Hula Girls

By Louise Ure


It would have been my brother’s 62nd birthday last month, but he didn’t make it that far. Sad to say, he’s been gone longer now than he was here. He died – a virgin – at twenty-nine. And I did everything in my power to change that.

Billy was the eldest of us, a jiggly, awkward child who could set your teeth on edge with his constant spoon-on-salt-shaker tapping and small petulances. A boy with no physical prowess, he became a quiet, shy man with a rich internal life and a love of music.

He was never the leader of a pack, but he had friends. A gang of dreamers whose walk and stories had no swagger to them.

He could play any instrument set before him. Guitar. Piano. Trumpet. Sitar. Flute. Saxophone. And like a dog with keen hearing, he recognized fine sounds long before the rest of us, introducing me to then unheard of Laura Nyro and Willie Nelson. The transcendent Joni Mitchell. A baby-faced Bob Dylan.

His house – one of four adobe bungalows in a creosote-studded patch of desert – was never clean, but always orderly. Dust covered record albums were alphabetized. Shirts were arranged by color and sub-categorized by sleeve length. Mourning doves and cicadas wrote their own desert symphony outside his bedroom window.

The cancer arrived when he was nineteen, a bit of bad news, but not insurmountable. Then a new word was added to our vocabulary: metastasis. A tumor near the spine. Important glands affected. A lung gone. A new addition to his brain. His young body was a sharp-crested map of scars in a terrain that should have been meadows and soft rolling hills.

He said he didn’t want to die in a hospital. We said okay.

My mother did the brunt of the work, tending him during the day, sleeping on a cot at the foot of his bed at night. My sister and I came home from graduate school on the weekends to spell her.

We made up stories to coerce his morphine-addled mind into accepting food. Beef broth was a wizard’s magic elixir. A steamed green bean became a warrior’s sword. We wrapped bean sprouts around grapes and waggled them in front of him. “It’s a hula girl.” He let them dance into his mouth.

Cousin Fred came by late at night with his guitar and played his saddest song, the one about a young bride’s haunted bed.

    Don’t go away again, stay by my side
    Don’t go away again tonight
    This bed is where I’ll be, holding you tight
    If you will stay

That’s the night Billy told me he didn’t want to die a virgin.

I could understand it. To know that moment of total giving. And total taking. That unsurpassable pas de deux in celebration of life.

I promised  him he wouldn’t.

I found a hooker on Congress Street near the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. She had a round face and flat features, but she was soft spoken and seemed kind, willing to accept my money and take on the job. I drove her back to my brother’s house and waited outside in the car.

She could have lied to me but she didn’t. “He couldn’t get it up,” she said, sliding back into the passenger seat twenty minutes later. I paid her anyway.

My friend Gretchen tried the next night with no better luck, although Billy smiled – at peace – when she fitted herself alongside him in the bed, cradling him against her soft, loose breasts.

Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” leaked from the next room.

I would have made love to him myself if I’d thought it would do any good.

He died two days later, my promise to him unfulfilled.

I twisted early Catechism teachings to ease the pain. “If he died a virgin then he was in a state of grace. Just like a child. He’s sure to go to heaven right away.”

I couldn’t admit then how wrong I was. There is no holier state of being than to love and be loved in return.

Later that year, the university created an award in his memory, to be given annually to the student who best exemplifies the traits of “courage and modesty, altruism and honesty: the hallmarks of its namesake.” 

He may not have lain in the sun-kissed arms of a Hula Girl, but I think Billy did pretty well in the being-loved-in-return department after all.


33 thoughts on “Hula Girls

  1. pari

    Aw, crap, Louise.What a post.

    The longer I live, the more I realize that love’s manifestations are many and our hearts are big enough for them all.

    I wish his wish could have been fulfilled simply because it was a wish. But, he knew you and your friend (and that hooker) tried — and he must have felt all the love in that, too.

  2. Louise Ure

    Pari, it’s just another example of what we do for love, non? I’ll bet you have a million similar examples from your own kids, parents, and friends. And that’s a good thing.

  3. Louise Ure

    Cyndi and Rae, what kindnesses from you! Thank you. (Although I think my brother would have disagreed with your sentiments, Cyndi. Mostly, I was his pesky little-brat sister.)

  4. Karen Olson

    Louise, your beautiful prose brings your brother alive for those of us who did not know him. But it also solidifies our belief in your amazing talent to show us through your writing the lives you’ve touched and the lives who’ve touched you.

    You should write a memoir.

  5. Ken Bruen

    Oh LouiseHe knew grace indeed, and that grace is named Louisewhat a truly wondrous sister you wereHeart wrenching beautiful pieceWill haunt me for a long long timeLove in actionKen

  6. JT Ellison

    I agree with Karen. Every time you put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard) I am desperate for more and the chills linger in my spine for days. Write that memoir. Please.

  7. Louise Ure

    Ken, I adore the notion of love in action. Let it be so.

    And thanks to you and Elaine for the sweet word “grace.” If there can indeed be grace in not having lived up to one’s committment.

  8. Rob Gregory Browne

    I didn’t want to cry today. But I just did.

    You brought back a lot of feelings of my own about that blight on humanity, that mother****** we call cancer. People in my extended family are dealing with it as we speak.

    Beautiful post, Louise. Thank you.

  9. Louise Ure

    J.D. and Rob, sorry about the sad tone. I’ve wanted to write about this for the longest time. Finally got up the courage today.

    And thank you, Elaine. There’s a Mexican saying that we all die three times: once when the body dies, once when we’re buried, and a final time when there’s no one left to remember us. I’m prolonging that final death for my brother.

  10. toni mcgee causey

    Louise, like everyone else, I’m voting for the ‘write the memoir’ already. And while I agree with everyone about the grace (and wow, Louise, I never make it through a Tuesday without tears), I also know that as a brother, he had to have been entirely amused by the effort his sister went to. The greatest gift anyone can receive is that kind of love that you had for him–so few siblings would care that much. What a gift he had for you to be his sister.

  11. Tammy Cravit

    Wow. Just…wow. What a touching story. I wish I had something more articulate to say, more…more fitting for the grace and love and simple kindness embodied in that memory.

    As for your comment that “memoirs should come from those who matter, not just from the guilty bystanders”, all I can say is this: Hogwash. Memoirs come from those of us who have lived, and loved, and lost, and who have learned something about life along the way. Memoirs come from those of us who have survived, and endured, and carried on. They come from those of us who’ve encountered truth and in whom burns that inner fire to share our stories with the world.

    In other words, memoirs come from writers. And you, dearheart, are definitely one of those. So I’m with JT.

  12. Louise Ure

    Tammy, I’m going to print out your comment and stick it on my computer where I can see it on those days when even a grocery list looks like more creative writing than I’m capable of.

    Thank you.

  13. Tom

    Grace arises from effort and intent, not from end result. Give yourself a break – please.

    Your gifts of insight and observance qualify you very well indeed as a memoirist.

  14. Louise Ure

    Thank you, Tom. Insight and observation are exactly what I need right now. I’m once again writing about someone who tried to do the right thing and failed miserably. Interesting how real life influences our work, non?

  15. Tom

    Yes, and in many forms, Louise. We imagine based on what we know.

    Gotta say some of my best experiences have been my failures, seen after the fact.

  16. d.a.davenport

    You broke my heart today, but it was a good kind of heartbreak. What a lovely remembrance!It’s a wonderful gift, being able to bring a person back for a moment or two and introduce him to strangers. To make us wish we had know him, even for a little while.

    You were a special and loving sister then, and you still are. Thanks for sharing him with us.

  17. d.a.davenport

    You broke my heart today, but it was a good kind of heartbreak. What a lovely remembrance!It’s a wonderful gift, being able to bring a person back for a moment or two and introduce him to strangers. To make us wish we had know him, even for a little while.

    You were a special and loving sister then, and you still are. Thanks for sharing him with us.


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