As we watched the mother whales splashing around with their new calves from our hotel balcony, we had been in Maui for less than twenty-four hours. Yet the vacation was already in trouble. In one of the most beautiful places on earth, we were facing an ugly reality. Dad was hurting, hurting bad, and we wondered if we were even going to be able to take him off of the resort property.
We had come to Maui for a grand vacation, my Mom and Dad revisiting the place where they had rededicated their love after a separation, while Kath and I envisioned a belated celebration of our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The pain was in Dad’s hip…the one that was now titanium. There were post-operative complications five years ago that I didn’t want to think about again, much less re-live.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to, but the good news was only good, not great. He was experiencing sciatica, which was going to be painful at some level no matter what he did. After a talk with a health care professional, a cycle of hydrotherapy was seen as the best antidote to the pain. It wouldn’t eradicate it, but it would take the edge off. We breathed a sigh of relief, thankful for any possibility of normalcy. My wife and I are in our early fifties, my parents in their seventies, so we weren’t exactly preparing for this vacation like tri-athletes. My idea of training was having a Bloody Mary on the plane to our destination.
It was obvious that plans would have to be altered. Having a good attitude about it was crucial and, first and foremost, the patient did. He had an idea of what he could do without much pain and a pretty good barometer of what he couldn’t do at all. For the in-between stuff, he had a can-do approach. It changed the vacation, for sure. It might have even changed it for the better. If I could subtract the pain, I would state it without qualification.
Already early risers and afflicted with jet lag, Dad and I were the first people up every morning, reading newspapers while he sipped his coffee and I dutifully ate my oatmeal. By the time the sun was up, everyone in the suite was awake and on the balcony, awaiting the appearance of the Humpbacks, or perhaps enjoying a rainbow, evidence of the mist that had obscured Molokai just an hour before.
In those early morning hours, Dad and I found time to mention things we never had before. We shared long-held secrets, finding ourselves unburdened by the experience. We were different people in a way. A lot of artifice was stripped away. We spoke of the past, of course. We have not always gotten along. We have said angry words to each other long after I left my teens. We have not apologized to each other for the things we said, largely because I don’t think either of us regrets the words we used. We are blunt people that can lacerate the other conversationally. But in the early morning hours, looking out over the water in Maui, it is safely behind us. Like the surfers looking to catch a few waves before the beaches get crowded, we can ride the surface of that turbulence to the shore. Neither of us has a burning desire to show ourselves as the Big Kahuna.
The hands that once helped me to take my first steps are gnarled and arthritic after four decades as an autoworker. Now, it is my hand on his upper arm that steadies him over uneven sidewalks or dewy cobblestones.
The eyes, that still have a roguish twinkle, are obscured by wrinkles and bifocals, but they still look at my mother the way they must have back in 1963. They were misty with tears when he referenced the separation, admitting “There was a time…not too long ago…when I thought, not just my marriage, but my life was over.” He looked away and shook his head, wishing the memory away, grateful to have pulled back from a disastrous precipice. I watched him dote on my mother, insisting that she have a great vacation without him where he could not accompany her.
We said Aloha, both hello and goodbye, to past issues. We came to grips with a new normal, a time where the rules change independent of our wishes, but necessary because of a different reality.
Together all through the day into the evening, I sometimes heard the strangest sound…his voice, his laugh…coming out of me.
I know now, as the parent of adult children, that when he looks at children playing in the water he is seeing my brother and me as boys, our blonde crew-cuts streaked with sweat and dirt. I know his doubts and fears as a father and a husband…as a man. I know as he looks at the tide going out, he faces his mortality. Maybe he looks at the afterlife as a trip to the DMV…we don’t want to go, but we have to…we just hope that when we get there, we’ve got all the right papers.
We did what we could when all four of us were together. Mom joined Miss Kitty and I for other adventures. There was one day where Kathy and I struck out on our own. All of it was measured, each one of us taking stock of what we could reasonably do on a given day. But each day began on the balcony, watching the whales. They will depart Maui soon, heading for the cooler waters near Alaska. Next winter, not all of the whales will return, as this year’s calves begin their own families.
Ten years ago, at the end of another Hawaiian holiday, we threw our leis into the water, a superstition that is supposed to mean that we will return to the islands. We were lucky enough to do that this year. There will be another family in our ninth floor rooms next March. It’s likely that my parents will never return to Hawaii, and only slightly more possible that Kath and I will come back. As for the whales that may not return, well, we just chalk that up to nature. Nature can be cruel.
But nature is a constant, a never-ending grind that we can either embrace or deny. I think of my father tonight, serenely facing days that offer no promises, only possibilities. Nature is a power, impossible to evade.
Aging is the inevitable by-product of survival. To ignore it is to deny yourself a portrait that is unfinished, unsigned, yet undeniably beautiful. I wish each of you a masterpiece.