Time moseys on, though never fast enough in Minnesota winter. I’ve been “healing” from chemo and radiation for about two months, though the first few weeks were more “hell” than “heal.” I’ve been “home” from my island BreakAway (where locals provide the comedy rather than cancer) for nearly one month. Though “home” in winter can occasionally feel like a cold day in hell. I’ve also been avoiding my blog for one month, which is hell on my devoted followers. I apologize—to both of you.
“These things take patience,” said Dr. Nostril when we gathered recently for our ongoing camera-up-the-nose routine. “Easy for you to say,” I replied, “you’re a doctor; those patients bought your Jag.” He fought back, “Nonsense. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Jag…but I love my convertible in Boca.” I could only nod my agreement. He got back to business, “Now open wide. Geronimo!”
I get asked this question quite often. When I feel good, I say so. When I feel not so good, I sometimes offer alternative facts: “Terrific! Beautiful! Great again!” Because that’s what people want to hear. Many look puzzled if I say, “Not so good today, but thanks for asking.” Perhaps empathy is a dying art. Is there an emoji for that?
Anyway, let’s just call it a good sign; Dude’s got awareness. Attitude. A little sass.You’d have be a blind optometrist, I think, to believe that healing from chemo and radiation is just a chair of bowlies. It’s not. So there. But we march on—in warmie undergarments and big boots and pray that the earth tips to the sunny side someday soon. Like it did, daily, on St. John.
This is the question I long to hear. Because, of course, I’ve been blogging and preaching for years about BreakAways—the idea of taking temporary retirement throughout one’s life rather than waiting until the end when you could be decrepit or, worse, dead. (Heck, Americans leave 658 million vacation days unused annually.) Extended breaks ideally include planning and travel, but also could happen spontaneously due to job loss, family breakup, or health issues of your own or a loved one.
Be prepared. Because extraordinary memories are priceless and rare. Just ask your kids. And because if you don’t schedule your own sabbatical, it’s possible the Gods will arrange one for you. Likely less fun, too.
The BreakAway on St. John (USVI) worked wonders. It’s a blur mistier than sea spray now. But a few encounters stand out as proof that vacations are a great way to put your problems in the background and focus on a change of scenery, schedules, and faces.
Sadly, the natives are fading away on St. John. I miss them, but those who remain stand out even more. Like the cab (van) driver at the airport (on St Thomas). There was NOT enough time to make the 5:00 ferry. And that’s a bummer. Because if you miss that ferry, you may miss getting your rental car, and things can get very complicated. Especially since we stay on the other side of the St. John, where Johnnie cabs refuse to go. Just cuz.
Back at the airport, I challenged the driver to make the 5:00 ferry on the other side of St. Thomas, even though some drivers move only on island time and some passengers may turn white(r) twisting through the steep roads and sudden switchbacks. The East Indies patois is beautiful, by the way, and they like to accentuate every syllable of every word. Emphatically.
Our driver was unmoved by the request. “5:00 FEH-REE? HA! 5:00? NONONONONO. DASS NOT TIME E-NUFF. I CAN NOT PRAH-MISS DAT,” she scowled as she packed the endless luggage of three families. But then came the twinkle… “BUT…I…CON…TRY! GEET EEN! LESS GO!”
She drove as if to rescue her mom. When she’d hit a snarl, she’d veer off into narrow side-streets, run down chickens, and honk relentlessly at the omnipresent old men strolling in the middle of road. When a crusty Jeep with a Rasta mon at the wheel got in our way, she rode his ass and beeped at every turn. He loved it, and merely waved his left hand out the window like a beauty queen until he could finally pull over—and then smirked and smoked as he watched us race by.
We got to the ferry dock in record time. But then came the requisite parking lot chaos. “SAY-TUN! SAY-TUN, SA-A-A-AY-TUN!” the driver bellowed out her window with bulging eyes when a fancy hotel van blocked our path. Then another. “SEV-UN-TWEN-TI-WON!” she screamed while laying on the horn as that van (license plate #721) moved slower than a hermit crab. “ACCHHH! STOO-PID HO-TEL VANS TINK DEY OWN DA WORL!”
When she maneuvered us to an unloading spot with one minute to spare, she commanded my (young and strong) son, “GIT OUT AND UNLOAD DA LUGGAGE! GO! GO! GO! CATCH DAT BOAT!” So about 15 people scrambled—and she chased us through the modest terminal to double-check that she’d collected the fares. And, by golly, we made the boat, which is remarkable, since the bored uniforms who run things will sometimes close the velvet rope right in front of you with a semi-evil smirk on their face.
Once on St. John, we had to scamper a few blocks while pulling and schlepping much luggage to get our reserved Jeep before that little, local rental shop closed—something they might happily do when they see you coming. In our panic, we walked through a gaggle of women gathered at Nature’s Nook, a (barely) covered stand where you can pick up local produce (when they’re open).
Scurrying through island ladies without stopping to buy a cassava or breadfruit was not the best strategy. As the last in our line, I received their scolding chorus. “I NEVA DID SEE SO MANY NOSES HIT DA ROOF!” … “EESS AT CHORE DOH-TA? LUCKY SHE. SHE GOT YO’ PRITTEE BLUE EYES BUT NOT DA RESS OF YO FACE!” … “I TINK SHE LOOSE A WHEEL OFF HA SUIT CASE. YOU BETTA GIT ON DA DUTT AND FINE EET!”
Unafraid (and even somewhat charmed) and trained from many visits, I stopped and faced my chastening, “Excuse me, did we do something wrong?” This invited more taunting, “WE-E-E-L-L-L, SOME-BUSSY CUUD OT LEES SAY GUUD AFTA-NOON!”
I slapped my forehead. “Right! I’m so sorry.” (Appropriate pause.) “Good afternoon.” I turned to bolt away, but immediately my luggage and I got stuck between two tightly parked cars. This sent all of them into hysterics, some of them into dancing, and a few of them into making exotic bird calls.
“Just don’t look back,” I said to myself once I finally found a way out of their tourist trap.
Days later, I definitely had to escape The Fruit Mon in Coral Bay, where we stay. He had a modest but lovely display of fruits and vegetables that, probably, he had grown himself. But he was really selling story. Preaching. And not cheaply. First, he announced that his one and only soursop (a bizarre fruit that tastes like SweeTart and has the texture of cactus) was perfectly ripe. And free! For us! Today!
Delighted, we selected other items, each of which brought a mini-sermon as he’d fondle it, “YOU MUSS NEVVA, EVVA PEEL DA CU-CUM-BAH!” And then came the inevitable bush-tea/eat local /nevva-geet-seek sermon. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 55 times. Good for them (though I’ve seen a few die from cancer while refusing healthcare). But right about now, it’s more difficult for me to digest.
“I DOAN DREENK WAH-TAH. ONLY BOOSH TEA AND BOOSH WATAH. ALL DAY LONG. EET CLEAN YOU OUT! EET CURE EV-A-RY TING! I HAD DEE CAN-SAH TREE TIME! TREE-E-E-E TIME DEE CAN-SAH! AND LUUK OT ME NOW! PAH-FECK HEALT AND NOT ONCE DO I SEE DA DOCK-TAH!”
Okay, great. Just wait till I tell Dr. Zen, Dr. Ray, and Dr. Nostril. They may quit their practices and move to the islands to make bush tea.
When he stepped back to do “DEE A-DEESH-UN” in his head, the tab was more outrageous than the sky-high grocery stores; stories (and bush-doctor advice) are expensive. As for the soursop? “FO YOU TODAY—BECAUSE YOU BUY SO MINN-EE TING…OWN-LEE WON DOLL-AH. WELCOME TO DEE IE-LUNN!” And he smiled and laughed like the 7-Up man.
But my favorite, and final, native encounter came at the (one and only) St. John gas station while filling up before returning the rental Jeep and leaving the island. This place is bizz-ee. And you do things their way. Which includes parking at a pump, getting in line at the kiosk, and handing over your credit card and driver’s license before even thinking of touching a gas pump. Two uniformed ladies—one outside and one inside—run the payment kiosk. They’ve been there for years, and, frankly, do a great (if unorthodox) job.
Reminder again: Be polite and don’t be in a hurry. When your turn comes to hand over cards to the lady in the kiosk, for God’s sake, say “Good afternoon.” Wait for her to repeat that. And then ask, “So how are you doin’ today?” Otherwise, you may stand there, ignored, forever, a dozen harried drivers lined up behind you.
Play your part, and the response is worth it. She leans her head back and answers resoundingly, “I…AM…WELL. PAH-RAISE GOD!!!” You suddenly feel quite touched and humbled by her spirit, and wonder how it’s possible to be so elated working at a gas station. Then she’ll study your cards (and occasionally refuse them), note your name, and slowly reply, “AND HOW AH YOU TO-DAY MEESS-TAH COCK!?!” (I’ve gotten used to that name, which is also what they call me in Italy.) And so it goes. Eventually, you are given permission to fill up. Then you get back in line to settle up.
When back at the window to pay, she stood up and started yelling at me, “MEES-TAH COCK! MEESTAH COCK! LUUK OT DEES!” And she handed me her driver’s license. I had no idea what this was about, so simply smiled and said, “Yes! Very nice!” She beamed excitedly, “LUUK! LUUK! WE WAS BONE ONLY 11 DAYS UH-POTT! JUSS 11 DAYS! GOD SEND US TO DEE EART AT ALL-MOSE EGG-ZACK-LEE DA SAME TIME!!!” She was right. What are the odds? She grabbed my hands and laughed from deep down in her soul, as though she’d found a long-lost twin. I was worried about missing the ferry. Yet I bobbed and babbled back and wondered, Why can’t we be more like this in Minnesota?
The echoes of “I…AM…WELL. PAH-RAISE GOD!!!” continued as she scrutinized every new customer and we left that station—and the island—with a head spinning with sun-soaked memories, a heart hurting from immediate withdrawal, and a brain afraid of returning to America.
Back home, people turn to strange activities—like walking Fido in sweaters and boots, bar bingo, and ice-fishing—to pass the wintertime. The daily news—which doesn’t exist on the island—indeed has literally everyone thinking, I’m Afraid of Americans (watch Bowie shred it, dammit). I stay busy in a purgatory that is part bliss and part stress before follow-up tests and scans.
“That’s perfectly natural, everyone worries some before those tests,” my case manager, Nurse Cosmos, said on the phone today. Then she sent me straight to the clinic because I’m sick. Who ain’t? This crap never hits me. Only when my body’s already been through hell, I guess.
But that’s fine. I am not afraid of bugs; bugs come and go, like flakes of snow. Cancer too, right? Meantime, I look forward to the warm season ahead and my next adventure. And I grin at all my BreakAway photos, stories, and souvenirs.
BreakAway memories. I got this. Hope you do too. PAH-RAISE GOD!
Thanks for listening…