***In April of 2018 I had decided to take my mom on vacation to Hawaii. It was to be the first time we had traveled together since her Alzheimer’s had kicked into high gear. My first visit to this magical swathe of islands was as a graduating high school senior. She had saved for a few years to be able to treat us to a celebratory vacation. Finally, at the age of thirty, I was able to return the gesture. I originally published our experience on my travel blog. Now, on the anniversary of our trip and with nostalgia for being anywhere but quarantined, I am re-publishing this essay here. I figured this disclaimer would be necessary so that no one would think that I had recently carted Mom off to Hawaii in the middle of a pandemic. We have been safe at home for just about eight weeks. With that out of the way, please enjoy the essay below.****
Is a vacation still vacation if you are stressed for most of it?
I fumbled with this question often since returning from my trip to Hawaii last weekend.
I have always wanted to do some sort of grand gesture for each of my parents. With Mom’s cognitive and physical abilities being stolen away like the cruelest of heists, I had been feeling compelled to arrange something special for her before she could no longer comprehend or enjoy such an experience.
The pricing wars between Hawaiian airline carriers had been amping up recently. Typically a good deal for a roundtrip flight to Hawaii from the West Coast is about $400. When I came across deals for $200 roundtrip flights you can understand why I was anxious to jump at the opportunity. By using my Chase credit card points I was able to get our flights, hotel accommodations, and rental car for free. I live paycheck to paycheck, but hacks like this, among other things, really help offset the cost of travel.
On Wednesday of last week we flew from San Francisco to Kona on a direct flight. Going through security with my mom gave me an indication of what I was to expect for the duration of the trip. She struggled to control her rolling suitcase if it was moving any way but straight, at one point catching it on a waiting-line divider. She ended up crumpled on the floor. Some of the people near us quickly came to her assistance. She was a trooper, only embarrassed for a second, and then moved on.
I constantly struggle with gauging how much I should do for her and how much I should let her do herself. Often it’s easier if I just carry her belongings or buckle her seat belt or put her hair into a ponytail, but sometimes I can tell she wants to do it herself because she doesn’t want to feel like a burden or as if she’s a child. I try to allow her the time to do things on her own, but I can get annoyed, or we have somewhere to be, so I take over and do it myself. And then I feel like a jerk, especially on the occasions she is aware I’m being too bossy.
“Lauren, stop talking to me like I’m two.”
I inhale and pause.
Teeth clamp down on my tongue, holding it in place before it can wriggle free and inflict damage.
It’s frustrating to me how I can be completely comfortable with handling children who are having a bad day or are scared, screaming and crying, grasping my arms with a strength unexpected from two year olds. And yet with my own mother the calm, smiling patience I have practiced for the last fifteen years as a swim instructor and nanny can dissipate five minutes into a difficult interaction. Alzheimer’s is the test of patience that I never imagined I would struggle with. This disease is a reminder that no matter how masterful I am at something, there’s always room for more learning. Life will always humble you, especially when you think you are beyond the necessity of being humbled.
We arrived in Kona with anticipation. After an odd encounter with a rental car employee who tried a few times to take the automobile damage report form out of my hands before I had finished completing it, we sought out food. A few minutes from our hotel was the Poke Shack, a pricey hole-in-the-wall joint. With a lunch plate between us and cold beverages in hand we finally began to sink into island mode.
Afterward we drove up the road to Magic Sands Beach, a popular but picturesque slip of a beach. I set up my hammock while my mom soaked her feet in the gentle, salty waves.
“Lauren, what’s on the other side of the water?”
“What do you mean, Mom?”
“Well on the other side of Lake Huron there’s Canada. So what’s on the other side of the water here?”
“I guess Australia, but that’s hundreds of miles away.”
After passing time at the beach we checked into the Kona Seaside Hotel, bought five days worth of groceries, and took a dip in the hotel’s pool.
The next day we made our way along the west and north coasts to a few viewpoints, parks, and beaches, eventually ending up in the town of Volcano. I had rented a condo with a kitchen just outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Taking Mom to this park was the highest of priorities. The magic of HVNP had branded my soul since my first visit a few years. I had been longing to return ever since.
Struggling to locate the condo, I called the number of the rental company. A man asked, “Did you use GPS?”
“That’s why you can’t find us. The GPS doesn’t work correctly. I sent the directions to you.”
“You did? I don’t believe I received them,” I said.
“And what kind of vehicle do you have?” he inquired.
“A Nissan Altima.”
“Well in the email I sent you I also mentioned that our driveway is a 1.2 mile dirt road with pot holes, so it’s best to rent a Jeep or an SUV.”
“Oh. Again, I didn’t receive any of this information so I had no idea,” I responded.
“You’ll be fine,” he said. “Just drive slow and you’ll do okay.”
He texted me the directions and within a few minutes we had arrived at the property. Rick, the owner, greeted us and showed us around. It turns out that I hadn’t booked a condo like I had thought, it was a room at his house. “No worries,” I thought. “We’ll just go with the flow.”
As he led us to our room he mentioned that drugs, alcohol, and meat (seafood included) are not allowed on the premises, even in our room.
I didn’t contest it, but I did make a point of politely saying, again, that I had not received any of the information about the property or its rules upon booking, except for a physical address. If I was traveling by myself it wouldn’t have been all that big of a deal for me to have a change in plans like this, but with Mom it was going to be a challenge.
“But I like to enjoy a glass of wine with my dinner,” she said, confused.
“It’s okay Mom, we’ll get a glass of wine elsewhere for dinner,” I quickly spat out before Rick engaged in what could potentially be an escalated conversation. A few moments before I had let him know that she has Alzheimer’s but I wasn’t confident that he would understand the nuances of guiding conversations with her.
Once Rick left us to unpack my Mom asked again and again about the rules. She didn’t get why we weren’t allowed to have wine, especially since we had bought a bottle at the grocery store the day before. My patience was beginning to chip away.
Our room was spacious, very clean, had a small fridge and a charming bathroom. Rick told us that in his kitchen a simple breakfast was complimentary from 7:30-9:30am, with tea, coffee, and use of the microwave was available during that time frame. The microwave was also available for use from 5:30-7:30pm. At first this seemed reasonable, although not anything like the full kitchen I had expected with my booking. But soon we would find that these unexpected rules and limitations were going to suffocate our vacation.
The following morning I assembled lunch for us to take to HVNP. As it was early and not during kitchen use hours, I MacGyvered some sandwiches for us. I used a large coaster as a cutting board and a disinfected library card as a knife to “slice” cheese and tomatoes. The results were tasty, but those were the most mutilated tomato slices I’ve ever laid eyes upon. I have had to make do with limited food prep options while camping or in my dorm room in college, but this was another level entirely.
We spent the day stopping at each pullout in the park. Every handful of minutes I was turning my blinker on again so I could show Mom another dormant crater, volcanic rock field, or rainforest trail. Our mutual awe of the landscape, of the inexplicable vibe of the land, was exactly the kind of experience I wanted to share with her.
At one point I walked her down a short trail to the mouth of a lava tube. She doesn’t like the dark, especially caves, but I reassured her that it was something not to be missed. We held hands on the dimly lit path as I told her how lava had once traveled through the organic cave, like a molten subway. I played the mother and she the child, our roles irrevocably reversed. We pretended to be okay with the osmosis of our biological attributes.
In moments like this, dementia is precious. Other times it is the reminder of all that is beyond our control.
Returning to our rental I mentally planned on how to make the evening go smoothly. I encouraged Mom to take a shower while I got dinner ready. I had a package of spaghetti noodles and a can of tomato sauce that had been purchased on our grocery excursion a few days earlier.
I grabbed the box of dry noodles and walked to the kitchen. Rick was there speaking with another guest so I waited until I could interject without being rude. His wife walked in at that moment and approached me. I had met her briefly the day before but hadn’t seen her since.
She asked if I had used the kitchen that morning and whether or not I was planning on eating the continental breakfast the next day. I explained that although I would love to take advantage of the complimentary meals, my Mom and I would be eating our own food as I had bought groceries. I didn’t want the food (or money I had spent) to go to waste. She seemed offended that I wouldn’t be eating the fruit and granola she prepares for guests.
And then the unraveling began.
I asked her if it would be okay for me to boil the pasta noodles. It wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes and I’d only need to use one pot.
“No. You can’t use the stove, Lauren,” she said curtly.
“Oh, okay. It’s just that I need to make dinner for my Mom and I.”
“We don’t allow guests to use anything except for the coffee maker and the microwave.”
“Okay…hmmm,” I replied, starting to get a little perturbed. “It’s just that I was unaware of the rules of this property before I arrived. Like I mentioned to your husband, I bought groceries when we landed on the island because I was under the impression that I had rented a condo with a kitchen. I understand that you have rules in place, but I just need to boil a pot of water for noodles.”
“You’re not going to use the stove Lauren,” she spat. “You can make your noodles with the hot water from the tea kettle at the coffee station. I’m sure you could look up something online about how to make them.” Then she turned and walked away.
I stood there dumbfounded, trying to keep it together. It wasn’t that I was angry, per se, I was humiliated. Here I was in someone’s million dollar home practically begging to boil a dollar’s worth of pasta for my disabled mother and I to eat, and she refused to show an ounce of compassion.
I tried to keep my tears and pride from escaping as I broke up spaghetti noodles into small coffee mugs, pouring hot water meant for tea into each of the mugs. By the time I walked back to the room with the al dente noodles and tried to stir plain tomato sauce and butter into them, the noodles were cold and had clumped together.
And then my mom started asking about why we couldn’t have a glass of wine with dinner and why we were eating cold noodles out of mugs, and why Rick and his wife had such outrageous rules.
I was just about at my breaking point.
“Mom, let’s go. We’re going to get dinner somewhere else.”
I drove us to the nearest town with cell phone reception, Hilo, which was 35 minutes away. The more that went wrong, the more Mom became unwound and less able to understand and cope with the situation. I snapped. I yelled things I shouldn’t have said and only made things worse. You can’t scold someone with Alzheimer’s for their behavior. I know that. And even as the words flew out of my mouth I thought, “What the hell am I doing?”
I bought Taco Bell for us which she refused to eat, her body twisted away from me in the passenger seat, face hidden behind her hands.
“Don’t fucking talk to me!”
I got out of the car and made a phone call to the credit card company. For nearly two hours I tried to get the travel department to find us other accommodations. It was Friday night in Hawaii. Pretty much everything was booked up and they apparently don’t make same day reservations.
I ended up telling the rep that I would try and find something on my own because there was no way I could stay where I was at. It was 9:30 at night, I was exhausted, drained of patience, and wholly frustrated. I asked the rep to have someone return my call because I still needed the situation resolved. I wanted either a credit back for the room I had booked or a refund on the new accommodations I would need to make. Chase was responsible for not including the property information and regulations on their booking site, or emailing it to me at any point leading up to my trip. There is no way I would have rented this type of AirBnb-like setup, spent money on groceries and wine, nor chosen a small rental car, if I had been forwarded all of the stipulations of the rental.
Mom and I made up, equally spent from all of the drama. All we wanted was to enjoy what was left of our time on the island. We were on the same team again, partners in tribulation forging forward.
The next morning I packed up our suitcases and the remainder of our groceries into the car. I found Rick and handed him the key to our room so I could get back the $10 security deposit for it. I don’t think he realized that we were leaving a day early.
“Did your mother enjoy her stay?”
“No, not really. That’s why we’re leaving.” The look of surprise on his face only added to my annoyance.
He walked with me to my car and offered to help with the luggage.
“Thanks but I’m already packed.”
Before Mom and I drove the two hours back to Kona on the other side of the island we made two stops, the first being Black Sand Beach. There we spent a few hours standing in the surf, debating whether the sea turtle on the beach was alive, and napping in the hammock. The dust had settled and we were finally able to really be present again.
The second stop was at Ka’u Desert Trail. This had been one of my favorite hikes I had ever done. I ached to do a proper hike while in Hawaii, but Mom had a bad knee and couldn’t walk for more than a mile or two on relatively flat trails.
Twice I paused along the path so I could place a hand on the volcanic rock, closing my eyes and breathing in the energy from the earth. The magic and nostalgia of that place is a powerful life force for me.
Once in Kona we settled into an over-priced, tiny condo for our final night of vacation. It was nearly the only last minute option available, but at that point it was more important to put some distance between Rick, his wife and their house, and us. Plus, this condo had a kitchenette.
The next day just a few hours before boarding our departing flight, we sat at a picnic table on a beach soaking up a few last quiet moments. We shared a peanut butter milk stout and watched the planes roar over our heads as they landed at the airport behind us.
Can a stressful vacation still be called “vacation?” I’m still not sure.
Hawaii was a chapter that would be remembered differently for each of us. For me it was an experience of beauty highlighted with many moments of frustration and grit and complicated undertones. For her, it was the escape to paradise that her memory will clutch on to for as long as it can. Most of the unpleasant aspects of the trip have been discarded, whisked away by disease.
For once I am grateful that she forgets.