The Kingdom of Hawaii / by Leslie Fandrich

Uncle's Awa Bar in Kalapana, one of the best cultural experiences on the east side of the Big Island.

Uncle's Awa Bar in Kalapana, one of the best cultural experiences on the east side of the Big Island.

By Leslie Fandrich // Themes: Travel, Family // Category: Life Stories


Hawaii is a place of raw energy. It is filled with beautiful, friendly people. We saw symbols everywhere: caves, waterfalls, islands, turtles, whales, snails, an eclipse, mountains, valleys and rainbows. We walked on earth that was younger than we were. It is a place of destruction and creation and we went there looking for a place to do a little healing together.

Fresh coconut water at the Hilo Farmer's Market.

Fresh coconut water at the Hilo Farmer's Market.

Before my Mom left us a year ago she told us all to come here together. So we did. We found a cozy house south of Hilo on some lava cliffs overlooking the ocean. The spot was intense and also serene. Some days it was so windy salt crystals coated the outdoor table and other days it was calm and relaxing watching the sunrise over the ocean. We had a wicked storm one night and sunny skies most afternoons. We discovered a full lunar eclipse when Quinn insisted that instead of a full moon, it was a banana moon. After I put the kids to bed my sister and I sank into the warmth of the hot tub and talked about our lives while gazing at the stars and the eclipsed moon.

We spent a lot of time at the house, cooking, swimming in the pool, walking on the lava and staring at the ocean but we also ventured out to Volcanoes National Park, Hilo, Kalapana, Pahoa, Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo and Mauna Kea, the massive mountain that the best telescopes on Earth sit atop. The Hilo Farmer's Market was filled with local flowers and produce and dozens of outdoor stalls to shop for souvenirs.

Our visit to the volcano was amazing. The massive smoking caldera was a sight and the more intimate steam vents and sulphur banks were awe inspiring as well. It's amazing to think of what the earth is capable of. We visited a lava tube, which is a huge cave that was left behind when lava flowed hundreds of years ago. Now it's dripping with water, full of puddles and very, very dark.

Look closely and you can see people way down there walking across the Kilauea Iki Crater.

Look closely and you can see people way down there walking across the Kilauea Iki Crater.

To honor my Mom on the first anniversary of her death, we spread her ashes near Richardson Ocean Park. It's a beautiful, rugged coastline filled with black lava rocks, inlet pools and intense waves outside the natural breakwaters. We read a poem that she wrote a number of years ago for us about what family means to her. It was short and sweet. The kids placed a few rocks around the ashes, unprompted, which was so thoughtful. A few hours later, after playing in the black sand, we saw a gorgeous giant sea turtle, just hanging out on the rocks and we took turns saying hello. 

My Mom visited Hawaii just once, in April of 2011, for a friend's wedding. She had always wanted to travel with my Dad and she was so happy there. My Dad says he knew she was happy because she kept giving him kisses. Hawaii was the last place that she visited that was new and amazing to her and I think that her trip there may have been one of the last times that she was truly, utterly happy. They talked about going back on the plane home, but a few months later she was diagnosed with cancer and she wasn't able to travel after that. Wouldn't it be nice, if there were such a thing as a soul, that it returned to the last place where it was the happiest? If that were true, then my Mom is totally in Hawaii. 

Back at the house we enjoyed the view of the ocean and even spotted a whale one day. All night we would hear the wind, the rain and the surf and in the morning we would be up early and the kids would be swimming by 7am. Geckos appeared in our rooms, which is a sign of good luck, and Quinn became very attached to a sea snail. The lava rocks outside the house were a wonder, solid pieces of rock frozen in movement that resembled elephant skin. The pool, at a certain angle, blended in perfectly with the ocean.

We left the house early one morning to eat breakfast at a diner, where my sister's husband ordered and survived the SUMO breakfast. Three massive pancakes with all the extras. We were all impressed and Chris bought him the t-shirt afterward. The goal was to get to Rainbow Falls early enough to see a rainbow, but we didn't quite make it. Hawaii made up for it by delivering a beautiful rainbow to us in Kalapana a few days later. We were pleasantly surprised though by the massive Banyan tree a short distance away.

In the 1990s a lava flow wiped out a subdivision in Kalapana. You can drive to "the end of the road" and there is a guard station and parking for people who want to hike in to see surface lava flowing. There was no surface lava when we were there, but it was remarkable to see the most recent destruction from Kilauea Volcano. What was even MORE remarkable to me though, were the people who were rebuilding their homes on lots that were entirely lava rock. One reason may be that property taxes are just $25 per year but I think it also has to do with this place just being home for some people.

One of my favorite spots was Uncle's Awa Bar. Every Wednesday night a crowd of locals gather at picnic tables to eat and drink from food vendors while listening to an authentic Hawaiian band and watching people dance as wildly as they fancy. It was quite the atmosphere. There were dozens of stalls of local artisans selling jewelry and handmade products and everyone was so friendly and welcoming.

Our last big adventure was to the visitor station on Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano that is now home to the best telescopes on Earth. We didn't make the trip to the summit to see the thirteen working telescopes, but we had a chilly picnic at 9000 feet, watched an incredible sunset and peeked through the station's small telescopes to see Jupiter and three of it's moons. The look on Milo's face after he looked through the telescope was pure joy. He might decide to be an astronomer instead of a paleontologist.

I had my Mom on my mind the entire time we were there. There were so many things she would have loved and so many things that reminded me of her. She is gone, but she is in my life as much as I want her to be. On the last day in Hawaii, after my sister and Dad left, we visited Coconut Island in downtown Hilo. It was filled with local teenagers off from school who were lounging around playing guitars or jumping into the bay off an old stone tower. It is also called Moku Ola island, which literally means healing island in Hawaiian, because there was once an ancient temple dedicated to healing there. I wrote my Mom a note, folded it into a heart and stuck it into the lava rocks to be washed into the sea. 

As this first year without my Mom transitions into the second, I can feel the pain and hurt of watching her die begin to soften. The entire time I was with my family there, we didn't talk about what happened in those last two years with her. We just stayed in the moment of being in Hawaii together, seeing and experiencing new things. We knew we were doing what she wanted us to do. One morning I looked at pictures of her with the kids and my sister. We cried and remembered the happy times that we had with her, but we were there to make new happy memories and soon the kids were asking to put on swim suits and we headed out to the pool to watch them laugh and play. In the background was the ever-present ocean, swelling and crashing into the lava cliffs below.

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