After rounding the bend, the last apartment building on the Waianae Coast shrinking behind me, the wind drove the spray from a breaking wave into the air, across the road. The cool washed over me, and a scent—part salt, part decaying fish with a dash of something exotic but unidentifiable—filled my nostrils so completely I could taste it. It lit up a memory, but from where I cannot say; it seemed from another life, one I had not lived.
I turned the pedals, looked across Yokohama Bay and contemplated my destination.
My goal for the day was to ride the dirt road from Kaena Point State Park, around Kaena Point—the northwestern corner of the island of Oahu—and continue on until Farrington Highway resumed on the North Shore. Beyond that I assumed I’d just take Kaukonahua and Kunia back through the heart of the island, past Schofield Barracks and just turn right once I reached Farrington again. As a set of priorities go, mine were arguably skewed. I was more concerned with a single five-mile stretch of dirt than I was the 30 miles of pavement that I’d ride if I made it around the point. I can argue that I’d ridden most of that route already, that I knew the turns almost blindfolded. However, that doesn’t get at the deeper reason I was so focused on such a short stretch of road.
I’ve been riding up to Kaena Point for a few years now. My father and his wife moved to Hawaii almost 10 years ago, after she retired from a career spent in Chicago with United Airlines. She was born and raised on Oahu and each morning as I ride northwest on Farrington, away from the swell and density of Honolulu, I pass the Hawaiian Electric Company power plant where her father spent his career.
On most of my previous rides up to Kaena Point, I reached the end of the pavement that is the driveway for the beach there and simply stopped. What lay before me was loose sand. It could be confused with a road if you had a jeep with tires the size of a banquet table. A friend chided me after one trip. “You didn’t ride it? Dude, it’s totally doable.”
Not with 25mm tires, it wasn’t.
Then, on my last trip, I reached the end of the road, but this time it was mud the color of dark chocolate splotched with puddles like chocolate milk. Again, I turned around. In Willy Wonka’s world, the landscape would have been delicious.
With this trip, I had a mission, a couple, in fact. Equipped with my Seven Airheart, I knew I had a bike that would allow me to ride the road (if we agree to call it that) in all but the most extreme circumstances. I knew I’d have trouble if it was a sand dune, but mud wouldn’t be an issue. I was excited to ride around the point. It had been a nagging loose end and when we first conceived of the Airheart, this was a place I specifically thought of.
Thinking about Kaena Point gave me a way to channel anxious energy. There has been a larger purpose to this trip, so while I’ve been telling friends that we’re headed over for our annual family vacation, I knew that one day I’d sit down with my Dad and his wife, Lei, to tell him something we’d been keeping from him for four months.
Last November my sister, Erin, died.
I struggle to comprehend that sentence. I also struggle to wrap my head around the circumstances that caused us to keep the news from him. Some weeks before her death, he fell and broke several ribs, punctured a lung and lacerated his spleen. As things go with the elderly, there were complications. Gangrene, a chest tube, a long stay in the ICU. I asked if I needed to come for a visit. In the middle of this, I received a call from my mother.
“Erin is gone.”
As a person devoted to words, I can point out just how ambiguous that statement is, that it could mean she was on her way to the store, or that as a newly in-love person that she was off the market, or that she was too stoned to have a conversation. Had she been a cyclist it could have meant that she’d dropped everyone and was up the road. However, there was no confusion when my mother uttered those words. I knew precisely what she meant.
This is what was on my mind when I caught the view of the road where the pavement ended. I could see that the surface was hard-packed dirt and sand, with volcanic rocks protruding, and while it undulated like a child’s scribble, it was absolutely rideable. It looked difficult; I’d need to choose my line carefully to avoid flats or falls. This was just what I needed, something hard enough to shut off my brain, even if only for a half hour.
My sister had been diagnosed bipolar some years ago. Several of us in our family believed that she was probably in the next orbit out from bipolar, possessing borderline personality disorder. To say that she had been difficult would be to understate the challenge she represented by many orders of magnitude. Might as well compare a basketball to the sun. They are both spherical, but have little else in common. Drama accompanied my sister the way beauty accompanied Grace Kelly. So while she was smarter than many lawyers I know and funnier than some comics I’ve paid to see, she could poison a family gathering so quickly and thoroughly the EPA would visit.
In a good year, I’d get a single, half-hour glimpse into what our relationship might be were her brain’s own chemistry not working so furiously to burn the bridge on which she was standing. I’d proceed in each conversation, wary of just how our chat would derail, but always hopeful that this one might last longer than our previous. Then the footwear would drop. Her go-to was how I was the Golden Child, not just the preferred child, the honored son, but the only child that my parents ever loved, that she was a blight that never blossomed because she hadn’t been loved.
It is written that for a person with BPD, their only hope is for family to remain engaged despite the drama, the threats, the verbal barbs, the self-destructive behavior. I utterly failed to remain engaged. The best I could manage was to simply wait for the day that she sufficiently desired to be healthy she’d stay on her medication and continue with her counseling. I never stopped hoping for the future, but I was no help in bringing it closer.
I carry the guilt of an un-prosecuted crime. My father once said to me, “I don’t ask for much, but please call your sister.” Those around me could see how much she admired me. I’m told she bragged about my books, about RKP, still spoke of Asphalt. What she said to me was wholly different.
When she died, my dad had only recently been moved from the ICU to a rehab hospital, was but days past Last Rites. Lei and I quickly agreed that we needed to withhold the news from him until he was stronger. We didn’t yet know how to identify stronger or how long that might take, but the way I explained it to my mom was that it was bad enough that we had to plan one funeral, let’s not have to plan two. I still believe that if we’d told him then it would have killed him.
The grieving began, but in silence. I shared the news with a handful of friends but we made no public announcement of her death. I eulogized her at a service that was attended by more of my friends than hers. I’m not sure how grief is supposed to manifest this close. I’m less organized, more easily overwhelmed and have what may be a shorter temper. Each day is a chance to do better work, be a gentler dad. I’m not even trying to be more organized yet.
Initially, we didn’t know how she died. The police suggested that it might be a heart attack, though that may be what they tell all families where an accidental overdose is suspected. It is exactly what I suspected. Among her many frayed edges was a tendency to abuse alcohol and mix it with prescription medication. I assumed that the toxicology report would tell us little more than which medication was responsible.
I hadn’t seen a road this destroyed in years. Had I ever ridden a road with as much undulation as this? The profile was different from left to middle to right and on several occasions humps came in such close succession that I was able to pump my way through them as if I’d been riding a BMX track. Of course, the comparison didn’t occur to me until later. I was, thankfully, so focused on the line and trying to keep my speed above 10 mph my noisy self was shut off. Still, one scrap of the outside world remained, a few lines of Kathleen Edwards’ song “Change the Sheets” kept echoing through my head.
Like Santa Fe, margaritas and sleeping pills
I want to lie in the cracks of this lonely road
I can fill in the blanks every time you don’t phone
Here is the truth, I swear it used to be fun
I reached a sharp edge lined with rocks the size of my head. Brake, unclip, swing leg around and through, unclip and drop. As I made the turn to begin marching up the trail threaded between the hillside boulders I could see how the road below had collapsed onto the shore below. The drop was only 10 or 12 feet, but it was enough that no one was going to ride that one out. Once back down to the road, which was for once flat and smooth, with a dusting of sand over the hard surface, I reached a gate before even having a chance to clip back in.
It was a double sliding door set up, with heavy fence extending to both the ocean and up the hillside. A sign indicated that the preserve inside had seen seabird populations decimated by nonnative rodents and authorities were going industrial-scale genocide on the vermin. Well alrighty. I can shut this little door if it well help.
The preserve might only have been two or three dozen acres; I was to the other side, the other gate, in quick order. From a gravel parking area I pedaled up to what was more arguably a road. There were fewer rocks and it was a good bit wider, but you still couldn’t have driven it in anything not fitted for Paris-Dakar without feeling like you were in a dinghy being pitched by waves.
My eyes scanned the road ahead, scouting the best line. How much more dirt lay ahead, I had no idea, but I was grateful for the challenge. This riding required a constant focus; I was always steering the bike around some obstacle, toward some new line. It prevented me from doing the thing that I so often want on the bike, which is to pedal and then let my mind explore the shoreline of some issue.
With a small thump-thump I rolled over the lip to fresh asphalt. Bummer. I settled into my usual position and began to contemplate the ride back to the resort. As a way to think about what I was trying not to think about, I considered the road ahead; there was a short climb, a number of rollers, a military installation and, eventually, the descent into Kapolei before the final miles on Farrington in which cars and trucks would roll by me, often upwards of 50 mph faster than I would be going. Even less appetizing was that I’d brood the whole way.
I turned around. Doubling back on the same route would double the dirt, my sense of fun.
What I didn’t want to think about was how I was to sit down with my father the next day, how Lei and I were to confront him with the death of his daughter.
Two trucks had passed me while I was rolling on the asphalt. I reacted with some surprise when I saw them ahead of me as they and I picked our way from one dried up mud hole to another. This stretch of road must be two-foot deep puddle hopscotch following a good rain. I passed the first on the right, using a grassy shoulder to give me quick distance, but the second truck had a passenger and perhaps to preserve her breakfast over the undulations, the driver had put two wheels on that grassy edge. I made my way to the left side and rolled down and across what would have been a pool 12 feet across and three feet deep. Cover it in concrete and kids would skate it.
I felt that familiar thrill that comes from dropping another rider. Deep in some reptilian part of my brain I’d stirred some competitive urge. I upshifted a gear, grabbed the hooks, and accelerated. Coming over a rise seconds later, I caught air and pointed my front wheel down into the next pit.
Maybe I should take a bike to the skatepark?
And while I hadn’t recalled any rise long enough to call a hill, I found myself in a gravity-fed acceleration, the obstacles coming too quickly to pick my line with precision.
Two hundred strokes of my mini-pump later the trucks had overtaken me but I was ready to roll. Counting the strokes, sort of an accident, really, had been a way to not think about the coming conversation. How we kept the news from him, I still don’t know. We’d avoided publishing an obituary; my father maintains an electronic subscription to my home-town newspaper. We’d carefully avoided mentioning Erin in conversations, even if it meant not reminding each other of something funny or sweet about her. Maybe it was as easy as that, but each conversation with my father had felt like the road I was riding, choosing a line from around one sharp rock to around another sharp rock, a path best characterized by where it didn’t go than where it did.
As I picked my way up the trail above the fallen road—and yes, while I’d wondered if I’d missed some alternate path, I did verify that there was just the one way through—I considered my increased need to exercise caution. A fall here would derail more than just our vacation.
At the one truly narrow pinch in the road—if we’re still calling it that—I caught a better view of the pickup that had slid sideways onto the rocks. Its bones had been picked over like the carcass of some animal. Anything salvageable that could be carried by one, maybe two men was missing.
When I rounded the bend that allowed me to see the pavement ahead, my reaction was one of surprise. I’d remembered this section as more difficult, less playful. Funny what an hour can do. Again, I was dejected when my tires passed the tarmac threshold.
Now all there was to do was pedal. Well, pedal and think. There wasn’t a turn other than road bends between the park and the entrance to Ko Olina. Traffic to my left, the coast on my right and an inability to think about anything but the coming conversation with my father. I was determined that he would hear the news from a blood relative in person; he deserved no less. But how do you start a conversation about someone’s death without tipping your hand? I didn’t want to tell him before I’d told him.
The morning Lei and I planned to sit down and tell him the news, I rose early and rode to Kaena Point again. It was a long way to go for a bit of peace and fun, but I wanted to eat up as much of the morning as possible. If I stayed at the resort I assumed I’d be human mold; with me on the bike everyone would be happier.
As I rolled north on Farrington Highway, drafting the delivery trucks, I played out the details I knew for sure. Erin was known to self-medicate. She’d had several close calls with overdoses that were less suicide attempts than cries for help. She died on the second anniversary of the passing of my stepfather, Byron, and this was the four-month anniversary of her passing. The only other thing I new for sure I’d learned in an email from my mother just days before. The toxicology report had finally been completed and it showed trace amounts of alcohol and a lethal dose of Wellbutrin. None of those gave me any insight into what to say.
She’d left no note and if there’s one thing I’m certain of about my sister, it’s that had her act been deliberate she’d have left a parting shot, one final stab at my parents. It was the best piece of news I had, the difference between tragedy and torture. Extending the agony, though, was that my sister had been in the longest, healthiest relationship she’d ever enjoyed. They were engaged and he’d floated the idea of a brief civil ceremony in advance just to get her on his health plan for better care.
On the dirt at Kaena Point I’d hoped to go faster than last time, that once I had some sense of the terrain I’d be better able to pedal over rocks and through the dried mud pits. I was wrong. A bigger tire with serious flat protection would help a bit, but the only change that would make a substantive improvement to my pace would be suspension. It’s true that I could have just decided to charge through everything, but with all the sharp-edged volcanic rock a square-on hit at real speed was a guaranteed flat.
At the washed-out section of road my nerves got the better of me and I decided to turn around. I was less concerned that I might fall during the hike than I was desirous of just getting on with the day, even though I’d made no plans for me or the family for the afternoon.
With my forearms resting on the bar top and the wind blowing sand off Makaha Beach at my right, I wrestled with the talk ahead. The challenge was to set up the subject without blindsiding him; there was no easy way to back into the topic. I settled for simple.
“Dad, we need to have a conversation about Erin.”