“Would you like a picture of the three of you?’ Dave asked. Naturally, they were delighted by his offer.
After they’d checked out Dave’s shots from their perch on the rock, the woman in cornrows, Ann-Marie, I soon learned, twisted toward me and said, “Is he a photographer? Just has a way….”
Her friend, Maxine, slid to the ground and strolled over to where I sat nearby on the grass. “We have reason to celebrate,” she volunteered. She nodded toward Ann-Marie and said quietly, “A year ago, I was with her when she had surgery.”
A few years back, I would have left it at that, but since I’ve had cancer and Ann-Marie is a woman, I said, “What kind of surgery?” Given the statistics, it was almost a formality.
“Breast cancer,” she replied, and the sadness is, I wasn’t surprised.
When Ann-Marie joined us, I told her of our bond and hailed her as a sister. Her nice-stranger-smile deepened to one of connection, and she hugged me tight, a hug infused with shared fear, relief, hope, and gratitude, then she settled to the grass next to me, just barely loosening her hold.
I was half in her lap, my hand in hers, as the five of us spoke for close to an hour. “During diagnosis and treatments, it was the circle of love that kept me going,” Ann-Marie said as she smiled at Maxine. “The circle of love is essential.” With our hands still clasped, her eyes locked on mine, she added, “There is no coincidence in our being here, together, in this place.” And I knew she drew strength from our companionship in cancer, just as I had from Joanne, Dede, and Wendy. The disease and fear might have been ours to fight as individuals, but we were not alone.
Nor were Dave and I alone this weekend; we had a date on the hill above New Harbor, so it was time to mount up. Dave took group pictures, we exchanged emails and hugs, our three new friends headed to the lighthouse for a tour, and Dave and I retrieved our bikes for the ride back to the hill.
For over a decade, our September Block Island gathering has served as escape and celebration. In 2008, the route to Point Judith was tagged with evacuation signs and cars, countless cars, heading the opposite direction as a hurricane blew in. Did we postpone? No! Otie and Janet made the trip from Pittsburgh a day early just in case, and our Connecticut contingent barreled ahead, thrilled at the prospect of howling winds and pounding surf. There was one brief moment on the way up, after we’d passed the third evacuation sign, when I thought, are we being stupid about this? Forget about it! All aboard!
In 2009, the weekend fell during my second round of chemo-loser days. I’d just lost my hair and felt logy and sad, plus it was windy and rainy and I worried about errant gusts stealing my scarf. Dave had thrown out his back and we were a gimpy, pathetic pair – not our usual BI selves. The Friday ferries were cancelled, so we made the crossing on Saturday; the rest of the group – Hallie, Buck, Steve, Deb, Len, Mary, Otie, Janet, and Joan – had taken an earlier boat. They met us at the dock, a receiving line of loving friends. They relieved us of our backpacks, and Dave and I rented a mo-ped, a motorized means to free-wheeling, so we could keep up.
Every year, on the Friday of departure, there’s the ordeal of the white-knuckled drive down I-95, zipping along at 15 mph through rush hour traffic to make the last ferry. Once that ferry pulls from the pier, however, there is water between us and …everything else. Water between us and worry. Water between us and doctors. Water between us and the ability to take care of to-dos, commitments, and concerns. Through Steve’s diagnosis, Colombo’s strokes, hurricanes, and my cancer, Block Island has been gloriously and blessedly AWAY.
I hesitate to speak to my Sylvestros of God, but this weekend, that of Steve and Debby’s 40th anniversary, I sensed His hand in the brilliance of the sun, meadows of golden rod glowing yellow, sapphire seas, and blue skies swirled with playful wisps of clouds, a setting fit to honor four decades of marriage.
By the time Dave and I pedaled up, most of the others were on the hill, spreading blankets on the grass, hauling a ponderous picnic table to a level spot, opening bags of chips - tortilla and potato - and the requisite containers of hummus. While mudslides – a frozen chocolate/coffee/rum confection– are always the drink of choice, Hallie was also chilling champagne.
What would be the afternoon’s format? No one was sure. While this time together on the hill was a given, the anniversary layer was uncertain. A few weeks before, Deb mentioned to a few of us her wish to renew her wedding vows. “When we got married, I said the words I was supposed to say, but I was a kid. I didn’t get it. Now I do. It’s not always easy. You have to work things through. It really is ‘in sickness and in health.’ After forty years, I know about commitment. I’ve lived what I vowed.”
Steve, I’d heard, was not so sure about the renewal of vows piece, but he’d bought Deb – forty years later – an engagement ring, and today, he would present it.
Others had planned their own presentations. Moo had flown in from New Mexico, her first trip to the Block. She’d done some research on traditional 40th anniversary gifts and had something hidden under a sweatshirt in her bike basket. Nelson and his wife Ann had also joined us, and Nelson had worked with the island to create an appropriate gift.
Steve and Deb’s son, Trevor, had thought the celebration was the next day. Oops. So, as the rest of us chatted and sipped mudslides, Trevor sat eyes and fingers to phone, working on his toast while his wife, Lisa, and soon-to-be-three daughter, Ava, spilled packets of colorful sand on paper, preparing a bee-u-ti-ful picture.
Because Dave is an online-ordained minister of the Church of Spiritual Humanism, a justice of the peace, and Steve’s brother, he was chosen to orchestrate events, whatever those events might be. After Ava changed into a pale blue princess gown and donned long pink gloves with the help of two young courtiers enlisted at the playground, Dave rose to chorale our attention.
Until he spoke, we were scattered, small groups on blankets facing this way and that, but when Dave began to speak, we naturally formed a circle, a circle of love. Deb and Steve were the focus, at the head of the circle, but in a circle, actually, there is no head, so all the words spoken of lasting love and friendship were spoken for all of us, everyone in that circle.
Steve’s white mane, Deb’s river of blond hair, a circle of sunglasses, a circle of soul-deep smiles that have beamed at each other and at these two people for most of those four decades. There have been losses, hospitals, worry and nursing homes, but there’s been traying at Trinity, cheering at races, work at Eagle Hill, hunkering down for hurricanes, dancing at Captain Nick’s, trips home for the holidays, weddings, Trevor and Christopher’s concerts, strumming guitars, playing with Ava, and this shared weekend on the Block. How does that translate into words?
We tried… with laughter, stories, tears, and hands to hearts. We spoke of Steve and Deb’s love, their courage, their example, and their role in bringing us all together. Dave, who accompanied Steve and Deb on most of their dates and followed Steve to high school, college, and Eagle Hill, relayed a dream in which Carolyn, our recently departed friend, told Dave “True love is a gift,” thus giving him his message for this day. With great ceremony, Moo unwrapped her offering: an eggplant engraved with “Happy 40th Anniversary.” Nelson unveiled a rock-solid symbol of love, a rock, in fact, found on the beach, shaped like a heart, and signed by each person in the circle.
Trevor waited until everyone else had said their piece, then mused aloud, “How do I say thank you for all the love and caring over the years? How do I repay all the sporting events, girlfriend advice and all the hours you lost when I was late coming home (or would fail even to come home)? What can I give you for all the times you supported me in my triumphs, and provided a shoulder when there were losses? What present is there for all the times we just sat together and shared…whatever? How do I thank you for the guidance when I was unsure of my way, and your restraint to allow me to find it myself? You nurtured my growth, yet allowed me my independence. So… what gift is enough for two kickass parents?
The answer came to me today. And no box can hold it, no wrapping can cover it. No store had it on a shelf. My gift is not to you, it is to my little girl. I promise to care for her the same way you did for me.
And someday, just maybe she'll say, ‘How can I thank you -- for all you've done for me?’
Hopefully I get the chance to tell her, ‘Don't thank me. Thank your Mimi and Poppy. Because I'm the product of their love.’”
Whooshhhhhh. Tears. Tears around the circle. Every one of us wiping eyes and cheeks as Steve and Deb reached out to their boy for hugs. And then, thank God, Deb requested a bathroom break before the boys brought out guitars to sing. Trevor called his brother Christopher, in Arizona, who spoke to his parents and sang along via speakerphone, as Otie, Dave, and Trevor played the Wedding Song, as it had been played at the marriage forty years before.
And that would be a good place to end, a moving place, but Nelson emptied and upended a beige plastic ice bucket, now a drum, and joined the musicians. Steve whipped out his harmonica and Len scrolled through words on his cell for round two of the festivities: Sloop John B, The Boxer, and Shanty. A gleeful blond princess whirled to the music, arms outstretched as her own kickass parents looked on.