Afterthoughts: Five Years Passed

Sometimes anniversaries come looking for you.
Maui sugar mill
Photo: Michael Keany


I’ve been thinking lately about five years.


When it comes to our lives, we’re all storytellers. People divide their lives up into all kinds of chapters. Some long—the length of a marriage, a career or the raising of a child. Others short—the span of an ill-fated job or haircut.


But five years seems to be the default. At job interviews, that’s what they ask you: Where do you see yourself in five years? It’s a long enough time that significant change can, and probably will, occur, and yet close enough to not seem like complete fantasy.


I’ve been thinking about this because, as 2016 wraps up, I’m marking a whole cluster of five-year anniversaries. The October 2011 issue of HONOLULU Magazine was my first as managing editor. Yay! And then everything seemed to hit at once.


On Oct. 30, 2011, my dad passed away, of a heart attack. He was 70. On Nov. 14, I got news that my brother Ralph had died, after driving into a tree on a twisty Maine back road, at the age of 44.


And, if that weren’t enough, I came into the HONOLULU offices after Christmas and learned that local journalism legend and personal mentor John Heckathorn had passed, at the age of 65, also of a heart attack.


Somehow, that was the final straw. I crumbled and burned for a while, lost a bunch of weight. Looking back at photos of myself taken in early-to-mid 2012, I almost don’t recognize myself.


I don’t want to overdramatize it. Things got better. Five years later, I’m fine. Great, even. But when an anniversary rolls around, it’s healthy to take stock, and spend some time thinking on that earlier time, and how it changed you.


And sometimes life presents a golden opportunity to do just that.


I recently got invited to tour the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Pu‘unēnē sugar mill. As you’ve surely heard, it’s shutting down at the end of this year—the last of Hawai‘i’s sugar plantations, and the end of an era. When I visited, the mill was still churning at full speed, even as the workers prepared themselves for the next chapter in their lives. (What am I going to be doing in five years, you could imagine them asking themselves.)


For me, the experience of walking through the mill really hit home, on a couple of levels.


As someone who grew up on Maui, the loss of the Pu‘unēnē Mill feels personal. The rolling green fields that define Maui’s central valley, the cane fires that bloomed into the sky, molasses-brown smoke billowing into white clouds, the hulking cane haulers that lumbered along the HC&S dirt roads, parallel to Mokulele Highway, so you could keep pace with them in your own car and gawk. Maui without all those things is something I’m not quite ready to accept.


And then there’s my dad, who worked at the HC&S sugar mill back in the ’90s. I remember him giving me his own tour of the facility when I was a kid, showing me how the freshly harvested cane got washed, then crushed for its juices, and those juices boiled and crystalized and centrifuged. I was small enough then for the safety hard hat to sit comically large and wobbly on my head, and I remember the mill being overwhelmingly loud and dirty and humid. I remember bursts of steam and huge, complicated pieces of equipment that looked as if they had been built back at the dawn of the industrial age. Thinking of my dad—so bookish and affable in his home life—working in the middle of all this rough-and-tumble, Old-World cacophony made him seem larger than life.


Sometimes revisiting childhood experiences resizes them for you. (Try stopping by your old elementary school sometime, and prepare to have your mind blown by how tiny everything on campus is.) But walking through the Pu‘unēnē Sugar Mill again, the place was just as unbelievably huge and loud and pungent as I remembered it the first time around. And the memories of my dad were suddenly just as fresh as they were five years ago, that larger-than-life guy who went away too soon, goddammit.


It was me who had grown up, gotten bigger. Several people at the mill remembered my dad—the mill superintendent exclaimed, “Ah, can see the resemblance!”—and as I caught them up on the news of his life and death after HC&S, I felt my past and present identities clicking together with new understanding.


Birthdays and the beginnings of relationships will always be the happiest occasions to mark, but I’m gaining an appreciation for life’s subtler anniversaries.