A Hello/Goodbye Story: A Girl, Her Mother and the Captain

Erin Britt reviews & interviews

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I wrote and photographed a hello|goodbye story on the day the man I call the captain was buried. This short exercise enabled me to begin to peel back the layers to expose the words and images of a deeply textured and emotional story. Sometimes having a dual focus within an emotional storm is helpful, and this project was no exception. With gratitude for the opportunity to share, I offer this piece in spirit of forgiveness, understanding and hope.

I think in pictures. Like my father and grandfather before me, the camera is my tool for story tellin, memory and, ultimately, forgiveness. Without pictures, how could I truly remember that we were once a family? We had a dog. We had lazy Sundays and ruffled hair and half-smoked joints in ashtrays above books about photography. There was a giant dream catcher and a rocking chair with green velvet that turned a darker shade when you ran your fingers across it. Then the captain came.

When I was her age, which is exactly nine-and-a-half, it had been three years since the day the police saved my life. In a note to my teacher that year, I explained I didn't know what I had been through. Head high as I shoved the note in her hand, I rolled the word pity in my mouth. It was a new word, a fancy word, and I knew I didn't want any of it. I just wanted someone else to know what happened at the hands of the captain. And how my mother watched, unable to do a thing about it.

When I was her age, which is just-turned-eleven, I got a new mother. Things didn't go as planned, for either of us. Like my middle child, I was anxious and forgetful. I chewed my nails to the quick and snuck things like chocolate in my purse, just like she did today. Her too-full mouth, hardly able to chew, not a dereliction in character but a lesson in grace. After all, she was tired of waiting for her big sister to exchange a pair of track shoes in the long hours before the funeral. 

When I was her age, which is almost-fourteen, my father asked me if I wanted to see my mother again. Two hours later, I could hardly breathe under the crush of her hug. She petted my hair, she cried. I knew better than open my heart too wide. Instead, I chose to be brave. The captain wasn't around, of course. It was easy to be brave when he wasn't there. For this visit today, she's here for a week. It's the longest she's been able to get away from her life her entire adult like. I'm still pretty brave, but it's not because the captain is dead. Or maybe it is.

She didn't make these leis, even though she's known for them. Long ago, the captain and my mother made their home in Hawaii, far away from bridges burned and a past both wanted to forget. Her leis win prizes, big prizes, even though she's a haole. “I didn't give you up,” she explained when I was in my twenties. “I just couldn't fight for you.” My stomach churned for years. After I had my own kids, I realized something: mothers, like everyone else are human. When it ocmes down to fight or flight, we humans do what we have to do to stay alive, even if it means letting go.

One thing is for certain, she's got a voice and she she's decided to use it. Unashamed, she belted out the harmony to the funeral hymn as if it was one of the karaoke songs she's known for on the islands. “I'm going to audition for The Voice,” she tells me on the way to the gravesite. “I don't care if I'm too old. I've just gotta try.”

She's only seventeen years older than I am, but the skin on her body tells the story of a life of hard work, and a life in the tropics. I look at those hands and can hardly connect the hours of labor, weaving leis and building boats, marking her skin so deeply. Here, my middle girl just shared that she didn't know the captain well, but he made her grandmother very happy and for that, she was thankful. My own emotions cloud my heart enough to keep me silent. Taking pictures is enough.

A few years after I graduated from high school, I got a call from a friend I'd known years before, “I was just visiting my uncle on Kauai and saw your picture on the walls. My uncle is the captain.” The man, the monster of my childhood, had a family. What's more, he had a family of people I truly admired. After the funeral, the captain's relatives played with my own children as if they were cousins.

When they're not fighting, these two can have some fun together. Tonight, they taught the entire troop of children at the funeral a face-pinching game that left everyone red-cheeked and happy. Nineteen months apart, they've hardly known life without one another. I marvel at their connection, even when they've drawn battle lines and hunkered down for a grand fight. I tell them that when I'm dead and gone, sisters are all they will have. I think: how morbid, how passive aggressive of me. Of course, they hate this admonishment but they are usually at least a little nicer to one another, for a while anyway.

She has sisters, too. Most of their adult lives have been separate. They argue more than they laugh, but there are times like today when each can stand side-by-side and find joy in each other's presence. Maybe things will be different now that the captain is gone, who knows. Crafting the newness, letting her inside, is the trick we are all going to have to learn. With the captain no longer dictating the cadence of her days, how will we all adjust?

In his own way, he apologized. Sure, certain choices, so far from my own understanding, will likely haunt me most in the shadows of my fears. Forgiveness isn't absolution, it's about giving up hope the past was any different from what it was. I found forgiveness long ago and practice it every day since: in the way I care for my own three, live as equal to my partner and see the world through a lens of compassion. My mother, on her own for the first time in her life, needs me now in ways I can't imagine. I continue to choose bravery instead of pity, grace instead of hate. And at his casket I offered a small prayer, though I never stopped long near it to feel the pine beneath my skin: goodnight. I hope your journey brings you peace you never knew in this life. I wish you well. 

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Erin Britt

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