By Margaret Blair Young
I've always loved the ocean. From the first time I saw the Pacific at age twelve in California, I loved the force of its waves and the gritty, wet sand between my toes. I loved the rubber-bubble seaweed, the flecks of broken shells on the beach, even the briny water making crystals in my hair. I figured that someday, I would buy a home near an ocean.
Eventually, I did live in California, and my best friend Buffy moved nearby.
We had been college roommates at BYU. In truth, we were the apartment's rebels, accurately described by our other roomies as "somewhat difficult." Buff and I considered ourselves beyond domestication. We weren't particularly wild; we were proudly Bohemian. We were artists with big dreams of eventually publishing novels or acting on Broadway, or writing the Great American Screenplay. We spent more time with Dostoevsky and Jane Austin than on any date (probably because Dostoevsky and Jane Austin were always available and never cared if our hair was combed or if we had put on a little weight. So we had to laugh when three years after our roommate time, we found ourselves waddling together to a laundromat-both of us married and both very pregnant. Carrying our plastic baskets, talking about detergent rather than Dickins, and sorting clothes, we looked absolutely tame.
A year later, we were in California, together again, both of us with daughters who had been born a month apart. We took our babies, Kaila and Adrea, to the beach, where we chatted while our children flirted with the water. They were barely mobile, and Buff and I were still amazed that we were mothers.
The ocean was the perfect place to talk about our temporarily detoured dreams. Oh yes, we still had plans of writing something publishers would actually buy. It's just that we had entered a particular door that changed our worlds for the moment. But we were in California, so anything could happen. Right?
Well, nothing happened. At least not the way we planned or dreamed. We both ended up in Utah, far from the ocean. And we kept having babies. Twice more, we managed to get pregnant around the same time and to waddle around together like the odd ducks we were. We never abandoned our dreams, but they changed as we changed.
Eventually, I had four babies and Buff had five. When my youngest was still in diapers, my husband accepted an invitation to teach at BYU-Hawaii in Laie. Since they had need of a creative writing teacher too, I agreed to take on that assignment. (By this time, I had become a mildly successful writer, and Buff had been admitted into BYU's post-graduate theater program, where she was specializing in screenwriting.)
So Buff and I (and Kaila and Adrea, who were also best friends by now) separated as my family headed to the islands.
Laie was once the place where those who broke the "kapu" laws could come for sanctuary or to escape punishment. It was a settlement of absolution. Because a coral reef enclosed the ocean around Laie, the waves were always gentle. They never swelled above four feet. Beyond the reef, however, was a little island which marked the separation of the rough waters from the reefed ones. Furious waves shouldered into "Goat Island" like they were trying to dismantle it. The waves exploded against it, and shot up like geysers. It was an awe-inspiring sight-as long as you could watch it from a safe position.
During the year I was born, 1955, President David O. McKay had dedicated what was then called the Church College of Hawaii, saying, "We dedicate our actions in this service unto thee and unto thy glory and to the salvation of the children of men, that this college, and the temple, and the town of Laie may become a missionary factor, influencing not thousands, not tens of thousands, but millions of people who will come seeking to know what this town and its significance are" .
That was quite a prophecy for a tiny town and a small college. But soon, the Polynesian Cultural Center was established as a means for BYU-H students from all the Pacific islands to pay their tuition. It did indeed attract millions of tourists.
My family and I visited the PCC a number of times, and I watched my students perform the dances of their various cultures. Seeing them dance or sing gave me a hint of who they were beyond my classroom. They were certainly more than the befuddled young people struggling with punctuation and dangling modifiers. There was profound dignity and beauty in their cultures and in them.
In class, they wrote about their lives for me, and I was able to get a slight sense of their worlds. I remember a tall, well-built young man from Tonga who had a very hard time managing the mechanics of writing, but who nonetheless wrote a moving essay about the destruction of his village by a tidal wave. A young woman from Kawaii wrote about Huricane Iniki, which had leveled her town the year before. I doubt any suspected that their teacher would sometimes have to pause for a long while after reading their work to ponder what they had been through.
My job was to respond to their essays with comments like "Needs development" or "Please be more specific." It was my assignment to help them form and complete their essays, to assist them in using language to fully convey what their lives were like, who they were, what they believed, what they thought, what they knew, what they chose. Of course, I have long realized that teachers are really facilitators and doorkeepers. We introduce our students to doors they might want to open-whether the doors are books or concepts. We serve as midwives to their ideas.
My students were from Fiji, Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa, New Zealand, and all over the United States. I marveled at them-even when they committed the crimes of comma splices or run-on sentences. Many of them had survived the ocean's fury. They knew things about navigation and sea life and surfing which were mysteries to me. Perhaps because their lives depended so much on an ocean which could suddenly heave itself onto a village or whirl onshore in hurricane winds, they lived their days to the fullest. They understood how dependent they were on each other, and shared themselves and their possessions freely. They knew things about generosity and joy which continue to instruct me.
I remember watching the Fijian dance display at the PCC and seeing one of my students perform. I had been working with him on a research paper, which he had been diligently revising, often with pursed lips and an intent, sometimes exasperated expression. Undoubtedly, he saw me as a "somewhat difficult" teacher, and likely suspected that I regarded him as a "somewhat difficult" student. But as he danced, he smiled freely and constantly, for this dance was something he knew and loved. He invited my daughter to join him onstage, and she attempted to dance like the Fijians. He was sharing his culture with bone-deep pleasure.
Buffy and I talked on the phone while I was in Hawaii. We talked about our children and (as usual) our plans for the future. I told her about the amazing view of the ocean I had, and how Bruce and I would fall asleep to the sound of breaking waves. I told her that nearly every morning, I walked a mile across the beach sand, watched the orange sun dazzle the horizon then shine through the waves in filigrees of light, and how I let the foamy seawater bathe my bare toes. I told her that sometimes, I could see whales play near a distant, half submerged mountain, showing their black humps and flukes. It was a paradisiacal, mysterious world, and she wanted desperately to come and visit.
Just down from Hukilau was Temple Beach, which provided a perfect view of the Laie Temple. This was the place of many baptisms. Bruce and I attended one on a Saturday morning. Just before dawn, we walked barefoot down the shore and watched as our Hawaiian bishop, Brother Keililike, prepared to baptize a Samoan man who was about my students' age. I was struck by the picture of the two of them: the bishop with his arm around the man, the man with his arm around the bishop. They stepped into the water and walked through the mild waves as the sun was rising. (The sun itself was hidden by the mountain, but we could see clouds illuminated from underneath.) Between waves, the bishop immersed the young man, brought him up, then walked him back to shore. We had witnessed a life transition.
Afterwards, we returned home, where the phone was ringing. It was a neighbor. "Did you hear about Joe?" she asked.
"Joe" was Joseph Nichols, a colleague of ours who was in the midst of some monumental research about the English Civil War.
"He had a heart attack last night," our neighbor said.
I interrupted with an involuntary "Oh no!"--sure that the rest of her sentence would tell me which hospital Joe was in and how he was doing.
The sentence finished, "And he died."
I sat still for a long time, thinking of the eerily appropriate movie we had so recently seen at Joe's house: Amadeus, the story of a brilliant artist cut off in his prime, his work apparently unfinished.
Death had never come so close. Twenty years earlier, I had sobbed uncontrollably when my forty-two-year-old Aunt Carolyn died-but my tears were not so much for Carolyn as for my sudden recognition of what death means, how open and patient and permanent the community of the dead is. Joe Nichols was thirty-seven. He was younger than I was. He had two children, a beautiful wife, a bright mind and unfinished work.
Bruce and I went to comfort Joe's widow. The Relief Society sisters-of all the cultures Laie embraces-were cleaning the house and preparing food for the incoming guests and family. A number of students were there too, offering comfort, sharing whatever they could.
We were at another life transition, a sad baptism in the roughest waters, and everybody wanted to help. That was a way of life in the islands. It was the "aloha" spirit.
At the funeral, Joe's casket was surrounded by tropical flowers in abundance-bleeding hearts, orchids, jasmine, gardenias. When the services ended, the same song was sung which was sung at any farewell in Hawaii, whether a missionary farewell, a graduation, or a death: "Aloha Oi." It was the song of unity and gratitude, composed by Hawaii's last queen.
He was buried in the Laie Cemetery. Bruce took over Joe's classes, and we finished out our year, weeping as our ward sang "Aloha Oi" to us and put leis upon leis upon leis on our shoulders. Ours was a fragrant and beautiful burden.
And it was time to return to Utah.
Buff came to visit a few days after we got back. We talked about our kids and Hawaii, but had less than an hour to catch up. So we scheduled a REAL reunion in two weeks. I'd spend the night at her place and we would talk all night, just like we had done in our youth.
Four days later, my brother phoned.
"Dell," I scolded, "what on earth are you doing waking me up at this hour?"
"I heard Buff was in a car accident."
"Oh dear." I was only a little concerned. She had been in a few accidents. She was always speeding, always forgetting to check her rearview mirror. "Hope it wasn't after she visited me last Thursday."
"No. It wasn't then. I heard it was yesterday."
"I heard she was killed."
I didn't cry, not then. I didn't believe him. Buff was not the type to die at age forty-one. Her life wasn't finished.
I hung up. "Dell heard that Buff was killed in a car accident," I said thinly to no one.
Bruce, standing next to me, stiffened. Kaila, on the couch, stared hard at the phone.
I called Buff's sister-in-law. "Hi," I said. "Listen, I heard Buff was in a car accident?"
There was a long pause.
"Oh. No one's told you," she said. Then she told me. Yes. Car crash. Died instantly
I asked when the funeral was to be, thanked her for telling me the news, said goodbye. I didn't move for a long time, just sat with the phone in my hand until the "hang me up" siren began. When I looked at Kaila, she was sobbing. I watched. I was seeing myself.
I performed my daily do's without thinking. Dishes. Making beds. Sweeping floors.
I'd repeat dumb questions to Bruce, and when he'd point out my redundancy, I'd say, "When did I ask you that?" I sat at the kitchen table for a long time.
Kaila tried to go to school, but came home after an hour. She couldn't concentrate, she said, and tears kept surprising her.
Here was the transition I had never anticipated. Suddenly, Buff and I both had been thrust beyond the protection of the reef, beyond the refuge.
I know death's rituals. I know the white hearse parked in front of the church. I know the look of the flower delivery boy, who carries his pretty offerings without meeting anyone's eyes. (I had just been through those Joe's funeral, like a dress rehearsal.)
But this was for Buff. The familiar hearse, for her. The coffin. Those were her flowers carried by the delivery boy with downcast eyes.
There were a lot of flowers, too--white mums, pink gladioli, peach roses. I was glad of so many sprays in the chapel. These were not trite yellow roses with tacky notes, but full bloomed, sometimes offbeat arrangements. These were testaments of love.
I had been asked to speak at the funeral, and didn't feel I could possibly do it. I prayed before writing my talk. My brother (who had also been a great friend of Buffy's) read it and suggested the words Emma Lou Thayne wrote:
Where can I turn for peace? Where is my solace?
When other sources cease to make me whole?
When with a wounded heart, anger or malice
I draw myself apart, searching my soul?
Where, when my aching grows, Where,when I languish
Where, in my need to know, where can I run?
Where is the quiet hand to calm my anguish?
Who, who can understand? He, only One.
Dell, like me, was seeking peace in this unthinkable circumstance, and wondered if Buffy
might be seeking it too. We were running for refuge, like the desperate Hawaiians of old who ran towards Laie to escape punishment and find absolution. Our refuge would not be a place, but Jesus Christ. No other name or place under Heaven would do.
As I made my final preparations to speak at my best friend's funeral, Bruce laid his hands on my head and blessed me with added strength.
I had to read my talk, and kept my face to the pages most of the time, but I said what I felt Buff wanted me to. Most of my words were directed to Adrea. I knew that Buff was most worried about her. I told about how hard that first pregnancy had been for her, how she had watched the ultrasound screen and said to me, "I'm not doing so hot, but the baby's doing great." I said it must be like that for her now--watching Adrea from a place where she couldn't hug her or take her hand, but just love, just want her to grow well, to be all right. I said, "Adrea, you and your brother and sisters mean more to Buff than anything else in this world--more than her scripts, more than her film classes."
A year later, Adrea accompanied our family on our trans-European trip, where we visited yet another sea-the Baltic. We were on the Latvian beach, and Adrea walked off on her own. Maybe she was looking for amber, which might glisten amidst the pebbles. Maybe she needed privacy. Or to be alone with the little waves so she could remember her mother better and those years so long ago and yet so recent, when Buff and I would take our baby girls to the ocean.
When it was time to leave, I walked towards her. She looked so alone. When I caught up to her, she asked, "Maggie, did you see that light?"
"That big white light? Just now?"
I hadn't seen it.
"There was a light," she said.
Later, she told Kaila she had been praying, asking the sky if there was a God. She heard--not a voice exactly, but a thought--"Death happens to everyone, Honey. It's all right. I'm fine. You'll be fine." Then she saw the light. She was sure it was Buff.
I haven't seen any angelic lights myself; I didn't see what Adrea saw. But I believe she saw a light, and in that the light-somehow-was Buffy.
It has been twelve years since she died. Adrea is married now, as is Kaila. They are experiencing their own transitions-some easy, some earth-shattering.
I think of Buff often. I take flowers to her grave whenever I get the chance. I think of how much more she was than the "somewhat difficult" label we both wore as roommates. I cannot picture the ocean without picturing her. In all its unpredictability, its beauty, its gifts, its varied purposes and states, the ocean suggests possibilities I can't fathom. I realize I never really knew Buffy; I just loved her.
Acknowledging that, I understand that we never really know the greatness of those around us-whether they're our friends, students, our bosses, our employees, the mailman, the grocer, or the homeless amputee asking for a handout. Sometimes we find ourselves face to face with the glory of another person, and marvel that we hadn't recognized it before. We need those prophetic eyes of a David O. McKay who could look at a little Hawaiian village, a small college, and say that millions would throng to it and learn of its significance. What would he say about each of us, puny as we sometimes seem, far from our dreams and homes, diverted from our plans, caught in the tangled details of our own growth?
Surely he would appeal for our vision to be enlarged. He would say something similar to what C.S. Lewis penned in "The Weight of Glory":
"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship... There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations-these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit-immortal horrors or everlasting splendours."