Updated: Nov 7, 2019
Mom turned ninety years old in October.
She’s like the earth, always there, and easy to take advantage of, or at least take for granted. Her obvious flaw: she cares. Her robin’s-egg-blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair, now gone the color of wheat, are highlights of her small yet athletic appearance. She wants only to be liked, so she’ll walk your dog, water your garden, pick up your dry cleaning, and then send you a thank-you card. My father presented her to me as a sucker, a “do-gooder,” and worse—a phony. For many years I accepted his characterization.
One recent morning Erin and I hiked onto the lava field on the Big Island of Hawaii. We left our friend Lorn’s at 4:00 a.m. and drove down the red-dirt road towards where the town of Kalapana used to be. The road didn’t just end; it had been swallowed whole by the 1984 volcanic flow that streamed down the mountain and covered the entire village under ten feet of fresh lava.
We parked and started scrambling over the black glassy shards of a’a. (It’s not hard to understand how that got its name. “A’a,” Hawaiian natives would say, “No touch.” Lorn had given me gloves to cover my hands, just in case I tripped. I wore a headlamp and in each hand carried a flashlight –to create a moving triangle of light in a sea of blackness.
There was no trail per se and Erin quickly got twenty yards or so ahead of me and stayed there for the entire ninety-minute hike. A few steps from the car I nearly tripped over the barely exposed top of a stop sign that was buried in the lava. Walking was a little like climbing over a frozen ocean. Our steps sounded like we were breaking the crust of hardened snow. The lava was waves of ropey black elephant skin separated by crags big enough for a man to fall into, sheets of misshapen puzzle pieces cantilevered over one another, chocolate icing poured from my mother’s sauce pan. As we got close to the outbreaks, the air got warmer, but the rise in temperature came from below, not down beating down as with the sun.
Hiking on the lava field was one of the few occasions on the Big Island where flip-flops, or “slippahs” as the locals call them, are not the footwear of choice. Everyone told me to wear hiking boots or something closed-toe. That advice was reinforced not just by the contact with the a’a but also by the rising temperature of the ground. Flip-flops could melt from the heat shimmering off the underground stream of lava just a few feet below where I walked. Looking down through fractures in the rock I could see orange. The chemicals released by the molten lava scratched my throat and burned my eyes.
As we came over the last black wave, I saw the first of twenty or so outbreaks—ocean entries. Below me, at the new edge of the island, was a fire hose of lava arcing into the ocean. Plumes of billowing white steam rose high into the sky, signaling surrender to an unseen enemy.
There were groups of college-age kids who’d arrived before us to watch the lava. They were high on something—pot, maybe, but more likely just the thrill of being present at the birth of a part of this planet younger than themselves. That’s what it feels like: you are a privileged witness. You got special permission, you were invited by the mother into the birthing room, and now you are part of the family.
Everything changed once the sun came up over Kalapana. Light does that. I couldn’t see the orange lava underneath us anymore, the fire hose was just the plumes of thick white steam that rose thousands of feet above us.
My mom cried a lot, all the time, or so it seemed when I was a teenager. Once, in tenth grade, I was going out to a dance and I couldn’t tie my necktie. My father was at an AA meeting and my older brothers were off somewhere and so I had to ask Mom for help.
She stood behind me and we both watched in the mirror as her fingers figured it out. She repeated the all-too-familiar story of my birth. “And I remember, just as I was about to go under from the anesthesia, the doctor saying, ‘Oh my God!’
She continues, “So I opened my eyes and said, ‘What?’
“He said, ‘The cord is wrapped around his neck. I’m going to have to push him back in and unwrap it.’”
Of course she was crying, and of course I was rolling my eyes as only a teenager can and, perhaps too coincidentally, feeling that same choking feeling from the necktie.
Embarrassment was the predominant feeling in my encounters with her—not embarrassment of her but for her. She’s shy, and when she thrusts herself into any public speaking situation I will literally hold my breath. My shoulders will inch up to my ears in anticipation of something horrible until she has sat down again. My guess is that she feels as competent as my father was in public speaking. Maybe she thinks that, after fifty years together, some of it rubbed off on her.
How long have I resented her, blindly accepted my father’s point of view, diminished and dismissed her, all to prove my loyalty to him? What did it ever get me?
Even today, some thirty-something years later she always writes on birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter cards. It’s a wonder that lady has time for anything other than buying, writing and mailing cards to people. It took me until age ﬁfty-three to come to any realization about her but here it is: She cares about people. That what she does, that’s who she is. She cares for them. She’s nice, maybe to a fault – a nice, shy, Larchmont lady. She was brought up right, smiles a lot, gets the joke, always says thank you, and doesn’t wear white after Labor Day. She does the right thing, her duty, always.
My father acted like he never cared what people thought of him. If they liked, loved, feared, respected or hated him he seemed uninterested. It was such a convincing act that I bought it. Everything changed when his health failed. He was unable to ﬁll his own needs and resorted to sentimentality and obsequious gratitude to get what he wanted.
Whereas Mom cared, really cared, and I thought she was a phony because Dad convinced me that no one could care that much about others without being a phony. I judged Mom harshly, all of my adult life and that judgment kept me superior and distant.
After I asked Mom for forgiveness, after I owned the distance I had kept between us for the past thirty years, after she reached across the table at the Starbucks and took both my hands in hers and said, “I know, Kev, I know,” I knew it would be different. Since I asked her for forgiveness I no longer feel the need for an obligatory once-a-year lunch. I actually enjoy spending time with her, and I’ve summoned the courage to ask enough questions to get beyond her usual storehouse of anecdotes. I’ve stopped bringing my wife along as a chest protector. Sometimes I let myself wonder if I’ll eulogize my mother, wonder if I’ll be able.
Erin and I walked back to the car in Kalapana via our separate paths again. Night had ended, sunrise was over, another day had begun. It was bright, clear, and hot. There was some residue on my skin, some chemical that had been stored for four billion years underground and just that day exploded into the air.
Sometime when I was walking in the dark toward that warm, orange glow of ocean entry, the ground below my next step was lower than I expected. For a half a second, I clutched my breath and didn’t quite believe that the earth would be there for me. It was, of course. These were the moments I’d been waiting for, the connection that I missed for much of my life, the lesson that Mom lived into me.