The heat swells up from the boardwalk as I descend from the second floor open-air restaurant in Kona on the Big Island. Only a block away the ocean slaps onto the shore within the breakwater surrounding the cove. I grip onto one side of the iron railing, moving one hand over the other as I lower each leg and place my foot carefully in the center of each wooden slat. I’d gorged myself on filet mignon and baked potato, and gurgling noises rumble up through my belly. Sweat pools in the hollow of my collarbone. My daughter Rani and her partner Sonia gallop past, taking two steps at a time. My frizzy-haired grandson Ben bumps into my hip as he sprints behind in their wake.
For years, I’d taken Ben out to parks and movies twice a month, but since my treatment for ovarian cancer began two years ago I’d stopped driving and left home only for clinic appointments. I’d lost most of my hair, and other than my grotesque, swollen belly, the rest of my body had shriveled. When my son Brian and his wife Emily brought Ben over to visit, he stared at me with his blue-grey eyes as if I were a villain from the anime books I used to buy him. I imagined him thinking, Where did grandma go?
Now halfway down the stairs I hear a man’s voice. “Need an arm?” he asks.
With no thought as to what kind of man he might be or even a glance at his face, I wrap my skinny arm around his bicep. He crushes my elbow against his chest and slows his pace.
I shake my head. So far, I’m doing okay. If I need help, I’ll holler at my children. I try to be independent so they won’t worry about leaving me alone as they snorkel and hike. But when I glimpse the stranger’s crooked arm, muscles bulging, tanned and glistening, waiting for me to latch on, something snaps inside me. With no thought as to what kind of man he might be or even a glance at his face, I wrap my skinny arm around his bicep. He crushes my elbow against his chest and slows his pace. I look down at the stairs to avoid tripping us both. At the age of seventy-one, with baggy shorts slipping down over my swollen belly, I am no Cinderella prancing down a winding staircase. My sprigs of damp hair are plastered onto my skull. My breasts have shriveled to prunes. My belly button stands out like a coat hook, and my hips are flat as a wooden plank. With chemotherapy infusions every three weeks, I feel barely alive. But holding his arm for a moment makes me feel like a young woman again.
When we reach ground level, I turn to face him. He isn’t young, but not yet old. His eyes sparkle like brown crystals. His hair is the color of straw. I see stubble on his chin and wiry hairs poke out from the neck of his flowered shirt. With one hand pulling up my drooping shorts, I thank him. Then he turns to leave. I can’t remember for sure but we may have exchanged a few words. Perhaps he asked where I was staying on the island. Or I volunteered that information. Was it only my imagination?
As an old woman who has been through four husbands and so many lovers that I can’t recollect their names, my memories are jumbled. The faces and bodies of my lovers blend together like a crossword puzzle. At times I seem to be living parallel lives, everything in my past occurring side-by-side. Yesterday and today, one and the same.
My children would never understand. Why him? You have us. How could I explain? Once a rational person, my mind now rambles between decades. I can’t trust myself to know the day or the year. What seems like reality rapidly dissolves into fantasy. My son Brian has plenty of fat and muscle and would gladly give me his arm if I asked. But there’s something humiliating about clinging onto your children. Once a mother in charge, now an aimless old woman. Although there’s so much that I can’t do for myself, I yearn to be independent. Why burden Brian if I can cope? He has his own family to worry about. On this, the 15th anniversary of his marriage in Kona, Emily will want his attention.
“What are you doing?” my 26-year-old daughter Rani asks, grabbing my hand. I’d adopted her from Calcutta, India and raised her from the age of three months. Now, she cooks my meals, changes my bedding, drives me to my clinic appointments and quizzes the doctors. She’s learned about blood counts, fentanyl patch dosing, and the side effects of chemotherapy. “I may be overestimating myself,” she recently told me, “but I don’t think you’d be around today if I hadn’t been taking care of you.”
If I tell her why I’d grabbed onto the stranger’s arm, she’d think I was loony. Romantic thoughts and gestures are for the young, not old feeble women like me. When I close my eyes at night, I dream about having a lover, but she wouldn’t want to know. When I’d tried to tell her my love stories of the past, she raised her chin high and her eyes opened wide. “I don’t want to hear about your promiscuity,” she said.
“It was different back in the 60s and 70s.”
“I know…just don’t tell me what you did.”
“Okay. If that’s what you want.”
“Mom, I’m not judging you.”
“Promiscuity isn’t a nice word,” I said.
She patted my arm. “I didn’t mean it that way.”
Someday she’ll find out that a passionate young woman lingers behind a crumpled face. The hope to relive moments of lust and love never dies. My body ages and decays but my emotions are those of a sixteen-year-old.
Rani’s partner Sonia recently gave up her apartment to move in with us. The gals like to travel and eat out at restaurants. Now they’re learning how much time, effort and money are required to keep up a home and yard. They bicker over the daily routines－cooking, cleaning, budgeting, feeding of the dogs and cat—all the things I used to do. And even though I’m useless, I’m persnickety about how things get done. We’ve agreed on a housekeeper who comes in to clean twice a month, but there’s still more. The gals need this vacation to forget about chores and have fun together. They’re both athletic and adventurous. With kayaking, snorkeling, surfing, and hiking, they’ll be busy.
My children planned this Hawaii vacation thinking it would be my last chance to travel, a time for us to create memories that will survive after my departure. They pushed my wheelchair through the airport and helped me pre-board the plane. Carried my luggage. On most days we gather together for breakfast and dinner. I don’t tell them how much my body aches inside and how difficult it is to take care of myself away from home. My skin itches and burns from the chemotherapy: no direct sunlight or I’ll blister. I have an open line into a blood vessel in my upper right arm for chemotherapy infusions and can’t leap into the ocean. Other than shop and eat, there’s not much I can do on an island. I’m envious of all the people with young, healthy bodies who swim with the dolphins and the manta rays, and the elders who walk around in swim suits, oblivious to how quickly their years are passing.
I’m alone in my hotel room furnished with two queen beds and a large-screen television. I sleep on the bed nearest the bathroom, exactly fourteen steps from the toilet, but there are times when I don’t make it. The housekeepers don’t complain when I ask for extra linens and to have my bedding changed daily. Back on the second day, a housekeeper declined to enter until I’d left for lunch. Later that afternoon, her supervisor appeared and talked as she worked.
“Cancer,” she said, “I know about that. My mother died only two years back. The doctors treated her fractured hip but didn’t discover the colon cancer until too late. She died within weeks of her diagnosis. Here on the island, they didn’t have the services we needed.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, nodding my head. Her mother may have been fortunate to have passed quickly. On some nights, I hope to die in my sleep. It’s not the dying I’m afraid of, only the pain, and there’s been too much of that in chemotherapy.
I return from dinner that evening to find a box of chocolates next to the big screen and a get-well card signed by a dozen people I may not have seen. Everyday, a different housekeeper. Who should I thank? Most go about their business with little conversation but others notice my discomfort and offer kind words. One woman took my hand and prayed. Although I’m not a believer, I felt less alone that afternoon.
Once I awoke from a nap to find two large gray birds and a smaller redheaded one feasting on the saltine cracker crumbs that I’d dropped onto the carpet. My three visitors returned everyday through the open balcony door. I tried to snap a photograph but wasn’t quick enough. The two larger birds flew across the courtyard and perched on the roof of a six-story building. I struggled to lift my head off the pillow.
On the day my family plans a six-mile hike, my daughter-in-law Emily decides to stay back and spend time with me. We wander into the tourist shops and lick the edges of chocolate mint ice cream cones. When I notice a bead shop, I remember reading that the earth’s energy and healing powers are encapsulated within precious rocks and stones. Perhaps these jewels will help me connect with the spirits of the earth and make my transition easier. Emily, who knows how to make jewelry, walks eagerly into the store. We browse the drawers and trays of glass, ceramic, and wooden beads. The precious gems and crystals are strung on nylon strands and dangle from overhead bars. I purchase a string of turquoise stones to dispel negative energy. I also pick out a strand of small, round shell beads to keep my vision of the shoreline when I prepare to close my eyes for the final time.
“We’re lucky” Emily says. “Some of these beads—well, we won’t find them anywhere else.”
That night we huddle in front of the television in my room to watch the spectacular swimming and gymnastics feats taking place in London at the opening of the Summer Olympics. I’m not the only one who envies all those sleek and muscular bodies. We picture ourselves as young forever and the world full of possibilities, but after training for so many years and winning the gold, what’s left? How will these athletes be able to accept the cycle of aging and decline? Their muscles will turn to flab and their name soon be forgotten. Will they find new purpose and meaning? Everyone has challenges, many as great or greater than mine.
After everyone leaves, and I’m drifting off to sleep, I hear a voice beckoning me from my room. Perhaps that stranger on the stairway or someone from my past. I can’t be sure. I hear the waves rippling up into the sandy cove, the luau dancers stomping their feet with the beat of the drums, and the laughter of the couples drinking at the poolside bar. In the morning when I awake to the crying of the gulls, do I only imagine the wet sand on my sneakers?
The next day, my family takes me to visit the Place of Refuge at the Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Park. Tall majestic palms surround the temple complex that sits on a 20-acre finger of lava jutting out into the ocean. We stroll within the treacherous, rocky cove where vanquished warriors and those who broke the kapus set out by the chiefs once swam or kayaked across a bay known as the shark’s den to reach a place where they could be forgiven. I could almost hear the moans of those who drowned or were killed before reaching safety.
At the time of my son’s wedding, fifteen years earlier, I visited this sacred place where life began anew. Back then I remember hearing the spirits of the earth talking to me. The voices of the dead had seemed ready to welcome me, but I wasn’t ready.
Today, in the hot, humid weather, my family wears shorts and t-shirts. I cover my pale, fragile skin with a sweatshirt. The sun makes me dizzy, and I reach for Rani’s warm hand. We stroll beside the great volcanic rock wall that once separated the commoners from the royalty and venture out onto the rocky shoreline where the surf bubbles up over the edges of stones in front of the grass- and cane-matted Hale o Keane temple housing the bones of twenty-three noble chiefs. Rani snaps a photograph of me standing between two ki`i statues guarding one side of the temple. Their huge blade-like teeth are bared and their eyes stare out over the foamy sea. For centuries their glistening lava bodies have withstood the sun, wind, rain and surf. I dig my feet into the sand beside them.