy long talks as we strolled through the property. Somehow, the “wellness resort” proved a wonderful antidote to the pain we felt, watching someone we loved lose his battle against lung cancer.
During that week, we made three trips to Hilo, 45 minutes away, for my brother’s radiation treatments. Rick never complained about his health, and mustered enough energy for one activity—such as hiking to a waterfall or exploring a lava field—each day. My “definitely two” daughter provided welcome giggles and diversions, including the time she tore off every stitch of clothing during a rainstorm at the zoo (perhaps she was inspired by our friends at the pool). Throughout the week, I enjoyed meaningful conversations—about, and not about, the situation—with my mother.
Five months later, when I returned to Hawaii with one of my other brothers, Rick’s condition had deteriorated markedly. That time, sight-seeing was out of the question, and laughter was rare. Two weeks later, on Christmas Day, he died.
So this week, as friends pack their bags for their beach vacations, I feel a tinge of sadness and nostalgia. At the same time, I smile to think of how three generations of women waded through a difficult time together. “Girlfriends” do enrich our lives.
-Linda Williams Rorem. 28 March 2011