The night before you died, I had a dream about you.
We were lounging on the floor in a large room, surrounded by blankets and pillows, kids running around. It was early evening. You were relaxing, propped up by pillows; I was right next to you, my son curled up by my legs sleeping. (That’s how you know this was a dream.) We were watching some movie, I don’t remember, chatting, laughing, like old times. When I woke up, I felt like I had spent an entire evening hanging out with you. It was so comforting—and so real. I had to text you about it, remember?
You responded: “I love and miss you cat. These messages bring me so much joy.”
Exactly 16 hours later to the minute, I received another text—this time from your husband, Kory. You were gone.
Not many people knew you were sick. Though you were always on social—I know because of the likes and comments—you rarely posted about yourself. (We call people like you lurkers, you know. LOL.) Which, I suppose, makes sense. You were always very private.
Which made that ONE Facebook post back on July 18, 2019 so shocking.
It was a photo of you, your head wrapped in what would probably be an Hermès scarf—Is that right? You know I don’t know these things!—with your family at ʻIolani School. You mentioned spending three months in a hospital and rehab, missing your home and bed, and working hard in therapy to get a “day pass” to see your daughter’s performance of “The Jungle Book” at school that day. In true Leilani form, you thanked all the people who helped you get to that point in your recovery—including God—and urged everyone to live with no regrets.
Of course, you failed to mention WHY you were in the hospital for seven weeks. (Cancer, yes. But you also broke your back, which is why the long recovery. And you had short hair not because of chemo but because of a knot in your hair that you couldn’t get out without practically shaving your head. But no one knew that yet.) My phone blew up.
We were talking about it one night when I had visited you at St. Francis.
“People are asking me. What should I tell them?”
“Tell them to text me. I mean, I posted it on Facebook. It’s not a secret.”
Some did. Others didn’t. I get it. It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have. But that’s the thing about you: There’s no such thing as an uncomfortable conversation with you.
Our friend, Neysa, summed it up best in her perfectly penned, heartbreaking Facebook tribute to you: “She was so honest to a fault, I loved her ability to talk crap about me to my face while simultaneously caring for me so I wouldn’t wear that hideous top again. That’s what love is.”
It’s funny. I can’t really pinpoint what, exactly, we had in common. We first met in college. It was our very first class of our very first year at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. English 100, 7:45 a.m. You were the coolest weirdo I had ever met. We reconnected years later, when I participated in the Cherry Blossom Festival and you, former Narcissus Queen, volunteered at our events. We adopted you—or maybe it was the other way around.
That led to late nights at Kampai, tossing back Hello Kitty shots and taking an abnormal amount of photos where we’re posing like K-pop stars. Why did we do that…?
And even later nights, just talking about whatever. The latest Apple products. “Days of Our Lives.” Singapore. Books. Kids. What matching Disney outfits you had planned for your family to wear on your upcoming trip to Disneyland. The State of the World. Animal Crossing and why I should do it. (I’m still not convinced.)
When I think about our years—wait, decades—together, a flood of memories overcome me:
You were the first (and maybe the only) person who subscribed to the RSS feed for my blog back when I was blogging for The Honolulu Advertiser. And you emailed me often about posts I wrote—with your very strong opinions. (I have emails from you dating back more than 10 years.)
That time we were at Kapono’s. The music was so loud, we were practically yelling at each other. This is when you told me about Kory and how much he changed your life. You were just dating back then. You said he made you feel comfortable just being you, that nerd I first met back in college. You could just be yourself, and that’s what you said you hoped I’d find, too. Someone who just accepts you for you.
Your wedding. I had never seen you happier.
Oscar. I remember when you saw him at the pet store and you had to go back to get him. You were in love.
How you used an app on your iPhone to get pregnant. I mean, you literally OCD-ed your pregnancy.
How you secured your daughter’s Gmail account before she was even born. (I did the same for my son, I’m not going to lie.)
You on a headset at Festival Ball.
You wanted us to live with no regrets. And I’ve tried to do that. I used to feel bad at how relentlessly I would text you about your health, your organs—literally, I texted, “How are your organs?”—but I’m extremely glad I did.
(Also, I figured if you really wanted me to stop, you would’ve just said so.)
We last saw each other on Dec. 6, 2019. You were working part-time, COVID-19 hadn’t happened yet (at least here). You were still hopeful to celebrate your 10th wedding anniversary in Singapore the following year. We met at Liliha Bakery on a Friday morning after you dropped Kara off at school. I don’t remember what we ate, but it didn’t matter. It was great to catch up—in person, which is why I won’t do Animal Crossing!—and I figured we’d do it again soon enough.
Then COVID came. You had to self-isolate. All we had was texting.
And then, you were gone.
I had a dream about you last night again. The memory of it is already slipping away, as dreams often do. I was looking for you. I went to see our friend Dennis at his salon; you weren’t there. I went to a gym; why I would expect to see you there is still a mystery. Then I found Kory standing in the lobby of a nondescript office building. He was looking for you, too. We grabbed lunch and sat together. He was distraught, his thoughts far away. I told him I kept hearing you tell me something, it was barely a whisper. “It was too much. It broke me.”
Even now, as I sit here in my darkened living room, lit only by the soft light of an almost-full moon, I can hear your voice. “It broke me.”
Are you talking to me? Maybe. Or maybe I’m still trying to process the fact that you’re gone.
But if you are trying to communicate, just shoot me a text. You can do that from heaven, right?
If not, I’m sure you’ll talk to someone up there about that.
(P.S. Don’t judge my spelling, grammar and punctuation right now. Because I know you! It’s early. I’m tired. I’ll reread this later.)
Thank you for writing this (and making me ball my eyes out first thing in the morning!) and reminding me of all the beautiful memories, encounters and convos I have had with Leilani. My heart breaks so hard for Kory and especially for Kara who I know was so loved. She really taught us to never take time for granted and to live life to the fullest. Such a beautiful tribute to her, may her family be wrapped in love and comfort knowing she is no longer suffering.
HUGS and A hui hou Auwe !
Very beautiful tribute.
So very sorry for your loss. I’m crying and didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Leilani (or you for that matter). But sending this to all of my girlfriends now as we too often take our time together for granted.
This is beautiful. What a warm tribute to sweet Leilani. Thank you!