As a long-haul caregiver, I’ve learned one especially important thing: if we can press PAUSE on our anxiety and worrying, we can let in moments of intense joy. Like what happened in this story.
“I know it’s last minute,” said Rosanne’s email, “but we’re planning Wayne’s memorial celebration here on the island, on what would have been Wayne’s 69th birthday. It’s going to be one of those celebrations Wayne always liked where people come down for a while and leave with a new friend. Can you come?”
Our friends Wayne and Rosanne moved from Rhode Island to St. John in January 2009. Wayne to manage the Concordia eco-resort, and Rosanne to start a property management and architectural firm. They married in late January of that year at the eco-resort.
Wayne was a good friend to my husband Greg. When the Covid lockdown started in March 2020, Wayne called Greg every week from his home in St. John. They talked about politics, history, nature, weather, and questions about God, the afterlife, and spirituality. I could hear Wayne ask questions and offer wise perspectives. No judging or advice-giving. Just a friend’s love and observations about failing health and the threat of death.
Greg’s brain was decaying from advanced Parkinson’s Disease; Wayne’s heart and liver were failing.
Wayne often quoted Maya Angelou or Van Morrison’s lyrics to provide context to his observations. His cadence had the magical rhythm of a poet or singer. It was calm and comforting. He had a poet’s soul and a philosopher’s mind.
Wayne’s wife Rosanne texted early one morning last March to tell us that Wayne died while waiting for a heart and liver transplant. He was 68.
The sadness made Greg’s hallucinations, a common symptom of late-stage PD, especially vivid and frightening. The imaginary Wayne was in Greg’s bedroom but wouldn’t listen to him, unlike Wayne. Greg screamed, “Wayne, Wayne, why won’t you answer me.” Then the hallucination faded. “Don’t leave. Come back, Wayne. Please don’t leave me.” Greg slept the next two days, exhausted and bereft.
“I don’t think I was this sad when my parents died. I loved Wayne so much.”
Greg and I went to St. John to be part of the festivities when Wayne and Rosanne married in 2009. We stayed in one of the eco-resort’s platform tents. The tent perched on a hill and overlooked Ram’s Head Bay, part of the Virgin Islands National Park. We climbed 93 steps up to the parking lot from our tent and down 56 steps to get to the casual restaurant and reception area.
Wayne believed that everyone who came to their wedding should leave with at least one new best friend. Most of the guests, like us, stayed for a week. We ate together at the open-air restaurant and jammed people and beach chairs into Jeeps to drive over the north side of the island to St. Francis Bay, one of the island’s quietest and smallest beaches. We drank beer and ate burgers at Skinny Legs Bar. We fell into meandering, meaningful conversations with strangers who became friends.
We all joined hands as Wayne and Rosanne made their vows by the yoga pavilion. This was no fancy-dancy “destination wedding.” We wore beach sandals, Hawaiian shirts, linen caftans, and lots of sunscreen. After eating under the pavilion, we cleared the food, moved tables, and danced to a local band.
Greg had been experiencing headaches and a pinched nerve in his neck for months before this trip. In retrospect, I see that these were symptoms of Parkinson’s, which would not be diagnosed until two years later.
His pain was less intense in St. John. Perhaps the island’s wild beauty, good memories, and the love of old and new friends were like a balm, physically and mentally.
Before our son Ian started school, Greg and I rented a house here in January as a Christmas present for family and friends. The house would be packed with people, wet bathing suits on the clothesline, port-a-cribs, and flip-flops. My mother snorkeled. I swam and read. My father and Greg sat on the beach with their Budweisers. My sisters ran after two-year-old Ian as he chased wild donkeys into the mangroves. At the end of the day, we took outdoor showers, cooked dinner, and went to bed early.
The island is not for everyone. Wild donkeys, goats, and lizards walk the roads and beaches. Mice run wild in kitchens if you don’t store everything in the refrigerator. The driving is treacherous, with mountain switchbacks and disorienting left-hand side driving. There are no resorts, fancy restaurants, or beachfront cabanas with refreshments. The Internet connection can be sporadic, as can electricity. Solar heats the water in many houses and campsites. If it’s cloudy, you’re taking a cold shower.
The trip to St. John for Wayne and Rosanne’s wedding was the last big trip Greg and I took.
I replied, “YES!” to Rosanne’s email right away. Of course, I would come to Wayne’s memorial celebration. Yet I went to St. John with some trepidation.
Greg had moved into an assisted living facility three months earlier, and I was anxious about being so far away. What if he fell? Needed help organizing his pills? Became excessively agitated from the hallucinations, which were becoming more frequent and disturbing? If Greg needed me, he might not be able to reach me because of the island’s spotty Internet and cell coverage. And if there were real problems, I wouldn’t be able to get home for at least a day.
“Go, please go,” Greg said. “It will make me so happy to know that you’re in a place we loved with people we love.”
Wayne’s memorial celebration, at the same place he and Rosanne had married, was lovely. Poignant stories. Photographs and videos that made us laugh and cry. Local musicians. Good food. Balmy breezes.
The moments of joy that jolted me awake came from two unexpected events later that week.
The Saturday after the memorial, 25 of us boarded three boats at the tiny marina behind the Skinny Legs bar and headed out to a secluded cove near the east end of the island. We tied the boats together and anchored for what locals call a “raft-up.” Some older people got comfortable under the awning on one of the boats. Most of us wrapped swimming noodles under our arms, grabbed a drink in a plastic cup, and climbed the ladder down to the water where we bobbed around.
I chatted with one or two people, then paddled over to another person or small group. We told stories about Wayne. We asked for details about the octopus someone had seen snorkeling earlier in the day. I talked with Rosanne about her grief and what was going on in her head and heart.
At one point Kate, owner of the boat charter and a friend of Rosanne’s, started doing water acrobatics. We all paddled closer to see what was going on.
“Kate competed in the 2008 Olympics for synchronized swimming,” someone said as a leg pointed up from the water and twirled around. About 20 of us created a circle around Kate and goaded her into giving us a performance. She dove under the water and then her legs shot up, twirling and doing scissor kicks.
Inspired by the performance or fueled alcohol, my new friend Kevin, 27 years younger than me, soon decided we should go down the slide on one of the boats.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Lois, we have to do it. “What do you think, Natalie? Are you in, too? Lois and I are going to do it.”
For the next hour, we climbed up the ladder, flew off the slide into the water, came up for air, laughed, and squealed, “Again!” We were free, silly, and exuberant like six-year-olds.
“Hey everyone. It’s getting dark. We have to start thinking about leaving.”
We nodded and looked around at the sky, the changing color of the water, and all of us together, new friends and old. Yes, we agreed, this was the best day ever. How lucky are we?
It was what one of my mindfulness books calls “collective effervescence.”
The second surprise was the ferry trip back to St. Thomas, the first leg of the trip home.
The 11:15 a.m. ferry from St. John to Charlotte Amalie sat waiting for its passengers. The ferry to Red Hook is sleek, modern, spacious, without rust, and with ample seating above and below the deck. But this ferry was a clunker. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s out of commission for a month or more, the locals warned.
Just 12 of us boarded the 11:15, all but one person sitting on the sturdy benches at the open stern of the boat. It was 83 degrees, humid with ominous clouds.
The ferry workers tossed our luggage onto the open deck, a neat heap of rollerboards, duffle bags, and oversized bag packs. Once done, they pulled the lines up, and the ferry horn gave a low blast. We were off.
A family of four looked exhausted. They wore wrinkled black travel clothes and stern, sunburnt faces like they’d had too much vacation together. A middle-aged couple my age looked up at the sky. She was dressed in a silky black and white halter dress and gold leather Gladiator sandals. Her brown bob looked like she had just walked out of a salon. She went below deck. Her husband looked over at me and shrugged his shoulders. He was wearing ferry-appropriate clothes: nylon shorts, a tee shirt, and sneakers, much like me.
I put my face to the sun to feel its warmth, the gentleness of the Caribbean, and the return of joy this past week despite being here for a friend’s memorial celebration. I wanted to store up these feelings as I headed back to the dark, coldness of New England, back to my husband, whose disease is merciless.
The ferry moved past the lush hills of the tiny islands between St. John and St. Thomas. So green, so wild.
Another surprise this week was the butterfly bloom, the first in six years, the first since the devastating 2017 hurricanes Irma and Maria. All week the yellow, white, and orange butterflies swarmed around me as I drove my jeep down rutted, dirt roads to my favorite beaches and sat on my porch listening to the baby goat crying on the rocky beach below the house.
“Hello, my fairies, or are you my guardian angels?” They dipped and rose and playfully flew off together, loving their island, loving the return of the ecosystem after such destruction. We are back. Woosh.
“Goodbye, my angels,” I said as the ferry moved away from the islands.
When the wind gusted and a soft rain started, half the people went below deck. I pulled my raincoat out of my pack and zipped it up. Mr. Appropriately Dressed gave me a thumbs up. He had no raingear.
The boat hit a swell and water sprayed the deck, soaking us. Now everyone went below but me.
The rain turned fierce, stinging my face. It was an angry rain, daring me. “Will you choose the safe way or stay in the mess of life, with all its tragic and beautiful surprises?”
The ferry worker threw a tarp over the luggage. I put my feet on it, so it wouldn’t blow away. He gestured for me to go below. I shook my head no. He not only went below but closed and locked the heavy steel door, keeping the rain and ocean swells from seeping into the cabin.
“Thank you, thank you, God or guardian angels or Mother Nature. Thank you for this, I prayed as I sat in the storm, feeling more alive than I had in years.
The wind shifted, still strong but from a different direction, like a protective power was waking me up, encouraging me to pay attention. To feel it all.
As the ferry neared the harbor the storm moved off to the north and the sun came out. I took off my REI raincoat, which flunked its waterproof claims. My wet shorts and tee shirt stuck to my body. Water dripped from my hair into my eyes.
The steel door opened, and people emerged from the cabin, serious, intently looking for their luggage and hoping it was dry.
They looked up at me, alone and soaked. I smiled.
Oh, the joy and freedom of staying in the storm. Mother Nature reassured me, “You’re alive. There’s more. Much more.”