Recently I’ve faced a situation that challenged me. I needed to remind myself how I dealt with grief a decade ago, and how traveling to an island, alone, changed my life:
Two weeks after I had reserved a cabin on an island off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada, for a romantic getaway with my husband Chaim, he was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor, and three months later, he was gone.
The next summer, when I got a call from the owners, I had forgotten all about the cabin reservation. To hell with it — I decided to get away from everything and go to the cliff by myself. I loaded my black Miata, the one Chaim had gifted me. I brought few clothes, but I did haul Mel Torme, Bach, The Eagles, Dvorjak, Leo Kottke, and our favorite Alsatian wine, chocolate, biscotti and vinegar potato chips. At least I would enjoy our music and food.
I kept the top down the whole way on the drive from Westchester County, and overnighted in Augusta, Maine in a Motel 6 as darkness fell. The only available room had a broken bed, but I slept in the other one, opened the windows to erase the smell of smoke, and fell asleep with the TV on, wondering what I was doing. I missed Chaim, terribly.
Arriving by ferry on Grand Manan island the next day, I drove to the western side and parked the car in a clearing. The young cabin owner who ran a local kayak company met me there in an all-terrain-vehicle — and drove me over a rutted dirt road, into thick woods.
The cabin was set on a little-used hiking trail, along 30-foot basalt cliffs towering above rocky beaches, covered twice a day by the highest tides in the world. The view overlooked the setting sun, and a weir where fisherman trapped herring in purse seiner boats. The structure was handmade with pine trim and floors, powered by the sun, augmented by a generator. Using the in-house-outhouse earth toilet, I empathized with my cat, left behind with my son.
At first I felt like a child, playing house. I picked daisies and a blue flower called cow vetch and plopped them in a glass by the windows. I cooked veggies and chicken in the little kitchen. But by the third day, when I walked 25 minutes back to my car and then drove to check my email at the kayak office, I must have seemed starved for company.
“Want to take our dog while you’re here?” asked the sympathetic cabin owner. So Sole, their chocolate lab, joined me on the cliff. She offered a chance to hear the sound of my voice without feeling like a fool, and patiently waited for me to arise, romping near me along steep paths, chasing butterflies on our morning walk. She leapt and pawed and licked me when I stirred sardines into her kibble. And she stared at me as if she understood more than I did.
Along the cliffs, I passed streams and waving meadows of grasses. Waves crashed below, ocean-like, in the fierce tides, and herring gulls and bald eagles and osprey wheeled and screeched. As the days passed, sounds became simple and pure, and more intense: the lapping water, wind, bird song, the generator, a foghorn from a nearby lighthouse. A red squirrel scurried on the roof each morning at about 6 o’clock, waking me so that I could see the dawn. My CDs seemed superfluous. The cabin’s satellite TV remained unused, the cell phone hardly used, the hot tub stayed covered.
I read, wrote, slept on the deck, and watched some old sad/funny movies – Patch Adams andPhenomenon, but fell asleep before the end of both. One night I awoke in the cold light of a full moon in the skylight, and fell back to bed, tears on my cheeks.
Piece by piece, life’s complications stripped away. Immediately, jewelry and makeup, and deodorant. Then, showers — now every other day, when I walked through the woods to get to my car, and then drove into the island to shop and check emails. When I couldn’t find my comb, fingers sufficed. I stopped looking in the mirror.
I’d go to sleep naked, and often stay that way long into the mornings. I ate tea and grilled cheese when the rain hit the windows, and the bay and sky disappeared in a fog. From the deck I watched the sun set in silence, as sweet-eyed harbor seals bobbed their heads by the weir.
At night kerosene lamps and candles glowed, and as Sole looked on, one night I danced with a shadow in the firelight to “The Best of Dusty Springfield.”
The two weeks passed, sometimes like sludge, but steadily, as if in the silence I could hear every beat of time. Fisherman trapped the herring every other day, and I’d watch their rhythmic movements through binoculars. An old man came by kayak to collected dulse, the seaweed strewn on the shore, and watching him, I spied the carcass of a minke whale beached by a far cliff.
A few hikers passed along the ridge, but none stopped. Once, during a downpour, a middle-aged couple looked toward the cabin and I wondered if I would let them in, or if they thought it was unoccupied, but I didn’t have to make the choice, as they kept going in the rain, and for just a few minutes I felt my vulnerability.
Why, I wondered, did I go on this solitary inner journey, farther than I had ever traveled, but within myself? To wash away pain? To prove my fortitude? As a child I found my own company precious, and now, on the rim of an island on the eastern edge of the continent, I felt perhaps that same magic.
Here I had escaped from hypocrisy, greed, terrorists, and the awful loss of my love. So I pondered and cried and rested and remembered, and grieved.
Alone on the cliffs of Grand Manan Island overlooking the misty Bay of Fundy, I didn’t feel any lonelier than I did anywhere else. I felt peaceful. I missed my husband, but now I felt his presence more clearly in my memories.
On the last night in the cabin, snuggled under the duvet, drowsing to the tug of the tides, I patted Sole, and I knew I was ready to move on.