“People in Waikiki are crazy, man. They walk around looking at their feet.” He was a massive Hawaiian guy with a bracelet of spears tattooed around his biceps. He was talking to a couple of punk rock haole kids on Kalakaua Avenue on a busy Friday night. I looked over and smiled at him, he smiled back. “They need to look up. Me, I’m a moon guy; look over there at that big full moon. Beautiful.”
There was a good chance my father would die while we were in Waikiki. Two days before our departure, my brother had called to tell me my father had been checked into the hospital. He had pneumonia and was semi-catatonic.
I did not cancel my plane ticket. I imagined how this story would be told. “She couldn’t be bothered to change her plans to see her dying father, to attend his funeral.”
It wouldn’t matter that my failure to attend was not based on geography. I would not have boarded a plane from Seattle, either, but it is a much easier, uglier fiction from Hawaii. From my home in dark, wet Seattle, I could be sad and broken, but in Waikiki I would be ridiculous, having a grand time while the rest of the family was grieving. I decided to act as though I did not care.
I contacted handful of friends to let them know that my father was dying and that I was leaving, with my husband, two visiting cousins, and the weight of impending grief for ten days on the island of Oahu. “If you are of the praying sort, would you pray for my dad’s easy passage? And if not, well, this is happening and I won’t be attending the funeral. You’re good friends; I wanted to tell you this.”
Then, I packed my suitcase and took the night flight to Honolulu. On December 29th, our second morning in Waikiki, my father passed away in a veteran’s hospital in Tucson, Arizona. It was very early. After I got the news, I got dressed, woke up my husband, and then, I walked right into the ocean. I looked up. The moon was low in the sky, bright, and still so full. The water was not cold and I could not feel the weight of my clothes at all.
You can walk through the early morning streets of Waikiki shivering like a wet rat in your soaking street clothes and almost no one will look twice. Only an old Japanese man, who will laugh at you right there on the sand, he will walk right up to you say something you do not understand because there is a roaring in your ears that is not the ocean. He will smile and bow slightly, and you will notice his high-waisted khakis, his oversized glasses, his fanny pack, his striped golf shirt, his sturdy athletic shoes. A few blocks away, a skinny black homeless guy will see your bare feet and say that the sidewalks are cool at this time of day. A security guard will raise an eyebrow, briefly, but will do no more than nod as you enter the building, a trail of salt water dripping behind you.
Everything is in sharp detail, the texture of the sidewalk, the slight gray fuzz on the homeless guy’s dreadlocks, the white stripes on that navy blue shirt, those puffy white sneakers like over risen loaves of bread. How is it no one sees the biggest thing: that your father has died and you are in Waikiki, not going to his funeral?
Though there are two on Oahu, there is no synagogue in Waikiki proper. There are a number of different kinds of altars, a monument to Duke Kahanomoku, the great surfer, a statue of Gandhi, and behind a guard rail, some pohaku stones that signify great mythical healers. There is a Catholic church and the peak of Diamond Head stands over the city like a spire. I wanted to make some kind of offering, but I did not know what to do or where to make it.
Instead, I talked to my brothers, to my best friends; I traded email with my aunt (my father’s sister, the last of three siblings) and one of my cousins. From the balcony, I looked at the ocean and thought about getting back in it, but the city was too bright, too loud, too crowded.
I paced back and forth in our tiny rented apartment. I got in and out of bed and I ate cereal from the box and I stared at the blue ocean horizon. As though it would fix something, I contacted the local synagogue and asked that they say the mourner’s Kaddish, a Hebrew prayer for the dead, for my father. Then, I pulled the sheets over my head and fell into a heavy sleep for many, many hours.
It is hard to buy a condolence card for a person you have a difficult relationship with. In Waikiki, it is even harder. Buying postcards is a snap, they are three for a dollar on nearly every street corner, but condolence cards are much rarer. I had imagined something simple, a photo of the ocean on a plain card in which I could write my barest thoughts, but everything was a festival of color, a riot of red hibiscus, a row of perfect hula girls, reproduction photos of Waikiki’s grand hotels before the skyline was choked with the sand colored high-rises that line the strip today.
We ducked in and out of convenience stores and cruised the stalls at the International Marketplace; all the paper goods screamed of pineapples and surfboards and good times.
“Post office,” said one woman, but it was Sunday and the post office was closed.
“Supermarket,” said another, and there we found a row of sympathy cards in pastel colors, all of them expressing sincerity and graciousness in kind little platitudes.
Every card was wrong. “For you and your family…” they said, but what if you are the family?” “In this difficult time…” they said, but the difficult time is not just now, it’s last year and the year before and the entire decade before that. There was no card to express the mix of anger and sympathy and hopelessness I was feeling.
I settled on a tri-fold cream colored card with roses on it, the colors unlike the turquoise of the ocean. I tested my thoughts on the back of the supermarket receipt and handed it to the husband for review. “Yes,” he said, and I wrote inside the card and sealed it. I wanted to send it out as soon as possible, before I gave into the temptation to explain myself.
I had not talked with my father for just over a year. The last time we’d spoken – in person – he did not know who I was. When I said goodbye, I knew I might not see him again, and that he was lost to me for good.
I had stopped speaking with my stepmom perhaps six months before that last visit. As my father declined, her language became accusatory and insulting, the tension that had always existed between us increased. My brothers and I worked together to find ways to help my father, but nothing was good enough. The support programs we found wanted too much information, the money we sent was not enough, why did we need my father’s medical records, what good would it do us? My brothers continued the struggle, but I dropped out, leaving nothing but a weighty silence.
That void meant I could not find a physical voice, but acknowledging this loss — our shared loss — felt required. A condolence card to your father’s wife? So remote and wrong, but to talk with her on the phone seemed as impossible as standing in the same room. Written words from a distance were all I could manage.
I wrote that I was sorry and sad about my Dad. That I genuinely regretted that I could not be there for the services. I hoped that she find might some peace now, with the last years of my Dad’s difficult care behind her. I avoided saying that the reasons for my absence were not financial or geographical or temporal, but messier and personal. I sealed the card, put a stamp on it, and wrote my Dad’s last address on the envelope.
I wanted to want to book a ticket to Tucson. I wanted to be home in Seattle, in my house with my sadness. I wanted to go to the local bar with my friends, to order a round of scotch for everyone and to toast my Dad, to have a wake to his spirit. I wanted to see through to a time when my anger would be gone; when I would accept that the thread that ties my Dad’s life to mine does not mean our lives have to turn out the same. I wanted to want to pretend everything was okay and to enjoy my time in Waikiki, to go to Duke’s and order a giant pink cocktail with a triangle of pineapple and a turquoise umbrella stuck in it.
But whenever I left the apartment, I was spiky with grief. If someone stood to close to me, it hurt, I was afraid it would hurt them, too. On Kalakaua Avenue, hawkers handed out flyers for activities, paced wearing sign boards — discount cruises, shooting ranges, dinner specials. In a fit of self indulgent drama I imagined doing this myself. I would slap a handful of red Xeroxed papers on my palm and hand them out, just like the Filipino ladies, to tourists on the strip. The tourists would turn them over in their hands, flabbergasted upon reading, “My dad died and I’m not attending his funeral. It’s complicated.” Perhaps I could have them translated into Japanese, too.
Traditional Jewish burials are austere affairs. A plain pine box, a simple brief ceremony. Cremation is discouraged by more conservative sects; the body is sacred, a gift from God, and should go back to the earth from whence it came. Some believe in the resurrection of the dead with the arrival of the Messiah. There is an enormous cemetery on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, supposedly where this resurrection will begin. I heard this story many years ago on a tour of Jerusalem — the Messiah will enter through the now sealed Eastern Gate and the dead will rise and follow him into a new age, into the City of Peace.
I thought this was creepy. Looking out over the hillsides of stone coffins, I imagined a kind of zombie apocalypse rather than a glowing army of our departed at their finest. If we need our bodies for the afterlife, in what state do we rise? At age 28, strong and with the energy for a great future? At 50, our knees going out, with a sort of confused acceptance for the world around us? Or in the state at which we die, old and worn, or taken too soon by disease and fate? There was no peace in this for me, though I suppose if you believe in the Messiah and you want to follow him through the gate into The World to Come, you need a vehicle — your body — to get you there. No arrangements had been made for my father’s remains, but were it up to him, had it been in his power, I think he would have chosen the Mount of Olives, chosen to follow the Messiah into Jerusalem.
On a previous trip to Oahu, I had gone swimming in the ocean early in the morning. While floating in the shallow protected surf, I talked with a local guy who told me they had released his mother’s ashes off the seawall behind us. I decided then and there that I should like to be cremated and cast loose here in the middle of the Pacific. What better funeral than to become one with the ocean and all its life? To swim with the ancient sea turtles, the fish with unpronounceable names? I wanted to be one with the ocean, not with the earth; I wanted the expansiveness of the Pacific, not the enclosure of a box in the ground.
Because of the time change between Hawaii and Tucson, while my Dad’s funeral took place, I watched the sun rise over the Pacific. The sky was a blaze of burning orange. The sun appeared above the horizon, a glowing ball of red and then, before it lit the morning sky, it set the surface of the ocean on fire. The color was nothing like the rosy gravel and sage cactus of the Tucson desert where my Dad would rest until the resurrection came to lift him. Or for eternity, whichever came first.
I am a modern woman, a product of the Internet age. Sensible friends talked me through the first days of my father’s death, but I also wasted too much time on the web consuming common wisdom about death and grief.
There were forums where embittered stepchildren asked about their legal rights to a dead parent’s estate. There were articles about the stages of grief, and more articles debunking the stages of grief theory as bullshit, saying that everyone’s situation is different and personal. There were advice columns where survivors asked, “Do I have to go to the funeral?” Dozens of commenters answered “You have to go, of course you have to go.” and dozens more replied “You should do what feels right for you in this time of grief. Don’t let anyone tell you what’s right.”
It was all inconclusive; I could not see myself in any of it. I turned off the laptop and went to buy a smoothie with ginseng and gingko in it because maybe they are good for stress, or maybe not, depending on what you read. The smoothie had fresh papaya and pineapple and I drank it while watching a woman sweep sand from the sidewalk back onto the beach.
Waikiki is an artificial beach, it should not be here. In former years, sand had been shipped in from Australia; now it comes from a sandbar offshore. If left entirely to natural devices, Waikiki Beach would disappear. This woman with the broom, with the sharply defined muscles in her brown arms and a determined grimace on her face, was Sisyphus, forever returning the sand to the beach where it did not want to be.
On New Year’s Eve, Waikiki was to light up with fireworks. I knew I could not bear the crowds on the street. Instead, I ate a thoughtless dinner in our room and around 9:30, I fell in to a very deep sleep. I dreamed I was in snow. I was helping a friend move, we were putting things in her car, but also, I was to carry some things up a snowy slope and someone was going meet me at the top. I trudged up the hill, leaving my first batch of objects at the top, and then, I went down to fetch some more. But night was falling, the snow was turning blue in the twilight. When I returned to the top the second time, I was in the wrong place and everything was gone.
I woke up to the roar of fireworks and crowded streets below. The wind had blown away the rain front from the afternoon and the sky was clear. Craning my neck over the balcony rail of our 43rd floor apartment, I could see the bright explosive lights, spidery white chrysanthemums, a pink spiral, neon colored dancing scarves. People were cheering and screaming and blowing conch shells in the distance. Someone shouted “Happy New Year” from a nearby roof top.
When it was over, my husband kissed me, saying nothing, and went back bed. I stayed outside and looked away from the water, up into the sky. The moon wore a halo and a slice of its silvery light was gone.
Comments on this post are closed, but if you feel compelled to respond, drop me a line at pam @ nerdseyeview . com. The eulogy I wrote for my dad — which my brother read at his funeral — is here.