Rain taps at gutters and rushes through leaves, wet drops course down the windowpanes. At mid-afternoon, it is dark as dusk and I feel heavy and sad. Is this a reaction to chemo or to my barely fuzz-covered head? We’re supposed to go to Block Island today and I just want to curl up on the couch and cry.
For years, Dave and I have loved this annual “Race Around the Block” weekend when his brother, Steve, runs ten miles or so while we sit drinking mudslides, a frozen rum treat, with friends on a hill overlooking the sun-flecked harbor. Block Island is AWAY and since Dave’s father’s internment in the nursing home and Steve’s cancer diagnosis, this tradition has been a wonderful escape.
But this upcoming weekend has hovered like a cloud on my horizon. So much of the joy of being on Block Island - taking the ferry, free-wheeling with friends, riding bikes, and beaching – involves wind-in-the-hair fun. Involves an uncomplicated diet. Involves sun.
The label on my amber bottle of anti-biotics says “avoid sun.” It also says, “Avoid alcohol.” My oncologist has suggested I avoid fried foods, white flour, white rice and fats. That knocks out fish n’ chips, chocolate chip pancakes and ice cream – the usual Block Island fare. Avoidance plays a big role in my new regimen; Block Island is all about embracing – fun, friends, food, and wind.
That wind alone has me panicked. Usually, I love its many forms: the banshee wind shrieking through a crack in the window in the bathroom at the inn, the wild hair-tossing stream on the ferry, the soft, cooling, breezes while riding my bike past meadows yellow with golden rod. But I worry about wind and my head-gear options. I don’t want salt and damp to wreck my wig and I’ve only worn the scarf twice at home. How small a flick of wind would it take to carry that flippet of fabric away leaving me large-eyed, bald and mortified?
I hear Dave honk the horn in greeting as his car pulls up outside our house. I meet him at the door, watching as he walks stiffly after sitting in traffic for an hour and a half during his commute. I’ve washed my face, but still my eyes are swollen and red.
My public face is a source of pride. Even when despair has held me under, I’ve been told, “It must be nice to be upbeat all the time.” I’m skeptical of book passages in which moods are revealed in a character’s eyes. Hah. I know how easily they are masked. Unless allowed to be so, eyes are not windows, but I don’t have to fake it for Dave.
“I don’t want to be this sad person you come home to,” I tell my husband as he pushes open the screen door.
He slides his computer onto a stool by the kitchen counter and gathers me in his arms. I snuffle in his hair; my tears soak his shirt. At first, he just holds me, saying nothing.
“We don’t have to go,” he says quietly.
“But maybe it would be better to be with the others. Maybe I’d feel better once we were there. I just… I just… I worry about the scarf and the wind.”
“I know. Let me check the weather and the ferry schedule. My vote is we go tomorrow and settle in here tonight. We could do Chinese take-out for dinner.”
I whimper into his shoulder. “I’m not very hungry. How ‘bout a salad?”
“A salad would be perfect. I’m not hungry either.”
He has saved me again. Granted me permission to give in. Don’t need to be brave or cheery or chatty or strong or a good sport. What would I do without him? And that spurs a new onslaught of tears because I really don’t know what I would do without him. I am afraid to even peek in that shadowed corner.
Once I calm down, Dave goes to check the weather online and - he says with a grin – to change his shirt.
“No worries about leaving today, Lea,” he calls from his post at the computer upstairs. “They’ve cancelled the ferries.”
Saved again. I’m not to blame for this postponement: the heavens have given me leave to hole up.
* * *
We wake to overcast skies and drizzle. It’s 7:24 am. I still don’t want to go, don’t want to leave this cozy hollow between the sheets, don’t want to ride the ferry or my bike in the rain. Don’t want to meet up with friends while I’m wearing a scarf.
“What do you think?” says a snoozy Dave.
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“Well, how do you feel?”
“Okay.” (I’m not being very helpful.)
“What if we skip the bikes?”
“Skip the bikes?”
“Yeah. Would you be more comfortable if we take cabs instead once we get to the island?”
I feel a trace of weight lifting. “Hmmm. No bikes. Usually that’s what I love about being there, but yeah. That’d make a difference.”
“All right. That spares me from loading the bikes on the car. I’ll check the ferry schedule again to make sure everything’s running.”
We get out of bed and Dave heads to the computer while I grab our rolling overnight bags from the hall closet. I turn to my bureau and open a drawer. One night only, but it could be wet, cold, or hot. A small pile mounts on the floor – underwear, shorts, capris, socks, a tee-shirt, flip flops. I’ll wear sneakers, a sweatshirt and raincoat for the trip over.
“We might have a problem,” says Dave as he walks slowly into the bedroom. His hips are skewed to the side.
“I ducked my head to miss the beam on the stairway and wrenched my back.”
Oh no. Dave’s back is tricky and once a year or so, it goes into spasm. His face is grim as he stalks rigidly around the room trying to stretch it out.
“This is ridiculous,” he hisses. “I chopped wood last weekend, worked out last night and exercised my back every day this week, and I can’t walk down the stairs without hurting myself?”
“Have you taken any Advil yet? Okay. I’ll get some. Plus an ice pack. Your bag is right there. What do you want to bring?”
“I can do it,” he says through tight lips as he hobbles to his closet. I dash from the room to get the ibuprofen and ice.
The ferry departs from New London at 11:30. Advil-stoked, ace-bandaged, ice-packed and breakfast-fortified, we set off from the house at 9:30. “We have plenty of reasons to stay home,” says Dave, “but nine reasons for going…” and he lists the friends and family awaiting us on the island, “Steve, Deb, Hallie, Buck, Len, Mary, Joan, Janet and Art.”
* * *
As the ferry rides to the crest of each wave and glides down into a trough before mounting the next swell, a number of our fellow passengers turn ashen. All the restrooms are occupied. White seasick bags appear like mushrooms after a spring shower.
I am chemo-punky, devoid of energy and enthusiasm, but blessedly not nauseous. We’d nabbed a booth of stiff red upholstered benches upon boarding and have spread our back packs, books and water bottles about on the table between us. Our overnight bags are tucked in close so as not to trip passersby. Dave is practicing mind-over-matter, willing his back to resist another spasm.
I pick up my book, but it is too tiring to hold the pages open so I give up and slump back against my seat. Dave writes a word in his crossword puzzle – in pen, in capital letters, as is his custom.
Four little girls race up and down the aisles, their blond ponytails bobbing and swinging. It’s exhausting even to watch them. A woman two rows over combs her abundant hair up into her fingers and wraps it into a knot. I bet she doesn’t think twice about all that hair. A young couple sits spooned together in the next booth. The woman wears a green plastic necklace festooned with four leaf clovers. Her eyebrows are raised, her mouth twisted in a grin as she peruses her issue of “Cosmopolitan.” How lovely to delight in something so simple as a magazine article.
After an hour or so, the ferry bumps into the dock on Block Island. Dave slides gingerly from his seat and shakes one leg. He adjusts his stance and leans over for his bag. “I’ll get it, honey, “ I say, reaching for the handle.
“You’re not supposed to lift anything either,” he says, but actually, it makes me feel better to help. What a sorry pair we are, crooked, scarved, tremulous, and irritable. I’m glad our kids aren’t here to see us reduced to this gimpy, wincing couple.
We follow the line of passengers down the metal staircase, onto the deck and out to the pier, our bags clattering on wheels behind us. Standing at the end of the walkway, behind a portable fence, are all nine of our reasons for coming, waving to us in welcome.
My sister-in-law, Deb, comes forward to hug me and whispers, “I spoke to Kathy at the Narragansett’s front desk and arranged for you to have a private bathroom at no extra cost.” I am wordless with gratitude. Usually, we use the communal bathroom in the hall and I like the youthful flexibility that implies. But the side effects from my anti-biotics make a convenient bathroom desirable and I had worried about lines of disgruntled guests forming as I monopolized the restroom.
But Deb has taken care of that - another worry gently taken from me.
And then, a literal lift, Joanie grabs my bag and hoists it to her shoulder.
“You’re so dear,” I say, “but it’s light. I can handle it.”
“I know you can, but let me do this. It would make me happy.”
And so, for a moment, but for the weight of fatigue, I am unburdened. Still, there is the matter of transport to the inn. I wonder where we catch a cab?
“Hey babe. I’m going over to check out the mo-peds,” Dave has left his bag with Art and is limping across the driveway to the awning-ed shack that houses the rental shop.
“Are you kidding? I thought we were going to take taxis.”
“Nope. I want to be mobile.”
A few pounds of worry re-establishes residence on my back. To the perils of wind, I add speed, accidents and helmets. “Dave…”
“Relax. It’ll be fun.”
I feel limp and out of place, a gypsy refugee in a lavender paisley scarf. Dave is gone. The others have not moved, but the mood has shifted to one of next steps. Their bikes are lined up, ready to go.
“Um, I guess we’ll catch up with you at the Narragansett,” I say, turning toward the rental shack.
“Okay,” sings the friend-chorus brightly. Easily, they spin their bikes around, flinging legs up and over to mount up. Oh, the energy. Was I ever that light?
Dave is checking out helmets when I reach him at the shop. Having made his choice, he heads out to the parking lot. Listless, uninterested, I try one heavy, ill-fitting black shell after another. Oh, who cares. This one will do.
Out on the lot, Dave is riding a snappy-looking silver mo-ped. He circles cautiously, then applies a hint too much gas and whacks into the barricade of hay bales lining this section of the parking lot. He stops and grins, singing out, “C’mon babeee! Get on!”
I am ever attuned to my husband’s moods and I perk up at his obvious cheer. Once the rental agent is satisfied as to Dave’s driving competence, he releases us to the road.
I hug Dave’s back, my arms around him, my hands tucked into his belt, a motorcycle mama in a scarf and black helmet.
“I love having you close like this!” Dave yells over his shoulder as we skim past Victorian hotels, strolling tourists, tiny boutiques and the sea. Life is all around me and suddenly I realize that my own is not on hold for the next three months. Pills, chemo and worry may be part of my days, but friends, outings, mudslides and mo-ped rides are still mine to savor.
Agile and free-wheeling with the aid of a motor, Dave laughs with the joy of the ride and I smile into his back.
Where has the weight gone? It, too, has taken off.