Gathering with friends to celebrate my birthday in Hawaii, my good fortune tricked me into thinking I had earned such leisure. Ocean waves crashed up on the island and giant palm leaves swayed in the wind. Hawaiian music playing from a house next door accompanied the party as we talked our way through the euphoria that comes from the first sips of alcohol.
That afternoon I started playing, for probably the 300th time, “The Last Nail” a song by Dan Fogelberg. It’s not a love song or a song with a happy romantic arc, but a song I had turned to when I was a long way from home or in a time of introspection – like a birthday.
“I hear you’ve taken on a husband and child and live somewhere in Pennsylvania
I never thought you’d ever sever the string, but I can’t blame you none.”
I continued and played The Last Nail’s lyrical sarcophagus to the end.
“We walked together through the gardens and graves
I watched you grow to be a woman
living on promises that nobody gave to no one
they were given to no one.”
For years, the song was a catharsis and helped me accept the reality of a gradual goodbye. She wasn’t in Pennsylvania, but she lived close to Pennsylvania, and a long way from where I was.
On the beach, the sun moved from a bright white to a muted orange as my party day crawled toward dusk. I sat in silence on the rocks and watched the light recede.
At my back, on a small hill, 30 yards from shore, a dozen traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoes rested under a thatched roof A-frame, their bows pointed to the west as if saluting the setting sun. A local man kept watch over the beach and the Keauhou Paddling Club’s floating treasures.
Every time I was there, during the four years I lived on the island of Hawaii, I saw him sitting by the canoes, above the crashing waves on his ancestral land. Gazing at the ocean, he appeared to be in a trance. I loved watching his long white beard rise and fall like a sail in the ocean breeze.
Occasionally, rising from his chair, he’d shuffle across the road to the beach and in one effortless, graceful move, dive in. Before long, he’d return to his perch. In time, I learned his sitting area was surrounded by the graves of his ancestors – buried in the sparse green areas between lava rocks. Some of the graves brushed up next to fruit gardens and others bordered the narrow beach access road.
I thought of human remains disintegrating into the ground only to rise as flowers stretching up for a glimpse of the magnificent. This is the miracle of Hawaii; growth starts with fiery rock, death, rain, bones, and seed turned to turn into food or flowers.
On the following day, playing guitar in the middle of “The Last Nail,” I realized the song had accompanied me through good and bad times. We’d shared many miles and had an understanding between us.
And then, right there on the ocean home’s lanai, surrounded by gardens and graves of resting ancestors, the song’s images fully landed.
“We walked together through the gardens and graves; I watched you grow to be a woman.”
I gasped. And then my friends started singing.
“Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you … happy birthday dear Greg, happy birthday to you.”
As if under a spell, I forgot where I was or how old I was. I knew that I’d been given another year but no promises about living in Hawaii or anywhere else for another year or even another day. The last nail had driven this point home to me with clarity over decades. I could play and sing the nail’s mantra as if it were mine.
“Living on promises that nobody gave to no one, they were given to no one.”
A day of sun and relaxing sounds from the ocean tide had put the partiers to sleep but I couldn’t. A line was stuck in my head.
“So let the ashes fall and lay where they will.
just say that once you used to know me.”
I put down my guitar and walked past the gardens and graves to the Pacific. Lowering into the shallows, I closed my eyes and dipped below the surface, into the ministration of watery solitude and the last nail for the last time.