Pippa Rea

Pippa's Journey with a Brain Tumour

Lighting the way

The following article was first published in the Australian Yoga Journal:

Standing waist deep in water with rain falling on my face I reminded myself that I don’t believe in the phrase “everything happens for a reason”.  I do, however, believe in coincidences, circumstances, opportunities and fate.   That’s how I came to be in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Memorial Day 2016.   It was dark and I was wearing a now completely wet denim skirt and a black t-shirt, my hair was tied up in a pony tail and my bag slung diagonally across my shoulder tucked under my arm to try and avoid it from getting wet too.  Beside me my sons’ t-shirts were also damp from the soft sprinkling of rain and they certainly would have been more suited wearing board shorts in the beach instead of chinos.

A series of events over a twelve-month period resulted in me taking my two teenage sons to participate in the Annual Lantern Floating Ceremony at Ala Moana Beach Park, Honolulu.  The ceremony is an ancient Shinnyo-en Buddhist tradition representing the interconnection of past, present and future and carrying hope toward a peaceful and harmonious world.  Now, approaching its 20th year, Lantern Floating Hawaii themed “Many Rivers, One Ocean,” brings together all religions and sectors remembering loved ones passed.

Arriving at Ala Moana Beach Park in the morning to collect one of the 6,000 lanterns available we were expecting a long wait.  The line snaked through the lush park under the shade of the trees for hundreds and hundreds of metres.  The air was hot and humid and the grass wet from tropical overnight rain.  By the time it started to move at 10.00am the queue behind us was just as long as the one in front – thousands and thousands of people waiting patiently for their lanterns.  The first had arrived to secure their spot at the front of the line at 4am.  Families who make the ceremony an annual ritual had erected tents and marquees all throughout the park and along the beachfront from 3.30am.  One family I spoke to had been coming for 8 years.  They arrived at 2am but weren’t allowed into the park until after 3 to set up their tent.  Initially, they floated in memory of a family member who had passed prior to their first year.  “Now,” they said, “it is a tradition we will never miss.”  They are one of the first to arrive during the night every year and have their tent positioned so that their place naturally joins the queue about 50 metres back.

Music played, the waft of barbecues could be smelt from every part of the line, children ran around coming to and from the beach, people rode bikes or played games.  There were mattresses, beds, picnic rugs, umbrellas, fully equipped camp kitchens, bikes, toys, coolers, beach gear, tables and chairs; all stretching as far as you could see.  Food stalls are not prominent; the tent community bring their own.  All for just one day.  The scene reflected more of a party atmosphere or festival than a memorial ceremony yet everyone was still revered and I felt a sense of peace and calamity amongst both those waiting in line and those in their makeshift camps.

The queue moved quickly and collecting and writing on our lantern at 10.45am meant our wait in total was only an hour and a half.  The lanterns are environmentally friendly and refurbished by hundreds of volunteers each year to be reused the following one.  Marquee space is provided to write tributes and memories on the lanterns and many were then personalised further in other ways; mostly adorned with flowers and photographs or wrapped in leis.  We decorated ours with fresh frangipanis and photos.

Arriving back at the beach park later in the afternoon our anticipation was confirmed by the sheer mass of people who migrate to this ceremony.  No less than 50,000 adorned the beach and the park, yet, at the same time, there was no jostling for position or views.  It was apparent that some people liked to position themselves in view of the stage, some in front of the large screens, others in the water and others still stretching as far as the eye could see along the sand and around the curve of the bay.  Behind the stage there were even more people covering the rocky point that framed the southern rim of the cove.  Many people were simply wearing swimsuits, there were fully robed Buddhist Monks and everyone else dressed anywhere in between.  Most were barefoot.  We easily managed to position ourselves on the sand, directly behind the VIP area, in front of both the stage and a screen and with easy access to the shoreline.

The open aired stage, although elaborate in statuesque against the palm trees, was simple; pure white with soft subtle lighting continuously changing to compliment the setting sun.  Dramatic Japanese Taiko Drums were the feature on either side and a large cauldron sat high at the front ready for the ceremonious lighting of the “Harmony Flame”.

The ceremony itself lasted an hour and was a colourful and tranquil display of love, peace and harmony commencing with the haunting sound of the blowing of the conch shell out across the colourful beach where sand was no longer visible and the proverbial pin could have been heard to drop.  The sun dipped below the horizon across the water, it’s golden reflection rippling all the way to the shore.

Conversations with strangers confirmed that everyone was there to celebrate love, memories and remembrance:  the security guard who had lost his baby 14 years earlier; families who had travelled from around the world; the volunteer who had lost every female member of her family to cancer; the woman who was floating for a stranger she had met only very briefly but who couldn’t be there in person.  Lanterns were attributed to aunties, uncles, parents, grand parents and most sadly, children and babies.

As the incredible and moving spectacle of the floating began the rain started to fall.  Not heavy, but enough to make sure we were wet waist up as well as waist down.  Thousands of people waded out into the water without care for their clothing releasing their lanterns. The atmosphere was still revered and peaceful.  Even though we were amongst 50,000 people we could very easily have been on our own.  Gradually the bay filled with golden flickering lights; a breathtaking and heart-rending vision that spread and multiplied across the water as each lantern was released.

I thought to myself before we released ours it’s a shame it’s raining, but even so, it didn’t matter.  We released our lantern and pushed it out to join the others.  I watched it float away holding my boys tight and close.  I turned to see my friend busily taking photos of it drifting off.  Looking back out to the sea of candles I saw our lantern had come back.  I had a little chuckle to myself and pushed it away again.  Off it went and again it returned.  I gave it a harder shove.  Again it came back.  I thought they must all be floating back in, perhaps with the tide?  I looked at the other lanterns.  No, they were all slowly making their way out into the bay.  Ours was the only one that seemed to be going in the other direction.  I laughed and cried at the same time.  That was my daughter, always wanting to be with me; my daughter, my best friend, never leaving my side.  A woman had been watching me continually pushing my lantern out to no avail.  She came over to me and gave me a hug and quietly said to me, “It is tradition to say hello and goodbye to your lantern before you release it.  You must do this to allow it to float away.”  This time our lantern went out to join the others.  I must admit, I was a little sad that it did – I liked the feeling that it wanted to stay with me.

By this time the rain started to ease.  “You know,” the woman said, “in Hawaii rain is seen as a blessing.  It is cleansing and it brings healing, peace, growth and life.  Plus it provides us with the loveliest rainbows!  The fact that it started to rain as the floating of the lanterns began is very spiritual and beautiful.”

I looked at her, this woman I didn’t know who instinctively knew she needed to convey this meaning of rain to me.  Tears welled up more in my eyes and rolled freely down my face.  Before a cruel, inoperable and incurable brainstem tumour took the life of my 11-year-old daughter she had drawn a picture of her heaven.  Sitting on top of clouds her heaven was full of life with stars, music, birds, flowers, water, puppy dogs, bunny rabbits and a big yellow castle where she would live.  A long ladder stretched up to her clouds and underneath them was what I thought was rain.  She had corrected me though.  It wasn’t rain, they were the drops of water that I would feel on my face when she needed me to climb the ladder and visit her.

It was circumstances and opportunity that lead us to participate in the Lantern Floating Ceremony surrounded by so many people united together in emotions and gratitude of those gone before.  It was coincidence and destiny that made the woman approach me and explain about tradition and rain which invoked the memory of my daughter’s heaven and her wanting me to know we could still connect after she was gone.

On the 30th May 2016, 14 months and two days after my daughter passed I was standing fully clothed, waist deep in the tropical Hawaiian beach with drops of water on my face and floating lanterns as far as I could see.

That rain was meant to be.  It was fate.

The Lantern Floating Ceremony is held annually on Memorial Day at Ala Moana Beach Park, Honolulu.  

Anyone is welcome to participate in the lantern floating.  Lanterns are given out from 10am-4pm on the day or until they run out.

There is no cost or charge for floating a lantern.

 

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