On the Kalapana lava field, a son’s thoughts turn to a family relationship in flux

BRATTLEBORO — My mother is like the earth - always there and easy to take for granted. Her obvious flaw: she cares.

Her robin's-egg-blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair, now gone the color of wheat, are highlights of her small yet athletic appearance. She wants only to be liked, so she'll walk your dog, water your garden, pick up your dry cleaning, and then send you a thank-you card.

My father presented her to me as a sucker, a “do-gooder,” and worse - a phony.

These were some of my thoughts the morning Erin and I hiked onto the lava field.

We left the home of our friends Lorn and Shakti at 4 a.m. and drove east toward where Kalapana used to be. The road didn't just end; it was swallowed whole by the 1984 flow that eventually streamed down the mountain and covered the entire village under 10 feet of fresh lava.

We parked and started scrambling over the black glassy shards of A'a. Not hard to understand how that got its name. “A'a,” natives would say, “no touch.”

Lorn had given me bicycle gloves to cover my hands just in case. I wore a headlamp and in either hand carried a flashlight, a moving triangle of light in a sea of darkness.

There was no trail per se, and Erin quickly got 20 or so yards ahead of me and stayed there for the entire 90-minute hike.

A few steps from the car, I nearly tripped over the very top of a stop sign that was buried in the lava. The walk out was a little like climbing over a frozen ocean. Our steps even sounded like we were breaking the crust of a hard snow.

Waves of ropey, black elephant skin were separated by crags big enough for a man to fall into. Sheets of misshapen puzzle pieces cantilevered over one another, frozen chocolate icing poured from my mother's saucepan.

* * *

As we got close to the outbreaks it got warmer, but the temperature came up from below, not down from above as with the sun. Hiking on the lava field was one of the few times on the Big Island where flip-flops (or “slippahs,” as the locals call them) are not the footwear of choice.

Everyone told me to wear hiking boots or something closed-toe, and it was reinforced not just by the contact with the A'a, but now because of the rising temperature of the ground. Flip-flops could melt from the heat shimmering off streams of lava just a few feet under the surface.

Through the fractures in the rock, I could see thin orange lines. My throat got scratchy, and my eyes burned.

As we came over the last wave, I saw the first of 20 or so outbreaks - ocean entries. Below me at the new edge of the island was a fire hose of lava spigoting into the ocean. Plumes of billowing white steam rose high into the sky signaling surrender to an unseen enemy.

Who is the enemy? How long have I resented my mother, believed my father's point of view? Dismissed, denigrated, and diminished her, all to prove my loyalty to him?

Groups of college-aged kids who'd arrived before us to watch the lava were high on something: pot, maybe, but more than likely just the thrill of being present at the birth of some part of the Earth younger than themselves.

That's what it feels like: you're a witness, and you are privileged. You got special permission, you were invited by the mother into the birthing room, and now you are part of the family.

* * *

My mom cried a lot - all the time, it seemed, when I was a teenager. Once, in 10th grade, I was going out to a dance, and I could not tie my tie. My father was at an AA meeting and my older brothers were off somewhere, so I had to ask her.

She stood behind me, and we both watched in the mirror as her fingers remembered. She repeated the familiar story of my birth: “And I remember just as I was about to go under from the anesthesia the doctor saying, 'Oh my God!' so I opened my eyes and said, 'What?' 'The cord is wrapped around his neck. I'm going to have to push him back in and unwrap it.'”

Of course she was crying, and I was rolling my eyes as only a teenager can - and perhaps too coincidentally feeling that same choking feeling from the necktie.

Embarrassment was the essential feeling in my encounters with my mother: not of her, but for her. She is shy, and when she thrusts herself into a public-speaking situation, my siblings and I exchange furtive glances and hold our breath. My shoulders will inch up to my ears until she has sat down again. I guess she feels competitive with my father's ease and professionalism with public speaking. Maybe she thought some of that would rub off on her after 50 years.

Erin and I encountered a yoga student of ours in the lava field. I noticed Tony's hand well before I recognized him. He was swaddling it in toilet paper, gobs and gobs of it. The tissues were turning maroon with his blood just as quickly as they touched his hand. He told me he'd tripped and, when he reflexively put his hand out to break his fall, it got shredded on the A'a.

He was embarrassed; he felt he should have known better. He was local. We both turned to see the faint orange glow of a break-out a few hundred yards up the mountain.

As a student, my mother boarded at an all-girls prep school just outside Washington, D.C. In those years, her friends called her Steve. I learned this when I was 22 and we popped in on some of her pals at their Georgetown colonial. I enjoyed imagining her as the field-hockey captain they remembered.

* * *

Everything changed once the sun came up over Kalapana. Light does that. I couldn't see the orange lava anymore, just the plumes of steam that rose high, thousands of feet above where the town used to be, and dispersed farther east and south.

After I asked Mom for forgiveness, after I owned the distance I kept between us for the past 30 years, after she reached across the table at the coffee shop and took both my hands in hers and said, “I know, Kev, I know,” I knew it would be different.

Since she forgave me, it is no longer the obligatory once-a-year lunch; I actually enjoy spending time with her. I sometimes wonder if I'll eulogize her, wonder if I'll be able to.

* * *

Erin and I walked back to the car via our separate paths. Night was over, sunrise was over, a normal day had begun. It was bright, clear, and hot.

There was some residue on my skin, some chemical that had been stored for four billion years underground and just that day exploded into the air. Sometimes when I was walking in the dark toward that warm, orange glow, the ground below my next step was lower than I expected.

For a half a second, I clutched my breath and didn't quite believe that the earth would be there for me. It was, of course.

That was the moment I'd been waiting for, the connection that I missed for much of my life, the lesson that my mother lived into me.

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