Aloha means hello and goodbye. It means “love to you”. My husband inscribed “My Aloha Forever” inside my wedding ring. Although it is the most commonly heard Hawaiian word, it is always spoken from the heart. Everywhere in Hawaii, everyone you meet will smile and say “Aloha” to you.
This is a story about a man who lived aloha. My husband Jim was a sailor, an adventurer, a storyteller. He was stout, had rosy cheeks and a colorful vocabulary. When you were with him there was never a dull moment. He was always the life of the party. He was a wild man but the smile in his eyes told you he was a guy with whom you could be yourself. There was nothing pretentious about him.
We never had much money and we were never interested in material things. Nor did we lack for much, for in giving we received much in return. I couldn’t have asked for a more loving man in my life. We spent 21 wonderful years together. He was always there for me, and always there for a friend in need. He was a kind and generous man.
Standard daily men’s wear in Hawaii consists of colorfully printed short-sleeved aloha shirts, usually worn with shorts and Hawaiian “slippers”, or flip-flops. All the Hawaiian aloha shirt designs tell a story of some kind. Jim loved his extensive collection of aloha shirts. He had more aloha shirts than my entire wardrobe of work, play, warm and cold weather gear combined. It would have taken him a two month stretch to wear all of his shirts. It was quite fitting that Jim cherished his aloha wear, he was a man full of love.
In 2004, Jim’s weight dropped from 220 lbs. to 135 lbs. Our worst nightmare was confirmed with the diagnosis of a rare incurable cancer and ensuing surgical removal of half his insides. Even in his weakest state his generosity never waned. When his friends visited him he would disappear into our bedroom briefly and return to the living room – big smile on his face - with one of his aloha shirts.
“Here, my friend, I’d like you to have this, I’ll never grow back into it,” he’d say.
Jim’s disease eventually consumed him and he passed away in February of 2006. After two years of caring for my life partner, my soul mate, I was devastated. Life wasn’t fair and I was angry. After trying to hold down my full time job and be his caregiver, I was so exhausted and sad; I was not sure whose adrenaline I was running on. I had kept a brave face for Jim. He was so strong.
As his life neared its end, he specifically asked me for an ash scattering on the catamaran FAIRWIND and a wild drinking bash in his honor afterwards. Many of our friends used to be Jim’s drinking buddies, but most of us had long since quit. Jim’s last requests would be granted however.
I was struggling to organize his services when it occurred to me to give all of his aloha shirts to those who attended. I thought it would be beautiful if everyone donned his clothes. I knew he’d be present at that party and I thought he’d enjoy it.
When our family and many friends flew in from the mainland, I told them how Jim had been gifting his shirts during to visitors and loyal local friends. I said if wasn’t too weird for them it would please me if each of them chose one of his shirts to keep. I added a stipulation: they would have to wear it to the celebration of his life. In one way I could creatively clear out the closet; but much more importantly, it seemed an excellent channel to continue to spread his love and keep his spirit alive.
The ash scattering had its sad moments. I was too choked up to say what I had planned. I had to delegate most of the program. It was awesome and though tears were shed, Captain Danny led some elegant prayers in Hawaiian to properly send Jim back to his beloved ocean. His friend Chip performed a beautiful reading of “I must go down to the sea again...,” it was perfect. I don’t know how that poem found me. I also located a Fijian chant that brought back memories of Jim’s and my greatest adventure: sailing from Hawaii to Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, and I added that to the ceremony.
I tossed some of his ashes into the sea, when an idea hit me. Why not invite everyone to throw ashes? It is not traditional in an ash scattering, it may even be inappropriate. I threw all caution to the wind. It was Captain Jim we were dealing with. He was neither traditional nor appropriate! We all threw loose flowers into the sea to guide his spirit, and that was protocol. But everyone joined in the throwing of the ashes as naturally as if they were flowers. You could see his spirit take shape and flow into the deep. It was at once beautiful, sad and enlightening. We blasted a CD of his favorite rock and roll tunes and poured a champagne toast to a smooth and happy sailing for Jim’s next adventure. From that moment you’d never have guessed it was a funeral. We dried up our tears and turned them into laughter. Even I was laughing. I had barely smiled in two years, but there I was having fun. Granted, it took some champagne to find that first smile, but soon enough my hysteria turned into hysterical laughter. Maybe I’d survive the ordeal after all.
At first I was shy about mentioning the shirt idea. People might think I was crazy. Upon second thought, I decided Jim had inspired me and if anyone thought it was morbid he wouldn’t have to participate. Au contraire. I folded and neatly arranged the shirts on the bed before I’d invited the guys in to choose. It was like Wal-Mart the day after Thanksgiving. Shirts were flying everywhere. Like any great sale, they ended up strewn about; the numbers dwindled quickly. Jim’s oldest and wildest childhood friends went straight for his absolute favorite shirts, though they hadn’t been to Hawaii in years, and likely hadn’t seen him wear any of them. Walter had four shirts on his pile but I didn’t have the heart to stop him. He was always Jim’s ‘brother’. I could see the appreciation in the “WOW!” on his face. He immediately put on Jim’s favored faded purple shirt and wore it every day he for a week.
The shirts went so fast I scurried into my bedroom to find his t-shirts and hats I was going to keep. When Jim worked for months at sea and visited ports without me, he always brought me unique artifacts and collectibles, so I would have great memories of him. I brought out the rest of his t-shirts, hats, and lava-lavas (Hawaiian men’s sarongs). They disappeared in minutes.
I could feel Jimbo smiling. I was amazed at his friends’ reactions when they chose their remembrances of him. I didn’t feel weird at all. In most cases, they were able to find items reminiscent of special times they had shared with him. Old Man Tom, at 84, flew in from California. He had remembered to bring the Pussers Rum cup Jim had given him 20 years earlier when Tom visited us in the British Virgin Islands. The old bugger had just recovered from a heart attack and a stroke, but he drank straight Pussers Rum in his new aloha shirt and fishing hat until 3am. What a trouper. He was the ideal example of Jim’s fine long-lasting friendships.
Several months later as I write this I recognize our friends in town by his shirts. Others email or call to say, “I’m wearing Jim’s shirt (hat, jacket, shorts, shoes, watch, foul-weather gear, etc.) today and I wanted to tell you I was thinking about you both.” I look at the photos from the celebration and see all those shirts. And I smile. I see people hugging, laughing, some of them crying. When I think about what we went through I still cry, mostly because I had to hold in the hurt while he was ill. But when I see everyone wearing all of his things it is like a great Jim Dorton masquerade party. I especially like the photos from late that night when we were all notably looped. They make me laugh. They are filled with much aloha.
I gave away all of his clothes except for his slippers. They still sit outside the front door, Hawaiian style. They belong there. Inevitably when one of my brothers or a friend visits they’ll forget to bring theirs. Jim can still lend them his as he always did.
I’m glad Jim inspired me to pass on his things that day. As long as the threads hold together his tales will be told. This is one small way I hope to keep his legacy alive; as his aloha spirit has traveled far. People had often said of Jim, “He’d give you the shirt off his back,” and he did, all of them. He gave us his aloha forever.