Sugar Beach

By Neva Knott

I balance on smooth black lava boulders at the shoreline of Sugar Beach. I make my way just past the soft waves that undulate and dissipate. Ten yards out, the ocean meets the lava. There’s no surf, but enough water is hitting the rocks that they are slippery. I stop before I get to those covered in algae. I hold three flowers: a yellow ilima, a purple bougainvillea, and a red epidendrum. Behind me, my friend Gail picks her path so she can stand beside me, an orange bougainvillea in her hand.

Throwing flowers in the ocean is my Maui ritual. My partner, Adam, is buried in these waters. Each time I visit, I pick three flowers, of no special variety—I let them reveal themselves—one for Adam’s past, one for his present, and one for his future. This morning, I found the three in my hand while driving along the beach access road.

Adam and I had lived on Maui for a year in 2002. This island is a place to which people come and from which people go, and we were no different than others who’d left the mainland for Paradise. Work pulled me back to Portland, Oregon. Adam lingered on Maui for a few months, reluctant to leave. He made it back to Portland the summer of 2004, at the last possible moment to serve as his best friend’s best man. That fall, we decided I’d finish the school year and then we’d move back to Maui, for good. But Adam died in a car crash in January 2005. Our dream of the island life died with him.

***

This trip, I’ve come to Maui with my high school best friends, Jim and Gail. I moved to Portland a year after graduation. We kept in touch the first few years, until mortgages, professional obligations and adult life what-not allowed the 100 miles between our cities to stretch into twenty years gone by. We reunited at the fiftieth birthday party of a mutual friend. Recently, I moved from Portland to Olympia to remodel the house I inherited from my mom. Jim and Gail let me sleep on their couch, fed me, and volunteered themselves as my work crew. As we pulled carpet, tiled bathrooms, and painted wall, the gaps between the years filled. In appreciation for their help with the remodel, I hosted our trip to Maui.

Our third night here, we stood in the kitchen of our little ohana—a word that literally means family, but loosely translates as mother-in-law cottage and is the common description of small rental properties. Gail filled my wine glass and asked me about Adam’s accident. I’d forgotten she and Jim didn’t know the details. I sipped my wine and let the words roll out, giving the short version of the horror, but giving enough detail that my friends finally understood the magnitude. I’d explained my flower ritual to them while we were planning the trip. When I was done recounting the wreck and the days in the hospital, Gail said, “I want to throw a flower, and I want to say some words.” Later that evening, Jim sat on the couch and put his arm around me. He just kept talking, about anything and nothing, just like we did when we were teenagers, when we’d put gas in Jim’s car and drive around because we didn’t want to go home, until all the world’s problems were solved.

***

The spring after the wreck, Adam’s family and our group of Portland friends flew with me to Maui to put his ashes in the ocean. Friends who live on-island joined us. The dive shop Adam had taken scuba lessons through volunteered a boat and captain. I bought everyone flower leis. Niccole, a Maui friend, consulted a Hawaiian kumu, or priest, and prepared special leis for Adam’s younger brother, Wes, and me. She’d also learned the Hawaiian way to throw remains into the sea.

We launched with no destination in mind. As we moved away from shore and into the deep water, a pod of dolphins appeared. They escorted us to a popular dive spot near sacred native land. As the dolphins turned to leave, the captain cut the motor. Niccole explained what Wes and I were to do. The tradition is to throw a handful of ashes into the water, and then to dive in for one last swim with the deceased. Wes and I were to stay submerged until our ti leaf leis floated over our heads.

My hands shook, I fumbled, I began to sweat as I untied the bag of ashes. Finally, I submerged my hand into the container and pulled out a substance that felt reassuringly similar to sand. I threw my handful of what used to be Adam’s body into the water and dove in. The others followed suite. I lingered in the water and an ancient green turtle joined me. I felt Adam’s presence. The turtle looked at me, nodded, and submerged. I swam back to the boat. After our swim, from the boat deck, I watched garlands of white plumeria and those of green ti leaves slide along the swell of the water and float away.

***

This morning, Gail and I threw our flowers. I gave the yellow conical ilima to Adam’s past, the perfect funnel shape a reminder of his passage. I let the purple bougainvillea—the fullest bloom and softest of the bunch—signify his present. The epidendrum—a waxy, firm, sturdy burst of red and gold—will serve as the beacon for his future. They left my hand, one at a time, offered up with a silent prayer. The ilima was nudged by the waves and lodged between rocks. The epidendrum floated out along the point of the lava flow toward open ocean. The bougainvillea floated back and forth between rock and shore. Gail threw in her orange bunch. It landed next to my purple clump and undulated with the waves.

Jim and Gail and I walked along the tide pools and collected shells. Then I took my one last swim, again. While in the water, I overheard two women talking, their voices floating across the surface of the water, propelled by the soft Hawaiian lilt of pidgin, “When I was a little girl, my grampa tell me, you feel bad, you go to the ocean. It fix everything.”

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