This essay was written by my good friend Karen for an essay collection project, “Called to the Big Island of Hawaii” that I started a few years ago. Thanks Karen for sharing this with the world. (Karen also wrote an essay that turned into a screen play that she made into a short film called, “The Water Girl”.)
Breathe- by Karen A. Rose
Breathing becomes more difficult at high altitudes. I lost my breath at 6,500 feet. It was 2012. My oxygen deprivation crept over me so gradually, I wasn’t aware of the effects until I was gasping for breath, edging on an intractable spiritual death unless I escaped to sea level.
Durango, Colorado – so majestic in beauty and warmth in character. My former husband and I moved to this quaint mountain town in 1992, ready to make a life in what I believed would be paradise. It became my home – a place I never thought I would leave. I adored this town and the friends I’d made. They became family to me. From weekly “wine-30’s” on my front porch to community theatre follies that I looked forward to every year.
The Catalyst of Change
All this changed in 2008 when my world crumbled beneath my feet. My husband of 20 years, whom I loved and trusted, left me and my eleven year old daughter for someone significantly younger, and someone whom he felt was more admiring of his talents. At the time I felt devastated. I was teaching three classes at the local community college and had no clue how I was going to take care of my daughter and myself. I sold everything that held meaning to me, including my deceased mother’s diamond ring, in order to feed my child and pay my bills.
Initially, I stayed in Colorado and did my best to pull myself together for my child’s sake. I didn’t want to uproot her and move her thousands of miles away after the trauma of a divorce. I was failing miserably. Weekly wine-30’s with my girlfriends turned into nearly nightly sorority parties of me attempting to mask the devastation I felt of being a ‘failure’. I hooked up with the most handsome bachelor in town, who despite his faults, helped me get through the most difficult time of my life.
I went from being the respected college professor and dance mom, to the wild and crazy party mom. I was living in a fishbowl. A small town that respected my charismatic and narcissistic ex-husband and judged me based on my admittedly poor reaction to being screwed over.
I began vacationing on the Big Island once or twice a year. I had family here. An aunt and uncle, and several cousins who always showered me with love and ‘ohana when I visited. There was never judgement – just understanding and an open heart. I knew I needed to move. ‘Needed’ to move, not ‘wanted’ to move. I was on a downhill spiral of self-destruction. If I didn’t make a change, I believe I wouldn’t be alive today.
My moment of reckoning came when I flew to Southern California to visit my brother and my high school friends. After a week of being in that environment – after being with friends and family who loved me and supported me, I felt emboldened to make a change. My best friend dropped me off at the airport in Orange County, and I started weeping in the security line. Audibly sobbing. People were staring at me – probably wondering if I was going to blow up the airplane. I wasn’t sad because I was leaving California. I had no desire to ever live there again. I was sick at the thought of returning to Colorado. It felt poisonous, deadly. I knew I had to do something. I had to leave. I couldn’t wait any longer. I couldn’t wait for the perfect time, for the perfect job, for my daughter to graduate high school. I had to go. I felt I would rather be dead than continue to live the life I was living. It was time.
Time to Leave
Four weeks. Four weeks to rid myself of everything I owned, quit my job, say goodbye, walk away from a life I spent twenty years building. If I stayed I would die. I would suffocate. Strangled by narcissistic abuse, lies, manipulation that made me question my worth as a woman, as a human being.
I boarded the plane and kissed my sweet daughter good-bye. She stayed to pursue a dream. My daughter, the dancer. She stayed with my hope that a damaged relationship with her father could be repaired. A relationship with a father who left her, who left us. Redemption needs encouragement; a second chance. This was his. I hoped to God he would take it and redeem himself. Put her first, realize his selfishness and become a good father and a decent human being.
I knew the wrath of judgment would fall hard upon me. What kind of mother leaves her 15 year old daughter and moves 3,000 miles away? I heard the talk. I heard the whispers. Both from town’s people and former in-laws. I was called so many names – labels thrown upon me by a man hoping to deflect responsibility – “Alcoholic, whore, drug addict, horrible mother, cold-hearted bitch. Now you see why I left her.”
It’s true. I’m imperfect. I’ve made so many mistakes. I handled my divorce and being cheated on like a true basket case. I’ve changed. I no longer see even a glimpse of the woman I was before I came to the Big Island. She is dead. Thank God she is dead. I didn’t like her very much. She allowed a man to treat her like shit. She didn’t stand up for herself. She didn’t express her needs. She was weak and invaluable. Not anymore.
I asked myself a difficult question. “What would I want my daughter to do if she was in my exact position?” The answer to that question was my answer. Would I want her to stay in Colorado for her child’s sake, or save her own life and leave? I knew what I needed to do.
The Oxygen Mask
When you board a plane, the flight attendant instructs you to put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others. It’s crucial for survival because if you run out of oxygen, you can’t help anyone else. If you can’t breathe, those you love will gasp for air, too. The metaphor was an awakening- profound and so freeing. I chose survival. I was no longer taking care of everyone else except myself. If I didn’t rescue myself I wouldn’t exist to care for the one person I loved the most.
Kona, Hawaii. I was a run-away in a new land. No one else owned me. No longer a slave to the past, I owned my life. I was free. I stepped off the plane with one suitcase, no job, and no place to live. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I bent down and kissed the tarmac. I smelled the plumerias. The scent of freedom. For the first time ever, I experienced something so profound, so moving. I was filled with gratitude. For the first time ever, I was proud of myself.
Approval of Pele
I’m told that goddess Pele either welcomes you to the island or forces you out. She must have approved of my arrival. I think she expected me. She wondered what the hell took me so long. After all I was called to make a life on a land created by a wild woman with wrath that was stimulated by a man’s arrogance. A goddess who had had enough and decided to move away. She understood me and took me in. She represents the confidence and courage I hoped to find in this magical place.
Two years pass and I’m strong. I can breathe deep, satisfying breaths. My child calls gasping for air. “Mom, I can’t breathe. I’m suffocating – trapped by a bowl of mountains and neglect that I can’t shake. Help me.” My arms reach across the ocean to the San Juan Mountains and scoop my child up…My heart, the love of my life, clutched into my arms and across the Pacific to join me in this place of acceptance and power. My oxygen mask is on. I can help those next to me. The one I love the most.
Unfortunately my daughter’s father squandered his chance to rebuild a relationship. He failed to provide the love and support she needed to thrive. But fortunately, I now could. I was so much stronger, so much happier, so much more capable of giving her what she needed.
Called As Survival
I was called to the Big Island as a means of survival, as was my now beautiful adult daughter. After almost 2 years of living here with me, she has evolved and grown in the most beautiful ways. I’ve seen her confidence and bravery expound by leaps and bounds as she gets ready to set off on her next big adventure to New York City to pursue a career in dancing and acting. This island has shown her what bravery feels like.
We both felt the call. We both listened and answered. As a result, we both have excelled and accomplished things we didn’t think possible. I’m alive today because of it.