Eight years ago:
I bobbed up and down on the paddle board, alone, far enough from the beach that I could see mountains, engulfed in layers of grey cloud. I was far enough out that it would be an exhausting swim to shore. I rocked to the rhythm of the swells and soaked in the Hawaiian sun. And then I felt it: that little notion of settling into something slow and sweet, of being held and nurtured. It’s a little whisper in the waves, a voice coming through my bones, smiling and also telling me to move closer to shore.
Mom, is that you?
My mom was born with Hawaiian music in her blood and the beach in her bones, even though she was haole (Hawaiian term for White person) through and through. She spent the first half of her life dreaming about Hawaii, before she made her first trip across the water from California to Honolulu in 1979, with my brother, Dad, and me in tow. My brother and I spent our days in Hawaii imagining we were on Gilligan’s Island, arranging ‘luau’s’ in the local playground and swimming like we were fish. Each day was a new exploration for the four of us. We drove to remote beaches and waterfalls, hiked in the rain, and even tried poi. At night we’d walk along a starlit beach, or eat ice cream by the pool, then Mom would read us Hawaiian myths and legends.
After that first trip, Hawaii became the place we would always return to, every few years. Much later, my parents bought into a time share on Maui and visited almost every year. Every now and then, I was able to join them. It was the place where we celebrated – birthdays, graduations, the completion of my PhD. It was also the place where I grieved – the death of a friend, the end of my marriage, and the transition to a new life. At some point, on a flight from San Francisco over to Kahului, I realized that Maui often felt more like home than my California hometown. I would have tears in my eyes as our plane circled Haleakala and made its approach on the flat plain of the Valley Isle. Mom and Dad, if they had arrived a few days earlier, would be waiting for me at the airport with a lei in hand and fresh pineapple waiting in the car.
I would spend a week eating fresh fish and fruit, reading by the pool, and dragging my parents out to snorkel. And I especially loved those long evenings, sitting on the condo balcony with Mom, watching palm trees dance in the wind, hearing the waves crash below, and sharing our lives.
Of all my visits to Hawaii, my first time on a paddle board was on that trip eight years ago, in 2014. Paddle boarding wasn’t really a thing on previous visits. But on this visit I needed to do something new and adventurous. Something to make this place feel happy to me again. Because this was not a normal visit.
I remembered the dream I had before this visit: I was lost in a hospital. Frantically moving from one room to the next, pushing aside bags of saline solution, chemo drips, and getting tangled in IV lines that got in my way. Where was she?? I felt choked up and ready to scream. Then, slowly, I noticed a light from a big window and made my way there. I stepped out onto a balcony in the place that was my Hawaiian home. There she was. Looking radiant and healthy, but still wearing a scarf on her smooth head. “Mom, I thought we lost you!” I sobbed. She looked up from the book in her lap and laughed a little, “I’ve been here the whole time.”
On this 2014 visit, my brother, Dad and I floated out onto the ocean on surfboards, along with a Hawaiian spirit-man named Kaleo. At least, he felt like a spirit-man to us, because, in giving us space to grieve, he gave us a connection with spirit. Mom was there too. We were surrounded by red and yellow hibiscus, bobbing in the waves, and Kaleo held a small bag with her ashes. He tipped the bag and poured the ashes into the sea. For once, I didn’t feel like crying. I watched the fine sands form a white cloud in the water. The cloud grew larger, then turned shades of light blue as she became part of the ocean. From somewhere, I heard a deep sigh, such relief, such ease. She was home again.
Later, on the paddle board, I could imagine her holding and rocking me. After months of learning to live a new reality, I felt like I was home again. And, as I would expect, she was telling me to move closer to shore – always nudging me toward shelter. That’s what moms do.
She would have been 80 years old today. Every single day, I imagine how she would react to the world we live in. How she would have spent months making masks early in the pandemic – trying out new designs until she had the perfect fit. I would have received a package of those, along with a year’s supply of hand sanitizer in the mail early on. Her first bout with cancer made us all understand what it means to be immunocompromised. She would have fretted – about a lot of things.
Grief is an interesting beast. It never fully leaves you after loss. Years later, it pops up when you’re not expecting it. You think you’re grieving something new, but you are actually grieving the same thing. I only started feeling true grief for this planet a few years ago. Loss after loss. The realization that we won’t save everything in the face of climate change.
It’s only recently that I’ve realized that the grief I feel for the planet is the same that I feel for my Mom – a grief fueled by love for the person/place that has nurtured and held you. The person/place that is hanging by a thread. Watching the person you love hooked up to IV tubes and struggling to speak is enough to pull your heart out of your chest. I watched my mom struggle. And now I watch the Earth struggle. And I realize they are one and the same life. One and the same grief, or love.
My Mom is now in that space that we all come from, and that we all return to, a part of that greater Mother Nature. She is the source of everything we have and everything we are.
In these days of coronavirus and racial injustice, of emerging populism and wanna-be authoritarians and rampant consumption, when some of us find smoke settling in our eyes and some flee storms fueled by warming seas, I think a lot about what it is that we take from Mother Nature and what it is that we give back. Nature has provided us with everything, always, and nurtured us through the early days of human civilization – no matter what we’ve done to each other – there have always been some places where Nature has nurtured us, held us, helped us grow.
But we’ve reached the end of our childhood. The end of our adolescence. Nature cannot solve our problems – cannot shelter us from the storms that we create. We are on our own in trying to learn how care for ourselves while she battles the cancer that threatens to destroy her. But we can choose to nurture her back to health. That’s what grown-ups do. And grief, as it turns out, can be a powerful motivator to action.
A Resource for learning more about Planetary Grief
As more and more people wake up to the idea that we are moving through a period in Earth’s history that encompasses some profound losses, the concept of environmental grief (eco-grief) and the role that it plays in how we deal with this rapidly changing planet has become the focus for many articles, books, and academic studies. I plan to write more about this in future posts, but if you’re interested in reading more on your own, I recommend starting with Brit Wray’s book Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis.