Mele Kalikimaka

Before I had time to settle into Chicago that first December, I took a vacation over the Christmas holiday to spend time with Jason, my youngest brother, who, at the time was stationed at the Schofield Army base on O’ahu. I stayed in Waikiki and spent the days and a good part of the nights with him.

Separated by seven years, my relationship with Jason is markedly different than it is with Danny. Growing up, he was the baby of the family, the one Mom protected at all costs despite the fact that Danny and I would often slug it out over the smallest of things. We’d try to pull him into the thick of it, but Mom would put her foot down. The rough and tumble of our childhood was somewhat lost on Jason. Danny and I could punch each other silly, but if either of us laid a pinkie finger on Jason, Mom would have a conniption.

Of course, we laugh about it now, but there’s never an escape for Jason when we get nostalgic. Danny and I greatly exaggerate everything that happened to Jason as a child mostly because that’s what big brothers do, but also, to salve our wounds a little. No idiosyncrasy escapes our intense spotlight, and one can bet that had he grown up in a normal family, no one would have noticed the targets of our ridicule.

One of my proudest moments as a big brother came when Jason enlisted in the Army and graduated boot camp. I was proud because he had done something for himself and he was serving our country in the most admirable capacity. He also did something that I could never do – join the military. Short-tempered and disparaging of authority types, I wouldn’t last a day in the military. I’d either be ground to a physical nub due to punishment or I’d quit in a fit of rage.

I knew my limitations, but Jason found his calling. He seemed to thrive in the environment and became a helicopter mechanic for the Army settling in the idyllic climes of Hawaii on a choice assignment. By the time I visited him, he’d already lived there for a couple of years, but I hadn’t seen him much in that time since he couldn’t make the flight back to Georgia too often. It seemed a shame for him to spend another holiday alone no matter how glamorous the locale.

Spending Christmas in Hawaii made for an interesting experience. Even native North Georgians expect Christmas to be chilly enough to warrant a fire in the fire place. As kids we rarely held out much hope for snow on Christmas, but we never experienced the holiday in anything approaching tropical weather either. Hawaiians spend Christmas on their beautiful beaches much like they spend the rest of the year. Seeing Christmas decorations on display there felt like a non-native holiday had been jammed into the middle of a foreign country. It was like playing a game of “What Doesn’t Belong.”

The oddity of it all quickly wore off. I’d never been to Hawaii before, so Jason showed me around the island. We went hiking at Diamond Head, a volcanic cone on O’ahu, hung out on the beaches in Waikiki, and walked the streets of downtown Honolulu soaking in the sights. It reminded me of my travel days except without the work, and I absolutely enjoyed it, and I loved the opportunity to have some time alone with Jason.

One thing that never changes about siblings is that it’s hard to view each other outside the context of our common childhood. To me, Jason will always be my baby brother, but that holiday afforded me the chance to see him as the adult he had become. It was a rare thing because most of our interactions had been in the middle of family gatherings, and those moments often put us back into the roles we filled as children no matter how old we were.

That vacation, the first true one I had taken as an adult, opened my eyes to what I had been missing. I’d spent so much time working that a decade of my life had evaporated with nary a thing to show for it other than a juiced-up resume. There was nothing magical about turning thirty, but it did force some perspective upon me. All I had to do was look in the mirror to see the toll my choices had taken on me. I knew I had to make some changes.

With that in mind one morning, I decided to take a run on the beach. I hadn’t been diligent about running over the previous few years, but I had managed to sustain some level of capacity. My feet thumped heavily on the sidewalk when I bounded out of the my hotel’s lobby and took the path to the beach. Upon hitting the sand, my legs felt like rubber bands on the squishy surface, but I didn’t care. The beautiful sunrise shot vibrant colors across the horizon, and the mesmerizing song of the waves greeted me as I ran on the mostly-empty beach. The run was short, but I huffed my way through it, pulling the weight of too many days off from running. By the time I returned to the hotel lobby, I felt a positive vibe that I hadn’t felt in a very long time, something that I’d carry over into the new year.

On my final night in Hawaii, Jason and I went to see Castaway at a theater in downtown Honolulu. We drove under a sign that said “Mele Kalikimaka,” or Merry Christmas in the native Hawaiian language. Of course, I had no idea what it said, so I asked Jason. The phrase rolled off his tongue like any English one would. That exchange epitomized the revelation I had on that trip. My baby brother had grown up. He had ventured out of the narrow realm of our collective childhood and discovered something unfamiliar and intriguing. Rather than running from or dismissing it, he had embraced it in a way that only the openness of youth could.

That was the last time we’d see each other for a while, a memorable and tranquil time before the world apple cart was upended in the name of outdated, irrational dogma. The year or so ahead would put Jason inextricably in harm’s way, but for the moment at least, I left the islands thinking everything was going to turn out all right.

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