Death in Paradise

Yesterday I saw a dead man.

Frothing at the mouth, his body turning slightly blue, he was slowly floated in on a stretcher at the beach as the medics removed his snorkel and flippers and placed him reverently in an ambulance. No one offered CPR or mouth-to-mouth as the gathering crowd stood silently, feeling his fate. “Man drowns while snorkeling in storm,” the papers may say today. I don’t know, I don’t want to know, because I saw his body already; newscasts and newspapers are for people who weren’t there. 

For some dare-devil reason, a tattooed islander had chosen to go out to the reef on the day hurricane Iselle passed over. Her winds whipped the waters, frothing and exposing the sharp coral formations, throwing debri on the sand, as ragged clouds quickly skirted by overhead. Someone from the shore must have seen the body floating in the lagoon and called for help, but the dare was over. Nature, one; human, zero. 

Just a few days before, I swam the quarter-mile out to that same reef. As I stroked my way, I looked below at the coral, an occasional blue or red fish, an isolated new coral growth, pink and flushed in its excitement. At high tide, the water barely covers these ancient burial grounds, where well-travelled ships have failed to find the way in, and sailors, fishermen, and giddy tourists have tasted salt water and suddenly forgotten how to breathe. As the waves crash further out, you can almost hear the souls of ancient Hawaii warning young and old, but I still wanted to go. Perhaps the possibility of death draws me, as it drew the frothing man. The reef offers a kind of baptism, an initiation at the edge of the world, the experience of another reality, where life depends on you ability to breathe, as if you were being born for the first time, out of the waters.

In a week or two, after the hurricanes have gone, I will choose a blue and placid morning and swim out again to the reef, remembering the frothing man and the fleeting fight for life that keeps all of us breathing.


Body Parts in Paradise

After the second heart attack, I wondered if being a vegan was such a good idea. My father had suffered similar blows in his mid-life years, but had recovered to face mountains of medical bills and annoying inquiries about his health from friends. What to do? What any normal, middle-aged white male with questionable health, limited funds and an aversion to hospitals might consider — sell everything, move to the tropics and settle down with an island girl.

This has been tried before, of course: white men landing on Pacific atolls or islands, looking for paradise.

Captain Cook, the tall, handsome and greatest explorer in British, if not world, history, died on the Big Island of Hawaii trying to settle a quarrel. Apparently some natives had stolen one of his boats. The Polynesian custom under these circumstances was to take hostages until the purloined property was returned.  The hostages were then released and everyone had a party. Cook must have wanted that boat very badly, as he went straight for Kalaniʻōpuʻu,  the King of Hawaii. One of the island chiefs, whose name I cannot pronounce (Kalanimanokahoowaha) followed Cook into the surf and returned the insult with an axe to the head.

What happened to the body is the interesting part of the story. The Hawaiians saw Cook as a great hero, possibly an incarnation of the fertility and rain god Lono. His intestines, heart and organs were cut out, and the body baked until only the bones were left, which were placed in a special creche reserved for the gods. The British, with their usual irreverence for things not-British, didn’t think that was enough, so they sent the crew back to beg for  whatever of Cook’s remains they could find and dumped them in the ocean. Actually, that’s a little unfair as the ceremony was called a “burial at sea”. A mere 200 years later, the Brits constructed a memorial in Westminster Abbey out of colored marbles for Cook and two other of England’s great explorers, measuring a paltry 2’6″ X 3’6″  and placed his seconds pendulum on the High Altar.  The British do a lot of things just for ceremony, and then disregard them. Next time I go the Westminster, I’ll look to see if the pendulum is still there.

It’s all a little hard to take for a vegan to take. We are averse to even thinking about body parts, but our reverence for the sanctity of the skin makes us great lovers and masseurs. Find some palm or coconut oil, build a fire from palm branches and lumps of lava, add a ukulele or two, and we are happy all night. The island girl and I have one child and another on the way. Her belly is so beautiful it makes me cry. We struggle to find a name we could agree on, because, as you know already, Hawaiian names can be be very, very, very long. (485)