It’s the morning after my birthday, the third day of a slow and swirly two-week summer escape from the mundane world with my sweetie, Saundra. We’re tucking into a breakfast of homemade pancakes topped with bits of the sweetest pineapple ever tasted by humans and paging through the guest book in our little Princeville condo. Rain periodically pitters outside the windows. The ocean rolls below the bluffs. I note each odd-shaped breaker in hopes it might be a humpback whale.
Between bites we’ve been reading to each other from the floral-bound guest books—comments and advice from over a decade of previous condo guests who had tried to pack a lifetime of island dreams into three days or had come to celebrate a romantic anniversary or honeymoon. I start reading an entry in purple ink dated New Year’s 1995 and am struck that I recognize the handwriting. I turn the page and yes, it’s signed “Gail and Neal, Santa Cruz, California.” I am suddenly and uncontrollably choked up.
I didn’t know Gail and Neal had stayed here. In this very condo, that is. I mean, what are the odds of my finding the very same condo out of all the hundreds of rentals available on northshore Kauai? And it was Gail who was responsible for my first coming to Kauai. That is, her death was responsible.
I’d been friends with Neal Hellman for nearly twenty years. He and I were professional musicians and had performed and recorded together many times. And he was one of my favorite people in the music biz. So I couldn’t have been more delighted when, in about 1987, Neal found Gail. Gail Rich was a book editor, a local dramatics mover and shaker, a radio arts program host, and about the sweetest person who ever drew breath. Gail, too, became one of my favorite people.
They were made for each other. An ex-hippie Brooklyn cabbie folk musician and a fussy insatiable reader, each brimming with enthusiasm about their artistic loves and so mad about each other they almost always called each other “Honey.”
It wasn’t until New Year’s 1995 that they managed to pry themselves loose from their work for their first real vacation together. Sensibly, they came to Kauai and immediately fell in love with Hanalei Bay. They rented a little condo in Princeville. They explored every beach, nosed into every restaurant, hiked the Na Pali trail, became unabashed lovers of the entire island.
Of course, they planned to return the following holiday season. Neal talked his teenaged son Shilo into coming, too, the next year, so they had to hunt up something a little biger than the Princeville condo. They rented a house in Hanalei a block off the beach and had even more fun on their second visit. Before leaving, they booked the place again for the next holiday season—three weeks it would be this time and no Shilo—Christmas and New Year’s—the perfect romantic get-away and reward for working their tails off all year. But the next year didn’t work out the way any of us planned. I got hit first with what we came to refer to as Hell Year. My father died in February. And by the summer it became clear that my 20-year marriage was over. My wife finally left in October. Neal and Gail helped me stay sane through it all.
But my hell was nothing compared to Neal’s. He phoned early one November morning to tell me that Gail had gotten up in the middle of the night with a headache, got out of bed, and collapsed. Before the paramedics even arrived, she died in Neal’s arms of what turned out to be a brain aneurism. No warning. She was only 45.
Neal was nearly inconsolable. I joined with a good number of friends and watched him pretty much around the clock for a while until he could get any kind of grip. As he calmed down and we got to talking about everything and anything, he kept coming back to the plans he and Gail had to return to Hanalei. The tickets and house had been paid for for months. Now it was all up in smoke.
In an attempt to say something casual and amusing, I said I’d go with him rather than let the tickets go to waste. After all, there we were, two reluctant bachelors, needing a change of air desperately, so why not? Neal was not particularly receptive to the idea.
Until a couple of days later. He phoned up and asked if I was serious about going. I said, “Sure!” I’d never been to Hawaii. He was one of my best friends. I wanted no part of my established cheery holiday rituals. I could keep an eye on him. Why not, indeed?
So we came. Christmas, New Year’s, the works, for three weeks—away from it all—make a clean start for 1997. Well, it wasn’t that clean at the start. It took about a week for Neal to stop talking about Gail every minute. But slowly, surely, Kauai did its magic thing and we both began to feel happy, first in tiny patches, then for longer periods, and finally almost all the time. We visited all the places Neal had visited with Gail, then ventured out elsewhere and found some corners of the island they had missed. Before we were through, we’d logged some memorable rum and wasabi-drenched culinary adventures in excess to call our own.
Two-and-a-half years have passed since my trip to Hanalei with Neal. We grieved and went on with life. He found someone new to share love with. I did, too. When it came time for Saundra and me to run away on a romantic holiday, I didn’t think twice. It had to be Kauai. But waiting till the last minute, the Hanalei house I’d shared with Neal was unavailable in July. I contacted a charming couple in San Jose through a magazine ad and found this sweet little Princeville condo.
And so I find myself eating a perfect breakfast with my lovely young lady on a perfect day in paradise and suddenly Gail’s voice comes in out of the guest book to chat happily with us about the Na Pali Coast and the beautiful little niihau shells on Anini Beach and Waimea Canyon and the Dolphin Fish Market and how she’s looking forward to coming back again.
A total surprise. Out of the blue. But after wiping my eyes and reliving the story as I tell it to Saundra, I think maybe the curious symmetry of it will serve to make our visit even better.