Ilima Rivera is both nervous and excited as she sits at Lihue Airport Friday night. Her daughter, Sophia, is coming home.
But she’s not there yet, and her mom is anxious. She hasn’t even told other family members about this visit yet.
“When she’s here in my arms I’ll know she’s here,” Ilima said. “That’s how I am.”
So she waits, with her youngest daughter, Angel. It’s quiet, with just a few people milling around. Ilima doesn’t say much. Her thoughts are elsewhere.
It’s been a week to worry about Sophia, who is attending Santa Barbara City College in California. Parents naturally worry about their kids when they go off to college, but this time, there’s a little more to fret about than wondering how your child is doing in class of if they’re partying too much.
Earlier in the week, Sophia looked out from the balcony of her room and saw flames. Smoke was rising. It was miles away, but it seemed so close, Sophia found it frightening.
She called her mom.
If her tough daughter is scared, Ilima worries even more.
The fires in California had already destroyed hundreds of homes, burned thousands of acres, caused unimagined damage and taken horrible tolls.
Ilima wanted her daughter, a 2017 Kapaa High grad who left in August for her freshman year of college, home, now.
“She is far away. She just turned 18,” Ilima said.
“We miss her very much.”
Now, on a Friday night at 10:40, Sophia’s Hawaiian Airlines flight is arriving, finally.
A text pops up on Ilima’s phone. Her daughter has landed.
Ilima, at last, smiles.
“It’s only a few minutes away,” she said.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, Sophia, suitcase in tow, hat on her head, walks up. She is grinning, beaming, as is her mom, as is her sister, Angel.
Ilima hands Sophia flowers, white ginger that smell wonderful, and places a purple tinsel lei around her neck.
There are not a lot of words, but sparkling eyes and big smiles say all you need to know.
Angel, a 15-year-old Kapaa High student, has also worried about her sister. When they talked early in the week, she feared what might happen.
“She just told me the fire was happening, 15 minutes away,” Angel said.
Now, after some 10 hours of flights and waits at airport, Sophia was home.
“I’m really happy,” Angel said.
Sophia is near tears. It feels so good to be back with family.
“As soon as I was on the plane, I was like smiling because I was going to Kauai and my family and everything,” she said.
She is happy and there are tears of joy.
Sophia recalls looking out from the balcony of her residence and seeing the flames and smoke billowing in the air. Later, she saw an oil rig on fire in the water.
When all the power in their dormitory went out, it got real.
“All my roommates and I were scared and started crying,” she said. “We were in a corner of the room together just praying.”
People living in towns nearby were ordered to evacuate. Not Santa Barbara City College, where Sophia is studying communications and is a cheerleader.
But when the power went out because a power pole burned, classes and finals later in the week were canceled. About 200 schools in the area were closed. Smoke was everywhere. The air quality was so bad, almost everyone was wearing breathing masks, including Sophia, who battles asthma.
Power flickered on and off.
Students could stay or go.
“It was like it’s snowing, but it’s raining ash,” she said. “I was really scared.”
A phone call to her mom and it was agreed. Come home.
“It was a big relief when I got to the airport,” Sophia said.
She’ll be home for a month, which means she’s here for Christmas.
Ilima, who has five daughters, said they are all very precious to her.
“Everybody knows that. I love my daughters so much,” she said. “We’re close, so it’s hard to be separated.”
But she accepts it, even encourages it.
“I told them, ‘See the world, see what it’s like.’ I’ve traveled all over the world,” Ilima said. “You can always come back home.
“Do whatever you want in your life, as long as you’re happy. If you want to do it, you do it for yourself.”
“My daughters mean the world,” she said.
When she heard about the fires in California, she called Sophia. She didn’t like what she heard.
“The fire was coming closer and closer to them, so it was a big, worrisome every day,” she said. “We had a lot of prayers going out from St. Catherine’s. A lot of groups were praying for her.”
She called the mayor’s office to see what could be done to help, and she called the Kauai Red Cross and spoke to director Padraic Gallagher.
She said if anyone has a child in a natural disaster situation, call Red Cross. She praised Gallagher for his response.
“He’s amazing. He gave me comfort,” she said.
Ilima stayed in constant contact with Sophia and the college. She was persistent, but calm.
“You gotta be, like, ahead of the game,” she said. “Communicate as much as possible, find out what is happening.”
Now, on a Friday night, she has her daughter back in her arms. When they were done with the hugs, it was time to go home. For Christmas, even.
“We’re just glad she’s here,” Ilima said.
As they walked toward the car, she turned back and added, “She wants to eat Hawaiian food.”