It’s Friday night, 7:08 Hawaii time and all 10 of us are settled in our seats on Flight 239 from KOA to DFW. We just took off and have already crossed the island, heading east over the beautiful but dark Pacific, the sun having set over an hour ago. We are all seated close together, Mike and Casey across the aisle, Shelby and Luke next to me, with more Strawns in the rows behind and in front of us, a fact I find both fitting and comforting. I am going to miss all the action and spice that the Strawn 6 bring to our days after we say goodbye tomorrow morning. I am going to miss all the laughs that we have shared. I am going to miss Bodie’s sweet hugs when he greets me each morning. I am going to miss watching Turner and Dan hang out together. I am especially going to miss how Shelby says Aloha. It sounds like a sweet and innocent bird is greeting the day. She pronounces it, “Ah hoo ha” with a strong emphasis on the “hoo.” We all have begun imitating her because it’s so cute, but she finds that annoying and now won’t say the word at all.
I am even going to miss some of the attention that our big crew gets as we stroll around the island. We are hard not to miss with six kids between us, two of whom have Down Syndrome.
My world is so full of Down Syndrome that I honestly forget that we are not a normal, everyday sight. Casey, however, notices every time some stranger stares at her. In fact, today at the airport, she got a bit frustrated while we sat waiting for the boarding line in front of us to dwindle. “Mom, why are all these people staring at me?” She seemed wary yet satisfied when I told her it was because she is so beautiful. (She would have been downright mad if I had said “Because you have Down Syndrome.”)
I swear though, some people do double takes as we walk by them. I know it’s not intentional but, I do wonder what they are thinking… like, “Are the girls sisters?” “Are Paige and I sisters who both had a daughter with Down Syndrome?” “How do we handle them both?” “Are we nuts for taking all these kids to a small island in the Pacific?” These are all valid questions. (The answers are No, No, I am not sure, and Most definitely.) Honestly, we have gotten lots of smiles and sweet gestures from people all week. Like the lady at the airport restaurant who waited patiently for Casey to give her the money for a soda. Sweet Captain Kelsey who chatted with the girls on the snorkeling excursion while us parents were still out in the ocean or helping the boys. Or the kind Hawaiian Marriott employee at the luau who totally snagged us a table, surely reserved for premium seating, even though we clearly had NOT paid for premium seating, just so that we could all sit together.
I like to call these people our advocates. On the occasions that we get a chance to speak more personally with them, we find they ALWAYS have a connection to someone with special needs; a sister with Down Syndrome who lives in Hoboken with mom, an intellectually disabled aunt who makes jewelry in Des Moines, a friend whose autistic cousin was always around when they were growing up. These advocates love to talk with the girls, learn our story, steal some hugs, and tell us their connection. I’ve actually found Hawaiians to be some of the friendliest when it comes to our girls. I think it’s because the Hawaiian culture strongly values taking care of all family, especially their elderly, disabled, young, etc. Last year, a lady practically ran across the terminal in Oahu just to hug Casey and tell us she used to teach Special Education in Guam. These angels always fill my heart with hope and joy; they remind me that the world still values people like Casey and Shelby.
The last 24 hours have been a whirlwind; trying to wrap our minds around the fact that we have to return home and act like people who have jobs and things to do. We drove over to the overwhelmingly large Hilton Waikaloa Village Resort to have dinner,
letting the kids ride the tram from the lobby to the Palace Tower, where our restaurant had a beautiful view of the ocean. However, our crew is kind of loud and takes up a lot of space so they, smartly, sat us inside closer to the bar. I would highly recommend Nui Italian if you have a hankering for some pasta or pizza on the island. Paige and I sipped on aperol spritzers (I caught Dan trying to sneak a few sips himself) and we all dove into their delicious focaccia bread. It was such a fun last night for us all. We toasted to our amazing trip and vowed that we would definitely return together. It has made my heart so happy to see my best friends develop a love for this amazing island.
Before calling it a night, Mike set up his camera for one last group shot; he wanted to get a pic of all of us in Big Lou, lit up from the inside. We waited in the van while he set up the shot and practiced with a few flashes. I secretly prayed that they wouldn’t send one of the kids into a seizure, while Mack was sure that one more flash would make him go ‘blonde.’ We did get a couple funny ones, but alas, not the shot he had hoped for. We will remember Big Lou fondly and, I doubt she will ever forget us or what we did to her. (Let’s just say carting this crew around left her a little worse for the wear.)
Mike and Dan actually set their alarms this morning for 4 am to sneak out onto the golf course and catch a meteor shower. Mike doubts he got any good pics and it was so incredibly windy that they froze their tan booties off but still enjoyed being out there among the stars. He said Venus was so bright he thought it was a boat along the horizon. I heard the birds start chirping around 6:45; my cue to get out of bed and catch the beauty of the last morning before heading to Kimo Bean for my last nonfat mocho coconut latte that I am really going to miss back on the mainland. That and the amazingly soul-restoring walks along the shore line that Mike and I enjoy in the mornings. There is really no better way to start a day.
We rolled out of Hali’i Kai right at 11 am as requested and drove up to Waimea for one last amazing meal at The Fish And The Hog. It’s further east on the wet side of Waimea and I had a gorgeous view of a green mountainside while enjoying juicy burgers and the best chocolate cake ever.
Realizing that these young boys needed some room to breathe before the long flight back, Big Lou was parked by Waimea Community Park and the littles all got their wiggles out. Meanwhile, Mike and Dan snuck over to the Keck Observatory Visitor’s Center and were pleasantly surprised to be treated to a private tour of how the Keck Telescope, up on the top of Mauna Kea, functions. Shared by Cal Tech, Berkeley, Northwestern, Duke and University of Hawaii’s astronomy departments, each university gets a designated amount of nights where they can perform experiments and get information millions of light years away from a giant telescope. I am quite confident those boys would still be there if I had not called them to come back down the mountain with us.
We made one more stop at the King’s Shops in Waikaloa for a couple sundries (Mike woke up with a cold and is currently weaning off of Mucinex and onto Nyquil) before driving to Kona. We found a great little beach park in the NELHA (Natural Energy Lab of Hawaii) right next to the airport and as 737s flew over us, loudly reminding us of our eminent departure, we waded in a few tidepools while the waves crashed into small cliffs not too many more feet out to sea. Mike caught a few last minute pictures of us out on the lava while Paige and I called for Mack and Bodie to get away from the edge.
That was all I needed; for my friends to lose a kid to the ocean hours before leaving. Fortunately, the boys promptly listened and we were back in the van to find a restroom and shower for our sandy feet. We got one of our final hearty laughs of the trip when Paige accidentally soaked Bodie who didn’t realize he was under the shower as Paige was pressing the ON button. He cried at the shock of that cold water, but the rest of us cried from laughing so hard. Fresh clothes and the rest of my Diet Dr. Pepper helped console him. That poor boy had definitely endured the most mishaps on this trip.
I, reluctantly, am ready to be back home. My kids need to get back to school and, there are Christmas decorations to put away. I have new 2019 goals to work toward and friends and family back home that I miss. But, like I always do when I depart my favorite island, I took one last glimpse of the beautiful sunset over the ocean right before I stepped inside the plane and thanked God for the chance to witness, again, such amazing beauty. I am taking home just a few shells and way too many wonderful memories. Until next time…