Last week, I got word that a dear, long-time friend from the Big Island was dying.
Life is full of surprises, some more jolting than others. This was one that struck me to the core. I was asked to send a poem — instead I hopped a flight. I knew from the beginning this would be a bittersweet trip back in time.
In the ‘70s, I had the good fortune of landing a teaching job at Hawaii Preparatory Academy on the island of Hawaii, Big Island as it’s called. Mauna Kea (the white mountain) was perched to my right as we drifted down in a small plane to the Waimea-Kohala Airport. The dry landscape was streaked with black lava, scrubby pili grass, and unpopulated open space. From what I could see, it was a desert.
“This is Hawaii?” I asked myself. It looked like I’d just gone up in the air and, by some mistake, had simply circled back to the Yakima desert where I grew up. Little did I know the secret beauties that would to be revealed to me.
In 1974, Mauna Kea was the site of the first large telescope being built by a team of engineers from Canada, France, and Hawaii (http://www.cfht.hawaii.edu/en/about/). So though it appeared that I’d landed in the middle of nowhere, this “nowhere” was filled with whiz-bang-smart international scientists; a rich Pan-Asian culture of amazing food, music, dance, art; and — soon — the kind of friends one can only make in the first chapter of one’s adult life, when feelings run deep, experimentation is the rule, and the developing self is still exquisitely permeable to the imprint of others.
During my first year on Big Island I met Jim Rhodes and his then wife Martie Buchanan, artists visiting our boarding school, my new home. Jim, Martie, and daughter Tiare were building a geodesic dome in the rough-and-tumble area called Hawai’ian Acres, a development, which by all rights should never have existed as it was basically a flood plain for the upper reaches of Hilo, Keaau and Kurtistown.
To this day Hawai’ian Acres is largely the same: the same lava-rutted dirt roads; the same crazy array of homes; the same torrential downpours that trigger rivers fast flowing over this jungly watershed of lava fields. But during these 50 years, Jim and Martie, then Jim and wife of 30 years Sue Ellen, planted and tended their land to create their own island of paradisiacal beauty: Monstera deliciosa, gardenia, all types of orchids, flourishing Ohia, anthuriums, Bromeliads, bamboo, 30-plus types of palms, ferns, autograph tree, lauhala, Song of India, kukui nut, hapu, guava, waiwi, oranges, lemons, limes, ti, and lilikoi. (Even this is not an exhaustive list.)
My friendships with Jim, Martie, and Sue Ellen also flourished. Despite infrequent visits, we’ve been the kinds of friends who simply pick up where we’ve left off, no matter the distance in miles or months. So when I got the email from Martie that Jim was suffering from late stage progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), there was no question about my going.
Touching down felt so familiar. Big Island is big! — bigger than all the other islands put together. So though I was first dismayed about Waimea’s dry side when I flew over all those many years ago, the upper slopes of Hilo average 240 inches of rain annually. Hawaii has a rich diversity of ecosystems and geology: fern forests; Ohia groves; lava tubes; Japanese gardens; dramatic gulches; acres of grazing land; natural hot pools; waterfalls; black, white, and green sandy beaches; and, of course, Madame Pele, the goddess of the volcano, who’s been working overtime transforming the landscape since the beginning of time. In short, I felt like I was coming home.
When I entered the room where Jim lay, unresponsive for a day, he opened his eyes, looked into mine, slightly nodded a “Yes” and held my hand tightly for a long time. (He’d stopped talking the night before.) Then, as if I were the last piece in the puzzle, our women’s tribe assembled and we put plans together for his care: morphine at the correct intervals; his body repositioned to avoid bed sores; drugs to help him relax. We woke in shifts at night to keep him comfortable.
The professional hospice team — also women — arrived to help us: they washed him; made suggestions if we got panicked (we did); made sure we had the right supplies; spoke to Jim and to us so tenderly.
Jim was a working artist in many media throughout his life. He encouraged the art of others; he built houses; kept their off-grid homestead running and the wild pigs out of the garden. He lived large. So, true to form, his last day on earth was a combination of beauty, intimacy, and drama. Thunder and lightning started in the early morning. Rain came down in deafening torrents and “rolling thunder” — Jim’s name for his threat of punishment while raising two boys — shook the acres. Around noon, we were all present when — BOOM — a bomb went off in the bathroom. Jim’s daughter-in-law Karrieanne ran out of the bath shrieking and holding her ears; husband Patrick comforted her. The house had been struck by lightning!
Forty-five minutes later, Jim took his last breath. We’ve gotta say it, “He wanted to go out with a bang!” (A friend wrote, “It’s amazing that the universe pointed him out and touched his house.”) We covered him in flowers and the leafy wings of monstera as the rain continued to batter (or bless) our little piece of heaven. The roads, flooded now, were impassable; it took hours for anyone to reach us for the official pronouncement of his passing. Firemen, ambulance drivers, and hospice workers arrived in waves. After everyone left, the sun suddenly broke through the storm, radiant for 30 minutes, as if to say “That’s it — we’re wrapping up this amazing life-force called Jim Rhodes.”
At the altar of life
So, dear readers, lest we take ourselves, our beloveds, our jobs, our homes, or our bodies either too seriously or too much for granted, I offer some thoughts by Jeff Foster (http://tinyurl.com/y4lwvfaw):
“You will lose everything. Your money, your power, your fame, your success, perhaps even your memories. Your looks will diminish. Loved ones will die. Your body will fall apart. Everything that seems permanent is in truth impermanent and will be smashed.
Experience will gradually, or not so gradually, strip away everything that it can strip away.
“Waking up means facing this reality with open eyes. But right now, in this very moment, you stand on sacred and holy ground, for that which will be lost has not yet been lost, and realizing this simple thing is the key to unspeakable joy. Whoever or whatever is in your life right now has not yet been taken away from you. Everything is present. The universal law of impermanence has already rendered everything and everyone around you so deeply holy and significant and worthy of your heart-breaking gratitude that loss has already transfigured your life into an altar.”
Jim made an altar of his life. I was honored to step a little closer to it on the week of his returning home.