Notes on the journey

During our vacation on a Caribbean island, we sleep on a soft mattress that I begin to call “the bowl” because it sinks in the middle, and every night, we roll toward the center. There’s a skylight over the bed, and the moon dangles like a white coin over us, hanging by a thread.

The winds are whipping today. The coconut trees scratch at our windows.

Something happened last time we vacationed here, but I’ve thought of it every day on this trip. It didn’t happen to us or near us, in fact it happened far away and we aren’t part of the story, really, but still, it mattered to me in a way I can’t explain.

First, I should tell you that the place we are staying sits next to a cemetery divided in half by a grey road, as the heart is by a septum, and we must walk along this road to get to town, and we can look from side to side anytime we amble up or down it. What we see are white crypts, one on top of the other, for space is precious on this island. Sometimes we see men in long pants with shovels as they dig and sweat a new space, or they slap cement to build a crypt, a new home for the elderly who have passed on. Or for the young who’ve become lost to their now-faltering parents.

I didn’t think much of this cemetery at first—after all, I’ve seen many at home with rows of tombstones, with plastic flowers that never fade.  

Then one day while in town, after a hike against the ocean shore, my husband said he wanted a smoothie. We found a place on the street, a wooden ramshackle place painted mostly pink, all open-air, some white plastic tables and chairs underneath a slanted roof. My husband waited in line of a few people deep. The owner (I would find out later that he was) stood behind the counter, plunging chunks of pineapple into the blender, splashing juice in, ice cubes, dropping bananas in and blending. He had smooth dark skin and a softness to his face, and a peace and ease in his movements, as if he had been doing the work for so long that every part of it was a part of him. He could count on his arms to remember.

New customers—this is what I thought they were at first, would only find out later they were not—kept coming up and stepping in front of my husband and the other people waiting in line and going right up to the counter. When the owner saw them, he would greet them each by name, this procession of people, and they’d say things like, “Michael told me. I’m sorry.” The owner behind the counter would smile and say thank you and stretch his arm through his order window and either clasp their reaching hand or bump his knuckles against theirs.

He smiled as he spoke. He smiled as he worked, but it was a smile tinged with sadness if you looked long enough, if you noticed that his eyes, which always tell the greatest truth, were downturned. 

The story came out in bits and pieces of what the locals said and he said. By the time we stood at the counter—by then I had risen from my chair and stood respectfully, as it seemed the only thing to do—I knew he’d had a son who’d left for the Navy, a son who’d just gotten a promotion, “His commanding officer told me my son had accomplished in three years what took the officer six.” The son had been stationed in Washington, had one night dropped his friends off, was back on the road, and then: a car crash. Fatal. Gone.

The people in this procession of locals would come to the counter and reach, touch, linger, and then vanish one by one. What struck me was that this man kept cutting up fruit for us, a bunch of tourists, welcoming us and smiling, maybe because he had to come to work, or maybe because it was the only thing he could do in a world that must have seemed more frightening than it had before. 

By the time we stood at his counter, what I said was I was sorry. He pulled out his phone and held it out to show us a picture: a young man in his uniform, smiling into the unknown future.

The last thing I remember his saying about his son was, “He was in the Navy three years. I kept asking him when he was going to come home,” he said, and then he added. “He finally did.”

I’ve thought of him often, this picture of going on, of what it means to keep on going. I think of the losses I’ve had and the ones I've not had, and sometimes of the ones that might come. Will I be able to do what he did? Will I remember the movements of my life well enough to keep on going?

This morning my husband and I find ourselves once more in the center of the bowl. The rain beats down on the skylight. I hold onto him, the way I often do, on mornings when we have time to linger. 

The winds push against the coconut tree outside our window. The palm fronds sway as far as they can go, and I am sure that they will break, but they do not. They lean back beautifully, and they bend.