I'd been worried about Aiko.*
I hadn't gotten an email from her in almost two months. While our emails had been a bit sporadic since I'd moved away from Hawai'i almost two years ago, we'd managed to stay in fairly regular touch.
While most of my friends message me via Facebook or WhatsApp, or even call from time to time via some free Internet thingy, Aiko and I continue to write to each other in emails. In a way, it feels old fashioned for an instant gratification, 140-characters or less age.
Aiko composes emails, and so do I. We write each other long updates and admissions about our lives — how frustrating work and money are, goings on with friends, how her birds and my cat are doing, illness, ailments, cool new shampoos (we both are on the quest for the perfect de-frizzing shampoo for wavy, Asian hair). Blocks of text and lengthy emails usually make me "save that one for later," but with Aiko's emails, it's like I get to be transported back to our favorite Honolulu lunch spot, just for a few minutes.
I can hear her voice, her high-pitched, almost girlish laugh that is a delightful counterpoint to her deep, even, "surfer's voice." Surfer's voice isn't a thing (at least I don't think it is), but as a life-long surfer, Aiko's otherwise smooth voice sounds like it's been textured by the sun, surf, and sand. There's living in that voice.
Aiko and I met years ago, when I started working at the pet supply store in Honolulu. She intimidated me, and I annoyed her.
Exhausted by my nervous enthusiasm, she turned to my manager after my first week at the store and said, "Oh, that girl and I are NOT going to get along."
God I love that woman.
Sensing the tension between Aiko and me, my manager decided to schedule us together four out of five days a week. This could have backfired horribly, but it did not. It was a gift.
In those early days of the Aiko and Louise Show, she was professional but curt. I dreaded asking her lined, unsmiling face for help. With my nerves, and discomfort with customers, I'm sure her dark eyes were fighting every urge to roll.
But slowly, slowly I unclenched and so did she. On slow days, we'd sit on the too-high stools behind the checkout counter in not-entirely-uncomfortable silence. We must have looked like quite a pair: the fidgety 20-something, doodling on a notepad, and the still, stoic 60-something counting the seconds until quitting time.
Maybe out of boredom, one day Aiko asked me why I was in Hawai'i. I told her the short version of how my fiancé was getting his PhD at the University of Hawai'i, and I needed to get away from Los Angeles. I asked her if she'd always lived in Oahu, and she told me briefly about her life on and off the island. Little by little, we found footholds into each other's life, and the hours we were forced to endure together started to click by faster.
Then one day I made her laugh. After many hours of polite conversation, I inadvertently dropped my guard and made some weird comment about how I didn't want kids, I wanted chickens. Her face broke into a smile, and she released that cackling laugh I've come to cherish.
From then on, I looked forward to work because I got to hang out with one of the coolest women I'd ever met, Aiko.
She told me about growing up on Oahu with a policeman father, how she'd seen the island change over the years, how she used to do medical illustrations for hospital physicians. She spoke with pride about her education, her love of books, birds, and the giant avocado tree she regularly scaled to get the "good ones." She started bringing me avocados from her tree, I started bringing her coffee every morning.
Aiko was a "soul surfer" as she called it. She learned to surf in her 20s, from the local teenagers bobbing along the coastline (some of the kids she surfed with grew up to be among the greats). She told me, "If I couldn't surf, I felt sick. My life was out there." Up until a couple years ago, when her back betrayed her, she was in the water at dawn, and in the water after work. Surfing was her therapy, her joy, where her people were.
I'd never met anybody like her. Older or younger, I'd never met anybody with such confidence in the core of her person.
More so, beneath her serious, skeptical demeanor lay an earnest, eager, silly person who once she decided she liked you was unquestioningly on your side. In a time when I was fearful of a lot, mostly of my own life decisions, she told me to "Fight harder for yourself. It's such a waste to be scared of opportunities."
And while the differences in our ages melted away in our interactions, it was never forgotten. Aiko liked it that way. Her 60s versus my 20s was never a dividing line, but Aiko always made it clear that while aging was a "bummer" sometimes, it was no shame.
We were, and are, simply friends. Friends at different places in our lives, but friends who nonetheless. Her young soul connected with my old soul, and we both made each other feel a little more at peace with ourselves.
It's worth noting that we never had a "mother-daughter" relationship. I never treated her any differently than I did friends my own age, and having met many of her "age appropriate" friends, I don't think she treated me any differently. In fact, I think she felt more comfortable with me sometimes.
"I haven't had a friend like you in a long time," Aiko once told me. "It's nice to just be me. Everyone's waiting for me to be an old, retired auntie but I don't feel like that person. I'm just Aiko. I'm pretty cool with being in my 60s, I wouldn't want to be any other age. But like you say, it's THE WORST when everyone looks at me like I might break a hip. Maybe I will! Aging is weird Louise. It only really sucks when my body can't keep up. I don't feel much different than I did at 35 — aside from my damn back and the fact that I look in the mirror and get surprised at my mother looking back at me sometimes — but really, it's how people treat you that changes. Ugh."
Her words have stuck with me. I'm at an age when people are expecting certain things of me, be it related to career, family, finances, whatever. While I trot through my life mostly secure in what I'm doing and where I'm going, there are times that I feel outside expectations shifting. It's hard not to wonder if I'm somehow doing something wrong.
Should I be "acting my age"? What does that even mean?
Aiko's life isn't perfect, but she lives it pretty happily on her terms. There is something remarkable to that, something that I continue to strive for. As someone who takes what people say about me or to me so readily to heart sometimes, Aiko's friendship and experience have been an example of what I can do and how I can choose to live my life — subject to everybody else, or subject to what I know is right for me.
It's not easy, Aiko and I talk about that a lot. Especially for women, the expected checklist keeps piling up as we age.
But what Aiko's friendship has taught me, is that if you don't check that thing off your list, if it's not important to you, you have the freedom to entirely remove it. Aiko's life is not one without regrets, she's very open about the things she would have liked to do. But I've seen in her an ability to absorb them and make them a valuable part of who she is. She's careful, she's thoughtful, but she's not afraid.
"I've already been afraid, I'm not going to do that again," she said to me once. Though she says she feels the same as she did when she was my age, there is wisdom with those words that only comes with living through the trials of youth.
"Being afraid," that's something I'd like to check off my list and be done with.
I suppose what it comes down to is spirit. So often, we're told that aging is a winding down, letting the flame ebb until it snuffs out. Maybe part of me believed that before I met Aiko. But Aiko's flame, her spirit, is still bright. Why shouldn't it be?
It's women like Aiko who have helped me remove "I'm so old" as an excuse for things I am afraid of. Sure, there are things I don't do, or don't want to do because age has led me to make that decision. But thinking of Aiko surfing the big Hawai'i waves into her 60s has made me reevaluate the idea that with age comes a cessation of self.
I just got an email from Aiko yesterday. The only worrisome thing about being friends with someone nearly twice my age, is that I worry about her health. She's fine, she'd just been busy with her life — her rescue birds, her new job, this book about the intelligence of octopi she found. Fitting to this post, she mentioned how excited she was to be entering the "next stage" of her life as she creeps up on 70.
I want to be like Aiko as I get older, I want to be without question, me.