Waves rushed up the beach, displacing frail shells and frosted pieces of sea glass with each surge. I sat at the top of the sandy slope, letting the lukewarm ocean water barely wet my feet. One by one, beachgoers packed up their towels and brushed off the sand clinging to their bodies. Three shirtless old men with leathery skin as bronze as the setting sun drank their tall beer cans, wrapped in brown paper bags, behind me on benches surrounded by intrusive pigeons awaiting food. I was going to miss Kaimana Beach on the south shore of Oahu, Hawaii, which sits a few hundred yards from the base of Diamond Head, a dormant volcanic crater. I was going to miss Hawaii and the continuous beauty it provided me my entire life.
I remember feeling an excitement laced with pain as the sun submerged below the horizon. Sometimes taking your home for granted is easy, but when you can call Hawaii home, under-appreciating proves impossible. The ocean, whether I snorkeled under coral arches to trail green sea turtles and spotted manta rays or carved waves on my surfboard, was a sanctuary unparalleled to anything I knew. I faced my fears out in the water, and escaped there to make sense of life when it seemed unexplainable. The ocean provided a regenerative cleanse, which inspired me to confront my father about his drug relapse, and yet it was comforting when aunt died. Perhaps the ocean connected me to my aunt, Lyn, whose ashes I scattered in the ocean when I was sixteen years old. Lots of Hawaii residents relinquish their mea aloha, loved ones, into the oceanic limbo to free them from any earthly ties.
The same ocean that has empowered me, however, has been humbling when I didn’t give it the respect it demanded. I nearly ran out of breath while free-diving through caves under the water. I snorkeled in Hanauma Bay, a marine life preserve, in the outer reef about fifteen to twenty feet below the surface. I dove down and swam through a small pocket in the reef to explore a cave. A small black and white puffer fish was my guide, like Virgil to Dante, through the hole into an opening, where the sun beamed into the darkness. While swimming through that opening towards the surface, I realized that I was too large to wedge through. First my shoulder scraped a purple, bulbous coral head, protruding out of the algae-ridden coral wall, in which spiny wana, sea urchins, hid. I grazed my ribcage on that wall, luckily avoiding the urchin needles, but then I got stuck. I started to panic and watched bubbles filled with my oxygen rise to the surface. Death resembled an incoming set of waves that I wasn’t ready to catch. Refusing to submit to death, I planted my hands on two coral shelves and pushed up, gouging my back in the process, squeezed out of the opening, and bolted to the surface.
I can’t explain why my near death experience resurfaced on my last day in Hawaii, while sitting at Kaimana Beach. As I looked down the Waikiki strip, illuminated by fluorescent hotel room lights and flaming tiki torches at beachfront restaurants, I wondered if I would ever find a place as stunning in the next chapter of my life. Perhaps leaving Oahu would be like dying, amputating my connection to home. But even beauty exists in death, and it’s in these moments that one catches a glimpse of the truth. Hawaii does comprise a large part of my identity, and it took removing myself from the island to realize that.
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