Dylan Stewart Columnist
“Ohana” means Family.
Remember those summer vacations? The long days at the beach with nothing to do but hang out with your friends? The vacations with your family, where your dad stopped working long enough to actually play catch with you? Where you and your siblings could really sit down and focus on a long game of Monopoly? Where the days seemed to last forever, and the nights were filled with stars that you would count from the comfort of your sleeping bag with your best friend by your side on the front lawn, with the camping lantern turned down low between you and whispered secrets about the girl you had a crush on?
I remember those vacations with fondness. And I had a lot of them, but none of those vacations were ever as valuable as the ones I took with my family in Hawaii. Over the years, those Hawaiian vacations connected me to my family in ways I never thought possible … but none more so than over this last summer, where my daughter and I regained what we had lost so many years ago: each other.
Over the years, all the Hawaiian vacations I took with my family fill my mind with passionate memories that flow through my mind like a lush tropical waterfall.
I remember being in Hawaii for Christmas the year I discovered the truth about Santa. My parents had been so careful, but we were living in such a small little cabin, and there just weren’t enough places to hide presents… and not enough unique stores on the island to buy things I hadn’t seen them looking at. I was a brat, and told my younger brother the truth. I wonder if he remembers that vacation as clearly as I do.
I remember one year when my family went swimming against the advice of one of the locals at a beach with a strong riptide. That riptide pulled all of us way out to sea. My brother was barely three, and I was probably seven or eight. I remember the horizon getting farther and farther away, and my mom and dad having to work together to pull us to shore. I didn’t think we would make it out of that one, but the power of family pulled us through. I will never forgot that vacation either.
As I got older and my parents separated, we still went to Hawaii … just separately. My mom continued to go to Kauai, but my dad had a friend with a property on Oahu. They called it the Blue Lagoon because it sat right next to a calm blue part of the Oahu coast, and because my father and his friend had worked on the movie Blue Lagoon together, and the money from that had purchased this house.
My dad‘s friend always gave us a special price on renting that property, So my dad and I returned back time after time: sometimes with my brother, sometimes with my sister, sometimes all of us together.
Then I got a little older, met a woman and started my own family. I was still in school, trying to learn the craft of writing. The idea of summer vacations seemed distant as I worked hard to build my family, start a career, and take care of my infant daughter and her mother.
Then tragedy struck… my daughter’s mother had been struggling with severe depression during the pregnancy, and a few months after my daughter’s birth the sadness overtook her and she took her own life. In an effort to pull me out of my own depression my dad took me and my daughter to Hawaii to recuperate. I remember my six-month-old daughter and I playing on the sand, cavorting in the waves, and pretending like the tragedy that had just happened to us was a dream. I remember that vacation like it was yesterday.
But after returning from that vacation my life got very hard and very real. I had to support my daughter and myself. I had to hold down a job. I had to grow up, and buckle down, and vacations became a thing of my past. A thing from a different lifetime. A thing of my youth … and years would go by before I would find myself back to that idyllic island shore.
During those years, I did the best that I could as a single parent, but along the way I made bad decisions and many mistakes. One of those mistakes created a rift between my daughter and I that was vast and deeper than any wound I have ever felt.
In those days I had met a woman and started a new family. This woman and my daughter were at odds with each other, and my daughter was crushed by my decision to support the woman I was with, the mother of my infant son … over my own flesh and blood. She felt abandoned, and in truth, I did abandon her. I thought I had a good reason, I thought it was the right thing to do at the time given the circumstances, but those rationalizations didn’t make the bitter pill any easier to swallow.
For the past eight years, I have lived with the guilt and pain of that choice. Every conversation or connection with my daughter was colored by the weight of that decision. Every moment we shared was tainted by the unspoken emotions and pain, and I truly gave up hope that wound could ever be healed.
But this year something magical happened. This year, this summer, I got an opportunity to go back to Hawaii and I took it. Most of my family was there … my father and his wife, my sister and her husband and newborn daughter, my brother and his wife and their newborn son … and my daughter.
My daughter, 23 years old now, has become a force to be reckoned with. She is smart, beautiful, driven, and won’t take shit from anyone. She’s as strong of a woman and as strong of a personality as I have ever met. Over the last few years, I’ve worked hard to bridge the gap between us, and I have definitely made headway. But it wasn’t until this vacation that I really got to spend significant and consistent time with her. In fact, I spent more one-on-one time with her over this trip than in the last eight years combined.
Over the course of several days, we watched the sunrise together, took walks together and drives together, talked on her bed, talked on my bed, and talked on the sand with the waves lapping at our feet.
The conversation ranged from family squabbles and rumors to philosophical discussions about God and life… and then we dove into some really deep territory. Ripping open the deep wounds that I had caused.
She asked about what had really happened all those years ago. And I stepped back into that moment, that decision, that different version of me.
At the time my daughter and the woman I was with were fighting daily, causing great pain to each other, with that pain and anger rippling out to the rest of the family. I felt it, and it grew too painful to bear. In a moment of what I thought was clarity (but would later learn was selfishness), I decided to separate the two women. I couldn’t let me and my daughter be in this environment any longer, and I couldn’t leave the relationship without abandoning my son, so I chose to have my daughter move out and move in with another family. I never realized until that moment what i had done, or how it truly must have felt to my daughter.
I had been the grown-up, so my choices overwhelmed hers. My desires and decisions overwrote her hopes and dreams. And yet she paid the largest consequences of all. Having lost her mother as a child, by her mother’s own choice, she lost her father too, by his own choice. I understood, maybe for the first time, the pain that I had caused and the wound I had opened up in this beautiful, sensitive, powerful and fragile young girl. The emotions flooded through both of us fast and furious… and then it happened… a beautiful, true, deep joining together that I thought would never be possible.
For the first time, our relationship matured, and we began to see each other not just as father and daughter, but as people. People who make and made mistakes. People who had our own choices, and paid heavy consequences from those choices, and we shared how it felt. We gave each other the space to feel, to be heard, to rage and cry. We each took turns feeling, revealing and healing.
And we cried… a lot. Held each other, a lot. And promised that we would never let that kind of distance come between us again. Promised that we would do things differently, talk about things more, and by all means be there for each other in a new and different way.
I promised to support her, to be there for her, and to show up as a different kind of father and parent than I ever had in the past. I had been changed, and so had she. It wasn’t just words… it was an actual promise to be better, do better, love more and support harder.
She even spoke the words that I thought I would never hear her say: “Dad,” she said, “I’m so glad that you’re my father. I love you.“
Shortly after she and I left and went back home, but changed and transformed. And just like that one more magic memory gets filed away in the Stewart Ohana family album… with this one being the most special memory of them all.
Thank you Hawaii, for one more magical trip, one more spell cast under the full moon with the palm trees waving in the wind, with the clear blue ocean whispering its promises to the alabaster sands.
Miracles do happen, and summer vacations aren’t just for children.