I’m a big fan of the poet Jane Kenyon, whose last book of poems, published after her death in 1995, was called “Otherwise.” Knowing that she was dying of leukemia, she assembled the collection with her husband, the well-known poet Donald Hall (he died in 2018). When I first read the title poem, it rocked me. It still does.
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
(from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems © 1996 Graywolf Press)
That refrain, “It might have been otherwise,” has stayed with me this past year, since Jan. 15, 2019, when Dick collapsed in cardiac arrest at the Honolulu Airport just as we were about to board a plane for home. Now we’ve just spent the last two weeks on Kauai, and, though he didn’t set this up intentionally, it turns out that again, this year, this new decade, we are again heading home Jan. 15, 2020.
We spent a week in one of our favorite places, the north shore of Kauai, in the area of Haena, in a sweet little rental called the Tiki Hut, hosted by Toni and CB Martin, people whom we consider dear friends. It’s like coming home when we drive onto the private road, when we open the gate and Nugget, the big yellow lab, greets us, when we find Toni’s banana bread waiting for us with other goodies in the small kitchen of the Tiki Hut, when we stroll the yard that feels like a tropical botanical garden.
Every day, in the morning and just before sunset, I walked down the private road that curves around and leads to the beach, slipped off my flip-flops before I hit the sand and left them near others waiting for their owners’ feet to return. I’d walk north, looking at the interesting shell and coral pieces the tides had brought in. I watched the January waves rolling in like great sheets of gray blue in some places and in others caressing the soft sand into which my feet sink.
This year on every walk, I sang my appreciation to the sea, the litany of “mahalo nui loa” (thank you very much) never enough to convey my gratitude for all the ways Dick and I have been held and assisted and propped up this year. I fell in October, spraining an ankle and breaking a thumb, so I considered all that sand walking good physical therapy. I’d be thankful for work I love waiting for me at home and good people with whom I work. For this mate with whom I got to once again lie down with and listen to the rain pelting on the roof of the Tiki Hut.
I am so much aware that, to quote Jane Kenyon,
“One day, I know, / it will be otherwise.”
That doesn’t mean that I’m pessimistic about things. Not at all. Life is short, but as Dick’s shirt says, Life Is Good. (His original Life Is Good Hawaii T-shirt was cut off him on that fateful day, and he’s now wearing the replacement LIG shirt that our friend Jan Lake had made for him. You can read the story of how that happened here.) It means that I want to stand in conscious awe and not to turn a blind eye, but not to get mired in the sadness and difficulties of the world that threaten to overcome us all. Kenyon suffered from crippling depression all her life, and that she survived and had four books of poems published, working on the final collection to her very end, inspires me.
It means that both Dick and I want to live blown open by love and compassion, to continue to be a force for good in the world, to take every opportunity to extend kindness to everyone we encounter. We live gratitude every day. I’ve given up trying to be a tough guy, even with students who, some might say, deserve that kind of approach. I’m not a tough guy; I’m lousy at it when I try, and it just makes me and others feel bad.
My sweet, generous partner died in front of me and was brought back to life through the auspices of kind strangers, in circumstances over which I had no control. And every single part of it brought people who gave their time and talent and expertise for our greater good. We think of and offer our mahalo to Claudio Alvarado, the UCDMC nurse, who immediately knelt by Dick after he fell and monitored the whole procedure, of his partner, Camron Calloway, who comforted me, of Salesi Maumau, at the time a Honolulu firefighter who performed CPR, all of them in line behind us to board the plane to Sacramento.
We think of and offer our mahalo to Pam Foster, who through her AED Institute, put AEDs in airports all over Hawaii (and all over Kauai, too, we noticed this trip), and her colleague Jenna Tanigawa, who later trained us in the use of AEDs. To the people whose names we never got: the EMTs, ambulance driver, airport firefighers and Hawaiian Airlines staff (including HA employee Chris Ohta, who ran for the AED and pushed the button that delivered the shock that allowed Dick’s heart to restart.
We think of and offer our mahalo to Dick’s incredible care team at Kaiser Moanalua Medical Center, in no particular order—Dr. Diana Kim, Dr. Nicholas Dang, Dr. John Lee, Dr. John Chen, Dr. Lance Blaisdell, Dr. Kenneth Schwab, Dr. Neil Onizuka, Dr. Elisa Zaragoza Macias, and cardiac physicians assistants Tim Berkeley and Whitney Regan. We’re also grateful to the front line nurses Donovan Char, Sally Dominguez, Erin Shulze, Jaime Reese, Tatyana Cathey, Agnes (who found a heart pillow donated by the Manoa Lions for Dick on his last day), the RN assistant named Shy (and many others whose names I didn’t write down), Mel Kai and Tono (human and pet visitor volunteers!).
I still thankful for the blessing chaplain Leavitt Thomas’ offered us before Dick’s surgery on Jan. 24: “We are affirming a safe and successful procedure followed by an easeful and graceful recovery.” And it was so.
We also offer our deepest mahalo to our island friends who came to our sides and offered so much aloha: Mākena Ongoy, Hawaii Jan Lake, Andy and Leona Doughty, Jervin Wait, Sue Young, Tara Young and Avi Mannis and their son Elliott. To our dear friends from the mainland Connie Raub and Cora Johnson, who left their lives for two weeks to tend to Dick as he recovered in Pearl City. To Kristen Consillio, Star-Advertiser reporter, who interviewed Dick when he finally left Hawaii and did an excellent story about him. To our many friends and family who sent love and support in so many ways, especially Dick’s sister and brother-in-law Marge and John Thompson. To my Sacramento City College students and colleagues (Dean Robin Ikegami, Vice President Ginny McReynolds, Randy Allen, Marci Selva and Jason Peterson, among many others), who made arrangements and filled in for me during the first two weeks of the semester while Dick was still in the hospital.
If I ever needed proof of a higher power, of unseen companion spirits working on our behalf, the last year of miracle after miracle—of being in the right place at the right time, of the people delivered to help us every step of the way—has reassured me that help is always given, even when I forget to ask for it. I take great pleasure in the simplest things. On this trip we got to plan another day just the like one we’d already had—together. Days that on the north shore ended with a walk across sand to look our favorite view at the triangular peak called Mt. Makana, behind which the sun set, the sky awash in different colors and textures.
We’d stand there—sometimes getting rained on, sometimes not—grinning at each other like a couple of happy little kids, thinking how lucky we were to be here. Not just in that place, but here. On the planet. Together. For as long as we can be.
Because one day, we know, it will be otherwise, and the one who is left will have this great treasure trove of memories. And may we remember, in the words of our friend, singer-songwriter Antsy McClain, “I won’t cry because it’s over; I’ll smile because it was.”
As they say in Hawaiian churches at the end of prayers and hymns: Amene.
(Check for Part II of this story—Coming Home—tomorrow.)