My good friend John and I, along with some other haoles from the mainland, spent the summer of 1971 working for the Maui Land and Pineapple Company. We stayed in barracks that are now a Sunday school near the Honolua General Store in the heart of what is now the Kapalua Resort. We were 21 and had just finished our junior years at college—me at USC and John at Cornell. I was the foreman of a gang of pineapple pickers and John drove pineapple trucks that collected the “fruits” of the hard labor of gangs like mine and transported the tonnage to the cannery in Kahului near the airport. My father had taken his life six months earlier, but I doubt I even mentioned it to John or anyone else that summer. I was still in heavy conversation with all the demons racing around in my head. Nor did John and I talk about the loss of his brother other than, at best, a “Sorry brau,” followed by a “Thanks.” Forty-five years later we can now share and talk about our pain. It’s complicated. This is John’s story he wrote to me.
I began to read your story, Greeting Grief, and was deeply touched and drawn back to my own experiences with death and grief. As you may recall, my younger brother Jeff died of cancer while we were working on Maui that summer. I will never forget the visceral reaction I had when I got the call from my father that Jeff had died the night before. I was standing in the truck dispatcher’s office and it was about 7 am. Despite the fact that I knew this day was coming, the news hit me like a punch in the gut and I was slammed back into the office wall. The few people who were present asked me what happened. After I told them they mumbled their condolences, slinked away and I was left alone. The dispatcher told me to take the day off (with pay of course) and I wandered around the compound in a daze. I remember asking myself, over and over, ‘How will I ever forget this day? How do I deal with something so foreign and strange as the death of someone as close as a brother?’
I had never before experienced anything so existential. I remembered that someone either told me or I read that it helped if you wrote your thoughts down on paper and then tore them up and threw them into the wind. I got a pad of paper and walked down to the bluff overlooking Oneola Bay and the northern spit of the point we called Shit Falls. A sewer outfall pipe we hoped was long abandoned was visible sticking out of the volcanic face of the point. I spent several hours writing down my thoughts about my brother’s death and my relationship with him. Afterwards I had a good cry, but don’t put that in [Sorry], and then tore the paper up and threw it into the wind which carried the pieces out to the sea below. I then went back to the dispatcher’s office and worked the rest of the day.
I think a few people expressed their condolences, including you, and then that was the end of it. I never heard another word from my parents or any of my friends at home, many of whom had attended Jeff’s funeral. Ironically, I went to my grandfather’s funeral at the end of August. I met my father at the airport in San Francisco. He never once mentioned my brother during the two days we were together for my grandfather’s wake and burial. When I got back home in New York a few weeks later, after driving across country with your friend and fraternity brother Bub, I came to a home filled with grief and anger, but no words.
My father lost his faith in God and my mother lost her reason for living, later compounded by my sister’s own death from cancer. We never dealt with the grief we all felt. My mother just drowned her sorrows in a bottle, and even after spending hours with her in family counseling we never got to the root of her grief. It was too painful to touch.
I am very happy that you and Hilary have found such a positive way to deal with your Jimmy’s death. My brother and I have recently begun to discuss Jeff’s death and its impact on us. Maybe we well finally come to grips with it all.
Casey and John -Looking Good! (1977)