My marriage? James meant well. Means well. It’s just that, when you get handed a stage four diagnosis, everyone loses their shit, and James was no exception.
In the interest of exculpatory whatever, here are the basics. It was February. I’d been in a fender-bender, nothing bad, but got the MRI anyhow. “Just to be safe,” James said. Next I knew, cancer. So, I was going to die and insurance wouldn’t even cover that. James was no fan of the go-gently model. I wanted to bite the bullet, as they say, but James simply wouldn’t allow it. Simply wouldn’t. Which is a different, mostly blameless, kind of selfishness. And, while we’re at it, let’s get real. There’s only ever been one pre-existing condition, and we call it birth.
So it was something of a compromise — skip the treatment, spend the money. Not that we had much to spend, but you know, better to die broke and happy. Imagine that cabin-fever itch you get. Now imagine only getting to scratch that one more time.
Now, did he pick the Bahamas because of the birds? Yes and no. The vacation package cost half what the first round of chemo would’ve. Half. Quite the steal, if you ask me.
The extinct-but-wait-surprise-not-extinct-after-all Bahama Nuthatch was just icing on the cake. You know how these birding people get, real jazzed up over what’s basically a sparrow, and James had been following the saga since August — the whole lot wiped out when Matthew made landfall, later resurrected on some grad student’s Go-Pro.
So we check in and things are going — sorry — swimmingly. The drinks came in pastels only and you didn’t even have to order them. They just appeared on trays. Should someone in my condition have been drinking? Goddamn right I should’ve been. Out with a bang, not a whimper — that was the plan and I stuck to it. We’re talking bare skin for miles, better all-you-can-eat buffets than in heaven, a real embarrassment of riches.
The island had mostly recovered from Matthew, too, new buildings and roads and shops everywhere. Ever seen a brand new window in the Caribbean sun? That’s the kind of gleaming you can’t stand for long.
Quite a few honeymooners, too. I should’ve hated them, puffed up with young love and blissful ignorance, but I didn’t. It was reassuring, in some strange way, to see everything going on around me, to know everything would go on without me too.
The downside was, whenever someone mentioned the hurricane, I called it stage five, as if by reflex. Seven strangers must’ve corrected me, not counting the ones who let it slide. Every time, they’d say, “you mean category five,” and I’d nod and bite my cheek.
My mother used to say “stiff upper lip,” and by that I think she meant bear it. Not grin and bear it, just bear it. Toil as you must. Why smile, when already there are so many sets of teeth in this world, flashing at once and everywhere?
Certain disasters happen inside a person. Certain disasters you can plan for and certain disasters you can’t.
James not realizing we’d be vacationing dead center on The Tropic of Cancer? Forgivable. Posing by the sign? Less so. That was day one. That was also the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, depending on how you look at it.
Day two James was all set to meet up with the Exuma Naturalists’ Club, to observe all the nuthatches his fluttery heart desired. I never understood it, before, wanting to watch something go about its daily routine, just living its life, for hours on end. I get it now. The world, more and more, seems to be disappearing piece by piece. So finding what’s lost, what’s missing—these days, that’s what joy looks like.
He had the seaplane booked and everything, hell, he was on the pier loading up his binoculars and telephoto lenses when the bellhop came sprinting down the gangway, waving a scrap of paper.
Wouldn’t that have been something? If the news had killed me. It almost did. We had to call the hospital probably thirty times to make sure we had it straight. They went on and on, the computers were down, the nurses had to chart by hand, similar names, etc., though no one said human error. Damage control. And the other Joan? Dead before they caught the mistake, probably. They didn’t say.
Of course, what comes next is far, far more predictable. The travel agency comped our whole stay, so long as I agreed to be in the promotional materials. I mean, the copy wrote itself: Sun, sand, and fun, the cure for what ails you.
The hospital settled quietly, out of court. You’d be surprised how affordable the island can be if you know where to shop.
Some disasters keep on happening once they’ve happened, and this was one of them. The wine that night, the wine was indescribable. For years I’ve looked at the wheels and flavor profiles and thought, really, a malbec with notes of boysenberry, sweet cream, chocolate? Bullshit. Tasty, but still bullshit. By god that night I tasted them all.
I say keep happening, because it did. I’d made peace with losing the world. I had. But even then I knew that I’d forget, as time went on, and that I’d have to grieve it all over again.
James, he meant well, but meaning isn’t everything, there’s the living to do past that. When day four rolled around, he flew to Exuma to see his birds, and came back squawking about Cozumel Thrashers. He’s sure they’re still out there, somewhere, larking about the Mexican canopy. When he said he wanted to go look for them, next vacation, I said why wait. Carpe Thrashem, as they say. I love that he loves something that much, and I always will. But you know, caged birds.
My youth? That’s what’s ahead of me.
A current Stegner Fellow, J.P. Grasser is a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, where he serves as Editor-in-Chief for Quarterly West.