The frothy comfort of the waves rolling off the reef cooled my bare feet as my eyes careened to the horizon. The familiar vastness of the Pacific Ocean stared back at me, its numerous tiny crests twinkling in the sun.
“Hanna,” I heard my husband call out. “Are you ready?”
No, I sighed to myself. I’ll never quite be ready.
His voice grew closer, and I heard his feet sliding in the sand. “The kids are all strapped in and ready to go.”
Without tearing my eyes away from the water, I reached my hand behind me, searching for him. “Stand with me for a minute.”
Joel’s fingers intertwined with mine, one at a time, and we let the gentle waves shift and sway the sand around our feet.
I had my two lifelines tethering me to this moment: the ocean, and my husband.
“I’m sorry,” Joel said, for what felt like the hundredth time. “I know that this is hard, and I know that this is something I won’t ever completely understand.”
He was right about that, though I would never hold it against him. Growing up in a military family, and then joining the Air Force himself, how could he understand what it was like to leave home for the first time?
My feet, now buried ankle-deep in the shelly sand, have never left Guam. They’d dived down between the coral reefs, and they’d swam through the Talofofo River Valley. They’d hiked the dense paths twisting through the jungles, and they’d jumped off cliffs into the pools at the bases of countless waterfalls.
But they’d never truly left.
I’d been born here, and in my thirty-two years, the farthest I’ve ever traveled has been to visit my auntie and cousins down in Merizo. A grueling drive of thirty minutes!
It was no secret that Mama and Papa had always wanted me to fall in love with an island boy, someone who’d grown up in Dededo like me, or even as far south as Yona, like my sister’s husband. But never more southern than that. Oh no, any boy who lived past Santa Rita was bad news.
(A totally untruthful bias. I love my parents, but they need to stop living in the eighties.)
But I’d been a rebel. I met a United States Airman.
I smiled as I recalled how we’d met. “Joel, you remember snorkeling at Ritidian Point?”
He laughed as our favorite memory resurfaced. “And how you got turned around and started following me instead of your boyfriend?”
“I’m glad I got turned around,” I smiled, leaning my head on his shoulder. “You don’t have to keep apologizing, neni. I already told you that I’d follow you anywhere.”
Which was an essential understanding when you marry into the military lifestyle. We’ve actually been lucky to have stayed here as long as we have. I knew eventually that we’d have to move away, that Joel would be posted somewhere else beyond our control.
But that knowledge, unfortunately, did not make leaving this intimate coconut-studded beach any easier.
Stealing more time, I asked him another question. “And you remember our wedding? At Santa Barbara Church?”
“Of course I do,” he chuckled, pressing his lips softly to the top of my head. “And I remember our honeymoon in Tumon.”
“When the resort gave us the wrong room number at first?” I looked up at him with a tiny, tired smile.
There were the smaller memories, as well, that the sparkling ocean was coaxing out of me. Buying our first house together, a little two-bedroom that we’d eventually try to cram ourselves and our three daughters into before upgrading to a three-bedroom. Joel’s first attempt at making shrimp kelaguen, which I’d fought to keep down with a smile.
And memories farther back, before I’d met Joel. Fishing off the reef with Papa and Uncle Mark, and having a freshly fried parrotfish for dinner that night. Dancing in the sand at senior prom on Gun Beach. Grabbing breakfast before graduation at Linda’s Coffee Shop.
My entire life right here, on these two hundred and twelve square miles.
Joel tugged my hand gently. “Come on, Hanna. The girls are waiting.”
I sighed, knowing he was right. It was time to go, to leave this life behind me. “I’ll be there soon,” I promised. “Just a couple more seconds.”
I heard his footsteps retreating as I closed my eyes and focused on the sun’s warmth soaking into my dark skin, the cool water lapping against my feet, the thrum of the wind blowing through coconut palm fronds.
I told myself that I needed to turn away, to take that first step away from the ocean, toward the Nissan running in our driveway.
But an all-too-familiar panic began to take hold.
It began to transform my beloved tropical world around me, and the gentle waves were growing increasingly restless, until they were suddenly monstrous, crashing against me. The panic gripped at the edges of my mind as I bobbed in a tumultuous sea of thought, barely keeping my head above water.
Could I truly leave my life here?
I was getting tired of fighting the panic, always lurking since my husband had gotten his orders, and I felt myself wanting to finally succumb to the crashing waves. For panic was not alone, anymore; fear had accompanied it.
Was I actually choosing to leave my island?
As both panic and fear teamed against me and began to pull me under the waves and away from the light of the equatorial sun, I felt unwelcome dark thoughts consuming my mind.
Why would I leave my home?
Surely, I did not have to go.
What if I stayed?
No. This last thought was unthinkable. My family was my life.
I froze then, unbreathing, and repeated that same thought in my head. I repeated it unceasingly until, slowly, I resurfaced from the dark water. This mantra was a new lifeline that had been thrown to me in the midst of my drowning in my tumultuous sea.
My family was my life.
My daughters, my husband—they were why I breathed every day.
Then, a truth revealed itself to me: Guam, my Guahan, had all this time been a comfort, an aid. A familiar supporting factor as I built my life to what it was today.
And today, my life was beginning a new chapter.
This new realization gave me the confidence I needed to open my eyes and find my beloved ocean no longer an unfamiliar rough sea, but the gentle rolling expanse with which I’ve grown, the frothy waves cooling my feet. The soft thrum of the wind through the fronds continued, and the high sun’s warmth still caressed my arms.
My island’s farewell embrace, its final Hu guaiya hao. I love you.
No longer drowning, no longer filled with panic and fear, I found myself smiling.
With Guam’s guaiya wrapped around me, I turned away from the ocean and sand and took my first step toward our packed car. Toward our next chapter.
So, when the airport attendant smiled happily at my family and exclaimed, “Hafa Adai! Where are you guys headed today?”, I was able to be the one to answer and say proudly, “United Airlines Flight 5411, to Arizona.”