Planes Over Honolulu

The first time I boarded a plane to Honolulu, it was a one-way ticket and I cried most of the flight. I’d just turned 15 and while more than once in the recent past I’d envied friends lucky enough to go to Hawai’i on family or school trips, this was a permanent move to a place my parents and I had never even been to. It was the ‘80s so there weren’t smart phones and email to shorten the distance.

Sometimes in the early months after arrival, I’d sit on the beach reading letters from friends and watching planes taking off in the distance. I wished I was on one, headed back to my previous life on the mainland.

Predictably, I settled into island life, immersed in new friendships and culture. Still, the first time I returned to the mainland for a visit, take-off felt like freedom. I don’t remember if I cried coming back, but I do remember the beautiful city lights of Honolulu as the plane dipped below the clouds. The island sparkled in the night, and it felt like a welcome home. Keola Beamer wrote a song about the sadness of leaving the island and the sweetness of coming home to the Honolulu city lights.

Hawai’i became home in every sense of the word. I always loved watching planes arriving and departing in the distance. From sandy beaches I wondered where the planes were headed or where they came from, but I stopped wishing to leave. On weekend nights during high school, we’d sometimes pull our cars up to the edge of the water on Lagoon Drive, mere meters from the airport landing strip lined with blue lights. The huge planes looked like they were on top of the water, gathering speed and then miraculously lifting into the dark, starlit sky, the lights of Honolulu curving in the distance.

I listened to “Honolulu City Lights” on my Walkman every time I left and every time I returned for many years. I left for college, but my parents stayed for nearly two decades, until my father’s cancer diagnosis. He and my mother managed a one-way ticket to Arizona to be near me and my newborn daughter. Two months later, my father passed away.

I have two daughters now and we visit Hawai’i as often as we can. I still cry at the first glimpse of Honolulu out the airplane window and again as I watch Honolulu’s city lights fade into the night behind us. Sometimes I play “Honolulu City Lights” on my iPhone. All these decades later, the song evokes tears no matter where I am.

We flew to Honolulu last October. It was a week after my stepdaughter’s wedding and the week of my birthday. I brought both of my parents’ ashes and held a small afternoon funeral at sea, returning them to the home they loved so much. As we sailed back to the marina, dolphins swam, and a double rainbow arched over Honolulu. Then we toasted to their lives, watching the sun set and planes take off into the darkening blue sky.

Aloha ‘oe…until we meet again.



Stephanie R. Pearmain is an English Professor at the University of Arizona.

Categories: Airports, Airplanes, Trips

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