Why in the world- would a man like Roger Brault windsurf?” It must be a metaphor for something… Metaphor indeed, I think later, as I lamely toss out the prospect to Roger Brault: Doctor, Philanthropist, Enthusiast. “Do you think windsurfing is a metaphor in your life?” (You who, until recently, were lying in the same spot you sit now, on your own deathbed?) Dr. Roger Brault doesn’t flinch as I make an ass of myself. I think the word is aplomb, as in, that’s how he handles it. The long and short of that situation is this: sitting before me is a man who perhaps shouldn’t be. He cam close, so close that he returned home to die and look out upon his sailing backyard before he passed away. He waited, and waited for the last ticking of his clock to take place, but it would not. Now he sits, looking as robust as a man could, graciously entertaining my notion of windsurfing as a metaphor. (You should know, few things are metaphorical to one who has literally come back to life…)
Away from the great salty cliffs of Ho’okipa are other salty shores that can induce that same trance. The shores of Lanikai Beach are such. One day back in 1980, I watched Robby Naish and his father cruise downwind on super sleek Mistral M1’s casually pumping and talking strategy to each other. (They could have been talking cars for all I knew, but I’d like to think they were speaking in exalted tongues.)
That day, their tack took them across the waters before Roger and Maria Brault’s home, the same home I am welcomed into today. In my mind’s eye, I catch a glimpse of the two sails passing by the bay window, between me and the Mokuluas, a pair of small islands that sit directly offshore.
Roger Brault is a gregarious man. He strides across the front living room, hand outstretched. I quietly remind myself to write something about how terrific he looks, especially given what I had heard of his condition. I suppose him wearing a shirt that reads, “I’m not aging, I’m marinating,” also leavens the situation.
Roger Brault cannot sail anymore, due to his recent bout with chemical meningitis, an ailment brought on by his attempts to have minor back surgery. That surgery, and the subsequent complications which nearly killed him, cost him a year in the hospital, two years in bed looking out onto the ocean he hoped would be his final resting place, and another two years of slow recovery. Roger smiles at the thought of windsurfing. “Now I’m back at about 75%. I tried windsurfing two years ago, but I’ve lost so much equilibrium and strength, and my back is killing me,” he adds. “But I fantasize about it every time I go over the hill (into Kailua, which affords a sweeping view of Kailua Bay), and see everyone coming and going. That used to be my territory!”
And for a few years, it most certainly was. Every windy day, Roger could be seen streaking along inside the reef, hooked in and looking from a distance like every other sailor in angle and trim. Only when you got close did you notice the man, 30 years senior to everyone out there , with a crazy expression of joy on his face, reflecting the rekindled flame of “youth-ness” that marks a person on a plane.
The story of Roger Brault has only a few brushstrokes colored with windsurfing, yet we, as a collective group of sailors, should consider ourselves lucky to have him. He is a dedicated professional of medicine on local, regional, national and international levels. He has traveled the world with his wife and brought much relief to many people. He is, though, and always will be, a boardhead.
Roger and his wife Maria came to Hawaii from Canada in the early 60’s, and soon after, found themselves performing their learned skills (he as a surgeon; she an internist) in the countryside of Kailua about forty minutes from Honolulu. For over a decade, they enjoyed their rural existence, but in 1975, they decided it was time for a change. It began with their desire to see the world.
“In ’75, we started doing volunteer medicine and took our first post in St. Lucia. We were there for six months, then we came back here. In ’76, we spent six months in Haiti, six months in Columbia, and six months in Guatemala. All of this at our own expense. All these groups that have missions and clinics wanted us to go for a year or more, but we didn’t want to commit- we wanted a world experience.”
He pauses to take a sip of water. Maria sits to his left- an elegant woman- and you can tell she is running these memories through her head as well. She has a slight smile on her face. (Do you have any idea what volunteer medicine entails?)
“After Guatemala, we kept traveling around the world. We went to Borneo, then spent a month with Mother Theresa in Calcutta- that was ’78. We were on our way to Kenya, to our last post, when Maria injured herself, and we had to cut the trip short so she could get attention.”
Roger pauses again to look at Maria, whose expression has become slightly troubled. He continues:
“Our philosophy, after spending this time in the field, is that if you treat the individual, you don’t get anyplace. If you really want to do something, you must deal with the country and the system. So, we came home and went back to school to get our masters in public health and international health. I couldn’t deal with all the bureaucracy, but Maria has the soul and the background for it. I came back and returned to surgery, then got very involved with the hospice movement, while Maria went into public policy.”
The conversation changes topics a bit as they pick up the hospice discussion. Both Roger and Maria pitch in:
“In the Third World, we saw such an acceptance of illness and death that when we got here (to the United States), we thought, ‘there must be a better way.’ (than the western ideal of extending life as long as possible). We heard about the Hospice movement in England and got involved. Then, we helped St. Francis (a local hospital) start their Hospice Hawaii, which is a home-based care system for people who are terminally ill. At that time it was mainly for cancer patients, but now it has extended to many other situations.”
“The hospice idea and the home-based program was to…instead of spending all this time and energy extending a person’s life, we would make the patient comfortable and accept the diagnosis. It made so much sense to spread the news, and the best way of doing this is to treat the system. It’s all over the world now, the thought that sometimes there is more compassion in letting a person die comfortably.”
From 1980 to 1985, Roger continued his surgery practice and Hospice work while maria got into public policy as the Director of Health for the City f Honolulu. In 1985, she decided to retire, and Roger, who had been teaching medicine in the Micronesias, returned home as well. It seemed that retirement, or at least the freedom that retirement provides, was at hand.
“We had hoped to put our affairs in order in 1985 and travel a bit more. While I was doing that, I windsurfed a lot. To treat a recurring back pain, I went to have a minor operation, and because of an inflammatory reaction to the operation, I developed serious complications. I was passing out, being rushed to the hospital over and over. The treatment complications was so hard on my system that after awhile, I couldn’t even walk.”
He pauses and looks at me, “You don’t really want to hear this do you?” I shake my head, and for a moment think about blurting out, “It’s so amazing that you are even here, of course I have to know the whole story!” but I refrain, and give an affirmative nod. He continues:
“I went to California for the tests, and they asked me to come back for some follow-up tests a week later. But before that, I was back again, having been admitted unconscious. My immune system had been so depleted by the chemicals I had been using, that I was done for. The doctors decided to bypass the chemical treatment of the complications, and put a valve inside my brain to drain the fluid out of my head, which provided some of the equilibrium relief to my symptoms. However, the doctors thought I would not make it. I asked them if I could spend my last days here and have my ashes spread between the Mokuluas.” He gestures behind him. “They didn’t think I could even make the flight home, but two weeks later I made the flight, and they were right, it almost did me in. I was rushed straight to the hospital.
But at least he was home. What began was, at first, a hoped for comfortable passing. It then became a slow road to recovery, not measured in days or months, but years. During much of the time it seemed the situation could have gone either way at a moment’s notice.
Which brings us back to today. Roger is confident that had it not been for this recent episode, he would still be sailing. He can accept that reality with only a twitch of melancholy smile. Enough said. Why linger on a thought that now is no more than a nostalgic memory? Roger and Maria have so much more to do. So much more they can do.
Roger may no longer be able to windsurf, but he can ski. The Brault’s leave in the morning to go on a cruise trip around the islands for a few days, then off to the mainland to a board meeting of Project Concern International. “But,” says the Good Doctor, “since it’s winter…we have a good friend in Whistler, and then we had thought about Switzerland. I’ve never skied in Switzerland…” (Do you get the feeling they are somewhere in the middle of their lives. They do.)
Roger laughs and sits back in his chair. His windsurfing memories undoubtedly bring him much joy, and now, the important thing is to keep moving, keep thinking young. Sliding across water, frozen or thawed, is still sliding across water.