Fishes to Fishes

“I’m going somewhere tropical for Christmas,” Chris said. It was November and the holidays were coming. “You want to come?”

It wasn’t sensible, or affordable, or maybe I just wondered if I was reliving my escapist fantasies of other years when I would geographically flee my problems only to discover myself in the arms of new ones. But the wheels began to move without me: Mom sprung for tickets for all of us, even Chris, though he's not her son. “You’ve all just had a helluva year” she said. “We want you to have a break for a few days.” So we all packed up and flew out Christmas day, loaded with little but sunblock. We didn’t even own shorts. La

Chris and I cracked the canned Mai Tai’s on the plane, squeezed into our seats like all the other Christmas schmucks. We’d never fancied ourselves Hawaiian tourists but we were going to embrace the experience, including the sticky rum drinks, especially if they had fruit and umbrellas. Clouds fell in cascades of misty drapery around our flight, hiding the monotony of the endless ocean below. “I brought Dad along,” I said. 

“I was wondering,” Chris said. “Where is he?” 

“In one of the pockets of my suitcase,” I said. “Just a little. He’s in a plastic bag.” 

“I guess the vase would be heavy,” he agreed. 

“I thought about it!” I said.

“We’ll leave him in Hawaii,” Chris said. “He’ll like it there.” 


We spent our time in Hawaii ignoring the holidays altogether. Our resistance to staying in the rainy Northwest had far less to do with the weather, since we’re used to it, and far more to do with not being reminded of how much us heathens loved the holidays, Dad as the fulcrum of our gaiety and laughter, eating too much food and giving each other a lot of books as gifts. Spending our first holiday without Dad—knowing there would never be another—was too much. 

On the other hand, we didn’t dwell on Dad either. Chris had planned to party and surf away his eight days, but he got mugged Christmas night, so he chose to take a quieter vacation, spent more often with us as a family. We saw Pearl Harbor and the Battleship Missouri, went snorkeling, looked for food which didn’t cater to tourism, and hung out in funny resort bars with terrible but expensive drinks. We all drove to the North Shore together to watch the winter surf, take in roaring nature. We laughed a lot. 

We went snorkeling in Hanauma Bay, a spectacularly obvious volcanic land mass, and host to an easy reef for fish-gazing. Taking after the lame side of my family and not being a strong swimmer, I was remarkably adept at wandering the shoals with Chris, who has the confidence of an athlete in the waves.  We went far and wide in the shallow reef over two different days, pointing out Humuhumu-nukunuku-apua’a and needle-thin Cornet fish, spotted eels and Christmas Wrasse to each other. 

It was only in our quest to find sea turtles that Chris and I overplayed our hand. In a second of absentmindedness, we got swept out fifty feet past the safety buoys in a rip tide as we simultaneously realized my snorkel was faulty and I was breathing sea water instead of oxygen; my weak swimming skills came to save me in a moment of sheer wonder at the speed with which life could end. Chris and I dragged ourselves back to shore, Milo insisting he didn’t want me to die (had he seen something from the beach, or was I just a deeper shade of pale stumbling up to the beach towel?) while I had a renewed sense of the awesome crush of nature.

Adrenaline and near-death aside, the trip was full of the wonder of the natural world, which Dad recorded so diligently in his paintings over the course of his life. Now it was time to wave goodbye. Lars pulled Milo on his boogie board, and Chris and I clutched two fistfuls of Dad in our hands above the water as we wandered into the reef.

We found a shallow sandy spot between the coral where we could look upon the fish darting in groups of three and four, their festival colors shifting and breaking in the ambient reflections. A shrug from Chris, a moment of quiet, and we placed our hands into the salty sea, Dad falling through our fingers in clouds of glittering bone and ash. Dad fell much slower than I would have thought, each piece of bone tacking this way and that in the quiet water, until the confetti that once was Dad was gone. 

Our last morning in Hawaii, Chris noted that Dad really needed to be on Waikiki. While it was true that Hanauma Bay was sublime in its natural aspect, Waikiki was host to the most ridiculously beautiful bodies in the world. Chris felt we weren’t honoring the most basic part of Dad if we gave him the natural landscape in Hanauma but not the human landscape of Waikiki. So we packed Dad up with our towels, sunblock and three cups of coffee and took him to the beach by our hotel. 

By nine the shore was filled with tanned beauties soaking up solar radiation and bouncing their way into the surf with boards under their arms. A bronzed vanity project was rubbing herself with tanning oil and doing ab crunches; my belief that everyone now rubbed themselves with SPF 400 was incontrovertibly disproven on Waikiki where you can still buy Hawaiian Tropic Tanning Oil, evident in the wrinkled, ochre complexions of retirees wandering her shore. But this woman was lovely now, not a dimple or pucker on her tanned and toned body. Dad would be pleased with this tableau. 

After a morning playing in the surf with Milo and drinking sandy coffee with Lars, Chris and I took small fistfuls of Dad and walked toward the ocean. Chris had gotten a tattoo memorializing Dad and couldn’t go in the water, so he walked along the wave break where little brown crabs darted and hid. I waded in the shallows next to him. We released Dad back the sea from whence we all came, fishes to fishes and dust to dust, my clutch of Dad drifting into a school of tiny silver Tilapia shimmering in the clear morning sun. 

Dad was home.

Toni, pastel on paper, 1997

Toni, pastel on paper, 1997


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