This was penned in Honolulu and edited more recently. It is likely the last in my series, Father of Mine.
I sat perched over Honolulu Harbor watching Po (night) recede, its shadowy fingers curl from Kakahiaka’s (morning) advances, ducking behind homes that occupy the broad mouths and alluvial fans of these volcanic valleys.
Makani (wind) whips and whistles through valleys of another kind, those seracs of glass and girders jutting heavenward with such regularity, both Makani and Kakahiaka run a gauntlet on their journey from makai (ocean) to mauka (mountains).
La (sun) creeps toward the horizon. Po takes another retreating step, fleeing into valleys of ohia lehua, ironwood, and kudzu.
Legends throughout Polynesia and Hawai’i recount the tale of Maui tethering La at this very moment, one leg at a time as each stole across the horizon, like an octopus cresting a reef. In bargaining for its freedom, La agreed to slow its journey across the tropical sky so taro could grow and tapa-cloth made in daylight.
Kakahiaka marches inexorably onward, forward, driving Po into box canyons. Po weeps - a light drizzle falls, feeding waterfalls that gully increasingly steep mountains. Po scrambles, forging streams, scaling ravines and rock slick with lichen, fleeing to the pass, to perch precariously before tumbling over the pali (cliff) as if thrown by Kamehameha himself. Maui, La, Kakahiaka, and Po locked in their eternal struggle for Hawai’i’s isles.
I too have fled through a different canyon of sorts and scaled its walls, first with reluctance and complaint, turned resignation, then acceptance. Willingness was harder won and I threw myself from the pali into valley beyond, the valley whose denizens have no Dads.
I realize this is a near universal experience, that of losing one’s father. For the first time I notice that many friends have preceded me. Just this year, six personal friend’s dads have died. We are fifty and beyond, young men no more, our fathers are frail and failing. A living father of my cohort must be 80-ish, well beyond the average lifespan of the American male. It’s shocking, this new view of my world and friends without fathers.
“Welcome to the club,” my buddy said sympathetically.
I notice that the death of my father drives up emotions for my friends, any misgiving, every place they wish they could do-over. I notice the rapidity with which they turn inward and project their experience of Daddy-dying onto me… or so it seems.
“Surely you must feel…” “It was important for me to… and you should too.” I notice that after the protracted illness and decline of my Dad compounded by thirty years of hospital nursing, I am perhaps more insulated from the rawness of death.
“You’re in shock. When it really hits you ...”
No really, trust me, I’m not in shock. This was not a young man felled in his prime. He was an old man debilitated by disease. My Father’s death was an expected blessing, too long in coming. I have a twinge of guilt in this sentiment… but only just.
Several years ago he sat in his recliner, legs crossed, sipping coffee, reading the Honolulu Advertiser. All was well… except the newspaper was upside down. Amazing, that muscle memory, engrained with years of habitual motion that continued in their familiar routine until the pathway to the familiar became tangled and lost in a maze of neurofibrillary tangles. The dreaded neurofibrillary tangles of Alzheimer’s disease – while I have not visited the Valley of Death, I have seen its shadow and fear its familial affinity.
Dad descended into an unfamiliar and threatening world where everything and everyone was suspect. He claimed visitations by my brother Mace, deceased in 1998.
“I don’t have any clothes to wear,” he complained, “She cuts all the zippers out of my pants so I can’t wear them.” We walked to his closet to look at his clothes. He turned a pair of shorts over and over in his hands, as if they were new and wondrous. He looked at the intact zippers with incredulity. “I don’t know how she fixed em. They were all cut up.” Every day he publicly declared he was divorcing my mother. It was difficult for her to be his wife, his caregiver, and public enemy #1.
He became increasingly sensitive to tone-of-voice, reminding me of my cat, an animal that fights fiercely when threatened and purrs when coddled. It is a very in-the-moment kind of existence, living only in the present. And while living in-the-moment is an enviable kind of existence, lacking a context of love and belonging, in-the-moment was threatening and fearful.
Sometimes, in rare moments of lucidity, when he could find one operating neuronal pathway in a brain unhinged, he cried. “I know my brain doesn’t work anymore,” he said once. Fear - wild unbridled fear - flared in his eyes and he became tearful.
“What DO you think about Dad?” I asked.
“Nothing,” his eyes flew wide and he wore a look of amazement, as if a quiet brain was astonishing, “Absolutely nothing. Help me,” he pleaded. Tears doused that flare of cognizant thought, his neuronal pathway derailed and he receded into a quagmire of paranoia.
Paranoia feeds on a string of perceptions and eventually that string began to fray; his affect became flat, his responses monosyllabic. Sometimes he became frozen - with a mouthful of food or standing - not knowing where he was or what to do, not knowing how to chew or swallow or spit or sit or walk. His eyes became increasingly vacant, lacking recognition of - anything.
“Well it’s too bad he died without accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior because now he’s lost forever,” someone declared straightway. We are amazingly judgmental, quick, harsh, and without the grace Christ exemplified and exalted. I’d love to expound on man’s very narrow and limited view of God but I’ll spare you the diatribe. Suffice to say I don’t share the view of a constrained, spiteful God. God-grandeur far exceeds the sniveling of man and I refuse to have Her limited by our lack.
Forever… I’ve heard that word a lot lately. Mountains tumble, cities crumble, there is no evidence for forever on this planet. Forever is otherworldly; it does not exist in nature. It is a concept based on a belief in something beyond this life, a concept that may or mayn’t (my handy neologism, of which I am really quite fond) be real. Consider time as a broadly consensual concept that aids in explaining linear events - because our occurring world is linear. Linear is what we know. We used to think the world was flat and that wood was solid. Both are myths. Consider that what we know … is fleeting and incomplete. Our bodies belong to the natural world. But what of our souls? What of our hearts and souls? ... I digress, as you know I am wont to do.
These near universal experiences, the birth of our children, the death of our parents, unify us. I don’t feel unified today. I feel as if the world-as-I-know-it has been inextricably altered.
I am not so saddened by my father’s death than his hellish demise, watching his Self – that which made him who he was – trickle slowly away, leaving an empty shell to wander without an appreciable experience of love and care. If there is a hell, it is surely this.
I find myself thinking of Eskimos and Native Americans, of Moby Dick’s Ishmael, the movie of Soylent Green, and the conscious act of choosing one’s time to die. Today I have no answers, only questions and my limiting beliefs, such as they are.
My Dad was full of quips and aphorisms. One of his favorites? “Sounds like a personal problem to me.” There is a lot of truth in this. Life IS viewed from my point-of-view and most of my problems are created, maintained, and sustained by moi’.
Ready for another? “From white trash to middle-class,” he’d say with a grin and pulsing brows. “Not bad for a poor, white boy.” Indeed! He lassoed the American Dream by its tail and rode it well.
This morning, Po clings tenaciously to the palis, darkening them with clouds, crying on the cliffs, filling the falls, and watering the streams. Headlights flicker as cars thread their way down the winding road from Alewa Heights. The harbor undulates imperceptibly, painted silver by the moon receding. Just another kakahiaka in Paradise.