The moment our father’s sperm pierces our mother’s egg and forms a zygote, we’re in for the lifetime of changes that will make us who we are. There is nothing so certain, transformative, or unpredictable as change. We might cast spells to resist it or attempt to chant it into essence more quickly, but we can almost never foretell the future until we reflect on the outcome many years later. Until we think about what might have happened had the change not taken place. History books swell with facts and theories about the big events that shaped the centuries and defined world cultures. The deaths of great men and women whose names and deeds everyone knows; the establishment of international organizations to promote peace; wars and revolutions that destroy generations of children for the future of others; the passing of federal acts, laws, and amendments to balance national justice; the pacts that create new nations out of old colonies – each of us knows these stories in personal ways. We know where we stood when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon and our dreams exploded into space; when Hurricane Andrew landed in New Orleans and drowned so many innocents; when terrorists flew stolen planes into the Twin Towers and flouted American principles of freedom; and when a small town in Japan called Fukushima suffered a tsunami and threatened the safety of the world with leaking radiation.
Following are the intimate moments that took my breath away, that made me fall on my knees and forced my fist to my mouth, stifling huzzahs or shrieks. These are the extraordinary changes that marked and shaped my life.
Throwing my lei overboard the ship as we left Hawaii when I was four. My dad loved Hawaii, an island he’d visited during World War II. Of course he chose to intern at Tripler Army Hospital, the huge coral pink medical facility on Oahu. We moved there after he graduated from med school, my mom pregnant with my brother. I can imagine her misery at so much travel – across the United States by car and across the Pacific by ship, both during a hot summer – being pregnant. We lived on the Fort Shafter grounds of the old barracks-style hospital, converted to physicians’ homes when the new hospital was built. I played every day on a communal lawn lined with hibiscus, palm trees, lantana, ferns, and the one coconut my dad had planted – against army orders. We strung seed leis after boiling the chocolate brown haole koa seeds till they were soft enough to pierce with a sharp needle. Still, I was so little that a neighbor helped me. I danced hula to a ukulele strummed by my teacher, a plumeria lei around my neck, short blond curls and sandaled feet in contrast to the long dark tresses and bare feet of the native kids. Tropical and beautiful islands, our family took advantage of opportunities to tour Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii where we stood in streams at the bottom of waterfalls and traipsed rain forests using huge fronds as umbrellas against the daily downpours. On the deck of the massive ocean liner that would bear us back to the mainland after that year, I tossed my last flower lei into the seas, hoping it would touch land and fulfill the promise that we would one day return to Hawaii.
The day our Alabama house caught fire. Dad’s second year of internship took us to Enterprise, Alabama. It’s hard to imagine a more steaming, parched, ugly, forsaken place than Enterprise, especially after the tropical beauty of Hawaii. The hot air doesn’t move – you have to chop through it in order to walk. Breathing can hurt. Our backyard looked like everyone else’s – a bumpy tract of brown and brittle dirt. I tried to plant green beans but my tiny garden wilted in the heat and died before a single bean pod appeared. I’d been sleeping on a lumpy sofa because my parents couldn’t afford a bed, and they needed to keep me away from my newborn brother. He slept in a playpen in the small bedroom. I had mononucleosis, a contagious illness and rare for a five-year-old. We lived in half of a thin-walled duplex shared with a guy who loved to hunt. He’d come home about 2 AM the night before and left his guns in his car which he parked under the carport. Later that morning in Alabama’s sweltering heat, the guns combusted and burned the car, the carport eaves, and began to engulf his part of the duplex. Think a house made of the thinnest, driest clapboard – tinder for a blaze. Temperatures so high that everything you touched scalded your fingers – embers for a blaze. The neighbors, including my dad, rushed to put out the fire with garden hoses. My mother grabbed my brother and ran outside to watch but would not let me leave the sofa. I remained inside, calling for her to take me outside too. Was she worried that the neighbors would see how ill I was, the daughter of the young doctor, or did she worry that a five-year-old running around in such a tumult would be in even more danger? Should anyone have worried that a child was left in a burning house built of cheap, flammable material? I can’t answer those questions and the people who once could, never did. Fire has terrified me ever since.
The day my sister was born. We’d been waiting of course, now living in New Jersey, home to our large extended family. My family waited nine anxious months but I’d waited years – or so it seemed. My youngest uncle, a curly-haired teenager, picked me up from second grade and raced home in his old jalopy, a contraption of loose screws, rusty steel, screechy brakes, and bald tires. He probably didn’t have a driver’s license but I only cared about getting home to see the new baby. We walked in to a living room transformed. A crib stood in the center, an infant asleep on the mattress. She was a beauty, with dark hair sticking out in a silken fringe around her head and black eyes that sparkled. Our brother threw his favorite stuffed elephant into her crib, his gift to her. He had never parted with Jakey for his 2 ½ years but he knew she needed it now. Their sibling bond is built of ultimate tensile strength. I had nothing to give then and my gifts to her the rest of our relationship continued to be inadequate or simply wrong.
And so we did move back to Hawaii, six years later, now with three school age kids, our dad employed by Kaiser Permanente, our mom apoplectic that she’d been forced to leave her family on the East Coast. We lived in a small house in Aina Haina, a suburb of Honolulu, and I attended Punahou School. Paradise had disappeared behind island prejudice so rampant that a blond Jewish kid could only make friends with the Chinese kids whose culture – piano, art, opera, theater, poetry, and deep family connections – felt similar. To the other Punahou kids I was the outsider, always the Haole with the New Jersey accent, a mouthful of peculiar Yiddish words scattered throughout my speech. Clumsy on a surfboard, barely able to swim, and unfamiliar with their pre-adolescent Punahou culture, I did not fit in. My five Chinese friends remained polite and accepting, courteously switching from Mandarin to English when I joined the group. Until the day the girls stood in silence when I approached. Confused and uncomfortable by their cold shoulder, I left the group. Later I learned that one of the girls was planning a birthday party to which her revered Chinese grandmother would not allow a haole into the house. I was the haole, the white girl, the outcast, the other. I didn’t belong anywhere at Punahou or on the island, and my pariah status worsened as I fought with my mother and suffered with homesickness for New Jersey and the friends and family we’d left behind.
We left Oahu two years later by plane. I did not have a lei to toss and I’ve never returned.