RACHAEL LEE NELSON
February 5: Arriving on Kauai at night feels humid and dark. The usual vibrance of green is limited to what can be illuminated by the airport parking lot’s lights. My dad calls my mom to let her know we’ll be at the condo shortly after we get the rental car and my siblings and I hold our tongues when we see it, knowing a five-seater won’t be enough for us once we are all together. On the unlit country roads from Lihue to Poipu I know no one in the car will notice me crying in the front seat but don’t want my grandma to see me puffy when we finally arrive. Too cloudy for moonlight, the normally majestic tunnel of trees I’d ridden through every time I’d visited before seems oppressive, like the branches above are roots and we’re tunneling underground. An apt imagining for our purpose there, except it had already been decided we’d scatter Papa’s ashes over the ocean rather than burying him in the earth.
My grandparents bought the condo on the southern part of Kauai when I was 15 and they were 65. I’d made a handful of visits in the 15 years since, but only once after moving to New York seven years ago, which required three separate flights and about 18 hours of my time. I was familiar with the foliage on the walk from the condo to the beach and the koi fish my grandpa was fond of in a pond near the pool. Just my grandparents and I for days, on these visits we’d wake up early with the sound of wild roosters and leave to get a good spot on one of Papa’s favorite local beaches, lugging our books and folding chairs. We’d all swim, my grandparents both tan with gold jewelry - Papa with a chain, Mimi in a necklace with a turtle pendant, hammered Hawaiian heirloom bracelets. They were on the island long and often enough to get a kama'aina discount and knew everyone at the pool - mostly mainland expats also enjoying their retirement. Mimi and Papa’s wardrobes were t-shirts and shorts and tevas and an early dinner would be followed by a bowl of ice cream on the rattan sofa. The exoticism of a tropical island for a kid from Seattle made homey and familiar by the routines of her grandparents: watching The Amazing Race before bed and the smell of coffee in the mornings.
Their condo is on the second floor of the building, wooden and probably built in the 80s. I would always forget until I saw it again, the ceramic tile with the painted yellow flower hung beside the front door greeting you with “Aloha” while asking you to remove your shoes - they rent it out when they’re back in Seattle. I somehow made it up the stairs before my dad and siblings and so I’m the first one to hug my grandma when she opens the door. My mom and uncle and his girlfriend arrived several days ago and they welcome everybody else while Mimi and I stay hugging. I feel afraid to let go and face the rooms of the condo without Papa there inhabiting them. They remodeled the kitchen a few months ago so there’s that to distract and admire: local supplies and local craftsmen, it’s beautiful streaky wood that reminds me of a coconut. I also comment that there are LED bulbs that don’t cast an awful white light and we should order her some on Amazon - things are hard to find on the island.
My dad rented a different condo for us, a ten minute drive away. There’s a sectional sofa that can accommodate everyone and ceiling fans all over the place. The path from the parking lot leads through manicured lawns bordering enormous plants I’m used to seeing in small pots - leaves the size of my face spreading several feet in every direction. It winds along passing numerous gated pools and a few tennis courts down to a two lane road with a small inlet beach just across. In the morning I use my EST advantage and wake up at 6 to walk it alone with my notepad. It’s dark and I’m wearing a white turtleneck and white shorts, more visible than I want to be when I pass an elderly couple walking together with thermoses and have to return their smile, feeling robbed and jealous on behalf of my grandma who I realize will now take her morning walks alone. I get to the beach and regret my outfit when I sit on the rocks, dark brown and porous. I’m facing south and the sun’s only barely started turning things gray on the left.
When I get back to New York in a week people will interrupt me and say “oh you HAD to go to Hawaii?” and then I’ll finish “...for my grandpa’s funeral” and their face will fall and I’ll try to alleviate their guilt for their inaccurate assumption. I know for mainlanders Hawaii only represents a tropical haven from responsibilities - the fact that I could be obligated to go there was unbelievable to anyone until I qualified it with a family death. Sure, certain destinations are equated with vacation but of course it’s possible to suffer normal life (and death) beneath palm trees. Kauai is a real place - sorrow isn’t suspended just because you can see sea turtles from the shore.
It does feel discordant, though. To be emotionally penning a private eulogy as pale families start to wander down from their airbnbs and adjust the straps of their scuba masks and scream that the water’s colder than they expected. Maybe the surreality of the situation can keep my tribute from too much sentimentality but I’m also aware of how I look, the woman in an all white outfit crying alone on a rock in the morning, and I head back to the house.
February 6: We try to strike a balance while we’re there between keeping busy and taking the time to grieve. After exchanging the rental car for a rental Yukon, my mom takes my siblings and I on a hike to a nature conservatory and we see giant tortoises eating dry leaves. One plays with a basketball. I’m awestruck by how they move, their speckled legs rotating beneath their shells for forward propulsion in this way I never knew about - excited to realize I haven’t already learned everything about the world from the internet. I feel like I could watch them all day and something about them reminds me of Papa, precise and consistent and graceful, but my mom herds us forward. On the hike we build from lava rocks a kairn for Papa. Everyone is contributing and I hold back my attempts to art direct the project, telling myself contribution in itself is meaningful even if the final result appears haphazard. There are nights in the time we are there when someone will be missing from the group, returning from the porch swing or their room or a walk looking depleted. We all really loved him.
February 7: We leave in the morning and head to the grocery store to buy roses. We find a lei in the refrigerated section that isn’t what my mom had in mind but it will do. We buy pre-made sandwiches that no one is hungry for. We make sure there’s a bottle of water for everyone. With my uncle and his girlfriend and my grandma following in a car behind us we set off for Barking Sands Beach - as far west as you can go on the southern part of the island before hitting Polihale State Park. The drive is roughly an hour from Poipu and after connecting my phone to the soundsystem of the car I realize I don’t know how to DJ the road trip that ends with Papa’s ashes in the Pacific. I play Landslide by Fleetwood Mac and my sister and her fiancé (previously mentioned as a sibling because, well, he essentially is) both immediately request the Dixie Chicks version instead and I think it’s sweet that they’re so compatible and I play it. I play Jim Croce and Robert Lester Folsom and Van Morrison and John Fahey. There are boxes of tissues placed throughout the suburban. We point out the scenery that strikes us like on any other car ride. We talk about places Mimi and Papa have taken us to before. It’s sunny, it’s windy, the palm trees are enormous and they sway.
When we get to the beach there are logistics: there’s more wind to contend with and we have a bag of ashes; what we’re doing is illegal and there are other people at the beach. But everyone strips down to their swimsuits and I distribute single red roses and we start the walk to find the place where we’ll leave him. Close to a low cliff-face but not entirely shaded it becomes time to just do the thing. My grandma has a pink t-shirt on over her swimsuit, the leafy lei on top of that, and with my mom and uncle flanking her sides the three of them walk toward the water, the rest of us onlooking, crying. The morgue had put the ashes in a batik bag, beautifully made with a simple drawstring and when we removed the contents they were gray powder in a clear plastic sack. My mom was surprised it was so heavy but Papa was probably 170lbs, if you think about it that way. They struggle to carry it over the wet sand and into the waves made aggressive by the wind. They squeal when the cold water splashes up over their knees and when a wave knocks my grandma back onto her butt they laugh. From up on the beach it breaks the ice - we’re laughing and we all move closer for support, we throw our roses into the water with the gray ash and watch them get lapped back up onto the sand by our feet. We’re cold and sad but it’s done, wet and hugging with nothing to say. After we set up our beach chairs closer to the car and split up the sandwiches I slip my grandma the eulogy I wrote and after she reads it she tells me it’s perfect, which is the type of support she and Papa have always given me. My mom gathers lava rocks for everyone to take home with them, she calls them “Papa Rocks” as she places them in our open palms. The only plastic cups my uncle could find are the size of shot glasses and we slowly make our way through 2 bottles of prosecco, cheersing him and his life and all the things he gave us, even though Papa preferred Guinness.
It’s my first time on a beach in a year and a half and I’m applying sunscreen like a maniac. I’m wearing a black ribbed one-piece from the 90s I found never-worn at a thrift shop because the bikini I also packed still felt like too much when I tried it on that morning. I don’t know if people are looking at my body because of my scars or because I’m startlingly pale or simply because I’m a woman and people always feel entitled to stare at us. My mom and Mimi have both told me they think I’m brave. But I’m honestly just too hot to be in sleeves and I have to try to make peace with my new skin somehow.
The night of the 8th is my first anniversary, sort of. Sort of because the accident happened around 11:30pm or so and the reality of the situation made its impact on the 9th, my first day in the hospital. So it almost feels like a two-day affair, even though catching on fire from the stove in my kitchen only lasted about five minutes. A month ago, when I’d begun to consider the significance of the upcoming one-year-mark, I’d imagined maybe a small dinner with company to note the occasion. My mom was going to fly to New York to be with me and some other dear friends had plans to be in town. I had no way to know how emotional it would or wouldn’t feel or what I might need. And even though the thing happened directly and only to my body, the accident affected everyone I know. I received a completely overwhelming flood of support both then and in the time since and sharing a meal with some of those responsible could be a small gesture of thank you. These plans were immediately abandoned when my mom called me on the 2nd to tell me Papa hadn’t made it through the night and I was on a plane the next day.
The year mark is significant for physical reasons, too. Burn victims who receive skin grafts must usually wear compression garments for a period of time post-surgery in an effort to suppress increased blood flow to the healing area because increased blood flow creates thicker scar tissue. My compression garment is described as a jacket by the hospital, long sleeved on my right arm and short on my left, it zips up the middle with a scoop neck and additional fabric over my chest. There are matching bike shorts. I had about 20 different color options to choose from when I left the hospital and I chose beige, surprising no one. There were days in the intervening months when I wished I had chosen red - anything to warn strangers on the subway that I was fragile, or to remind well-meaning friends to please not hit my arm when animatedly telling a story. The compression suit feels like a wearable prison. Getting dressed each morning first requires a layer of lotion on my skin to moisturize it since any dryness will turn to pain. After waiting for it to soak into my skin grafts, and the donor sites on my thighs from which the grafts came, I pull the suit on and into place, then face my closet and wonder anew how I might present myself to the world in a way I can feel good about. The jacket affects my posture and smothers me completely flat chested, the shorts dig into the flesh of my thighs where they end above my knees. The previous summer had felt humiliating, hiding my 29 year old body in long baggy shorts and high necked t-shirts or long sack dresses I’d try to fix with a belt. My surgeon told me I’d need to wear the garment 20 hours a day for approximately one year, at which point my skin would have fully healed from the surgeries and would no longer be actively scarring. I’d gone without it on only several occasions for a few hours at a time in the last couple of months - like on Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. It had felt freeing to move my shoulders, to breathe deeply. But not long after removing it the skin on my inner arm would start to ache and become increasingly sensitive to whatever clothing fabric lightly covering it, the skin on my back and stomach following suit after a little more time. And, besides the pain, I would worry every minute that I was doing irrevocable damage to my already affected appearance. I was anxious to be told I could take it off in good conscience.
Here in Hawaii I don’t even bother putting it on. My skin grafts can’t sweat, since those glands were burned off by the fire, and so my body temperature regulation is something to which I’m still adjusting. I’m uncomfortable physically but I don’t care because I’m sad about something else. Experiencing loss is the fastest way I know to simplify one’s perspective. After the loss of my skin I felt grateful to be alive with my friends and family; after the loss of my grandpa I feel grateful for the friends and family who are alive with me.
Despite my best efforts to re-apply the SPF-50 I settled on at a Hawaiian drugstore when I couldn’t find -80, I think I get a little burnt the day of the memorial. My skin is more tender than usual and my mom’s concerned for me, finding a tube of aloe vera she has packed in a bag somewhere. I remind her that my concept of pain is now...quite generous. Also, despite this being my own recycled skin it is, in a way, brand new and I’m accepting of a learning curve. To feel the sun on my right arm is miraculous. And I’ve healed from worse burns before.
After the beach we return to our condos and shower. My siblings and I wait in a line for burritos from a window and bring them back to Mimi’s. Some neighbors come over and talk to us about Papa and how they loved him. They make plans to have Mimi for dinner next week. My mom falls asleep sitting on the floor with her head resting on my grandma’s knee and I take a picture. It’s time to end this day.
February 8: A few close friends message me hearts or “thinking about you” or “glad you’re alive” throughout the day. My mom remembers in the morning and gives me a hug. We don’t have a plan for the night and my sister and her fiancé are discussing going for a nice dinner just the two of them and I surprise myself by becoming emotional and angry, pulling my mom aside and crying while I ask her why they can’t do that another night. The death of my grandpa took such precedence over my thoughts and feelings in the last few days I had assumed this anniversary wouldn’t affect me so much but here I am, weepily demanding people pay attention to and change their plans for me. My sister is gracious and agrees to a nice family dinner instead and on the way in the backseat I feel like a pouty child.
But I’m not: I’m thirty and this is the one year anniversary of the night I caught on fire alone in my kitchen; I’m thirty and my grandpa died six days ago; I’m thirty and in Hawaii with my family going all the places I went when I was younger but now Papa isn’t with us, now I have scars all over my body. I have legitimate reasons to be moodily staring out the window while my parents drive us to the restaurant with the best piña coladas around.
At the table after we cheers our drinks with varying colors of paper umbrellas my mom asks me what the most significant change has been for me since the accident and I immediately answer “everything.”
Of myself just a year and a day before, I tell my family: “I don’t know her anymore.” The people who raised and were raised with me all nod. It’s taken me a year to finally feel “like myself” again but it’s a different self than the one who had never confronted the fear of her own death while making dinner one Thursday night. The way my grafts were cut from my existing body and blended into something resembling the original, meant to function similarly but not without effortful stretching and adjusting, feels like a metaphor that made itself. I don’t know that person anymore despite being made from her.
My brother and I head to the airport after dinner and catch a red eye back to Seattle. We fly standby and the gate agent inexplicably assigns us two middle seats in rows that don’t recline on a flight with 30 unpurchased tickets. Since they happen to also be exit rows we say we aren’t up for the responsibility, which is probably true, and are told by the much more chill attendant to “sit anywhere.” I lie down across three seats and brace myself to land in the settlings of the snowstorm I’ve been watching on my weather app. Our uncle flew back the day before and he’s the one who picks us up from the airport in his Subaru. The morning’s all white and gray and cold and we don’t know what to talk about. But life really does just simply continue. And it’s a relief to be in the company of people who know exactly this hurt without requiring it be communicated. The commonality of our grief allows us to talk about the flight and the weather and what’s for dinner; it provides for the truth that these things are as real as the other - this invisible wound left by loss.
February 9: Back at our childhood home by ourselves my brother says to me, “Isn’t it crazy how, like, it was so sunny and nice in Hawaii but, like, it’s so snowy and cold here?” and I’m immediately choking with laughter. He realizes what he’s said and shrugs like, what else could you expect from me right now. And he’s right: it’s completely insane that it’s sunny somewhere in the world while in another place it isn’t. It’s unimaginable that Papa is gone from us now but he is. It makes no sense that I survived a fire a year ago but I did. And these progressions that feel like contradictions exist in us as we exist in the world, regardless of environment, until, for whatever reason, we don’t.
The eulogy I wrote for my grandpa to give to my grandma is simple. I wrote that now that he’s been released from his physical body, Papa isn’t subject to place or time. An idea I might have thought corny or conciliatory before, I now am gripping to tightly and espousing wholeheartedly. And I truly felt it, too, when I got the call from my mom a week ago that he was gone; when we arrived at their condo and saw his hand in the renovations and his face on her laptop screensaver; when I sat on the beach and wrote it all out. I know he’s on the dock at the lake in their backyard, he’s up in his workshop. He’s with me in New York and, without question, he’s walking on the side of the road along the beach with her in Kauai pointing out the bobbing shells of sea turtles in the waves.
When I return to New York I see my surgeon. He has a white beard and an emotional intelligence I came to greatly appreciate during my month in his hospital the year before. He says he can’t believe it’s been a year and I say I can’t either, those days in that place feel so close in memory - I can access them immediately and be right back in that room, right back in that bed. Trauma has taught me that memory goes beyond the bounds of space and time, so while the moments on the surgical table before the anesthesia took hold are available to me in an instant, so is Papa giving me a kiss on the cheek. And if memory can be a present reality, the passing of time is even more unbelievable. Upon examination my surgeon smiles and congratulates me, says that to wear the compression garment is now entirely my choice but to be aware of some still active scarring in parts of my right arm. I call my mom when I leave and, even though we both anticipated this official release we are relieved. “I can’t believe it’s been a year,” she says to me, too, as everyone has been saying to me now that it’s been a year. I laugh and say, “I know.” I say, “I can’t believe anything.”