Don’t revert back to island time until at least November.
If ever there was a day to honor that golden rule of mine, it was the first of September. One of those bluebird Rangeley days, it was perfect for a long bike ride. Or doing most anything, as long as it was outdoors in my chosen place soaking up the essence of late summer. Sun shining in a cloudless sky, balmy breezes laden with balsam, and calm, clear water ringed with rafting loons, it should have made mindfulness—being in place and in season—effortless.
But there I was, failing miserably. Racing past woods, over streams, pedaling to the tempo of my tortured thoughts, I was unable to really hear the birds calling or see the fleeting beauty all around me. I just couldn’t escape what I’d seen and heard back inside my cabin. Marsh Harbour, Abaco, my other chosen place, was gone—destroyed by Hurricane Dorian.
A few days ago, I had living in the present—being right here right now—all figured out. Every late summer lakeside moment had my full concentration. After all, there was no need to let my thoughts wander to where I’d be come April, to dream of long, lazy days in the sun waiting for Rangeley to thaw out. No need to start strategizing the minute the leaves showed hints of yellows and reds. I already had my place, my mud season hideaway, picked out, locked in. I’d left my deposit check sitting under a conch shell on the kitchen counter there last spring so nobody could take my spot. Now I was free to focus on my primary home and every glorious reason why I rooted myself here through the change of seasons. There’d be plenty of time after Thanksgiving to let my migratory clock start ticking, lots of gazing into the wood stove plotting my itinerary down to Marsh Harbour, the JetBlue “codeshare” hop over from Florida to my favorite little out-island airport, the short ride to settle in at Sur La Mer, our rental cottage. Easy peasy. No worries. Done deal.
“I’m baaaack!” I’d announce like the house had been waiting just for me all winter. I’d kick off my sandals, and rush to crank or shove every possible window open to the Sea of Abaco. After all, the house was named Sur La Mer, or “On The Sea,” for good reason. And I was there to take full advantage! Built on rock pilings on a narrow strip of peninsula known as Eastern Shores, if Sur La Mer was any more on the sea, it would be floating. “Breathtaking!” TripAdvisor said of the open ocean views mere steps from every window. But for me, that term was too generic, too all-over-the-map to describe how it felt there. How being surrounded, almost immersed, in the shimmering aquamarine sea hit me right down to my solar plexus. How watching the way the weather shifted the water colors—from turquoise to sea glass green and all shades in between—steadied my breathing. How it opened my heart along with my winter weary eyes and made me leave my “good beach book” open, unread, in my lap. If somehow, somewhere a beachfront location better than Sur La Mer existed, I had no need to go look. Fishing right off the front deck and the “back yard” beach. Snorkeling from shore. Close to town but tranquil and “away from it all.” Restaurants enough when we wanted to go out to eat, groceries enough when we didn’t. And the people? Well, they were some of the happiest, welcoming, down-to-earth people anywhere. Check, check, check…and check. After years of hopping from island to island honing the wish list, I was home. And exciting as it was exploring new places and meeting new people, just knowing I could go back to Sur La Mer “God willing and the creek don’t rise” was comfortably exciting. Like the story book I’d tuck under my pillow as a kid, I could always dive back into each colorful page, soothe myself with the promise of happily ever after.
Or so I let myself believe. Until September 1.
A never-before nightmare came true when Dorian hit Abaco and its surrounding cays as a Category 5 hurricane. Wind gusts up to 220 miles per hour. Storm surges more than 20 feet high. Incessant, torrential rain. What an unimaginable combination of forces could do to an island and its people. The sad, sickening details left little hope, little doubt, turning all the news story hype, the hypotheses and experts’ talk of “worst possible” scenarios, into useless chatter. What was left of Abaco, Grand Bahama, and many of the nearby islands was a horror story.
“It was as if a sniper loaded the eye of Dorian into a high-powered rifle and aimed straight at Marsh Harbour and our place down there,” Tom said to anyone who still wondered. Folks who already knew and loved Abaco didn’t need to ask. And others who previously had a vague geographical concept of us going “somewhere in the Bahamas” couldn’t help but see. The weather advisory map was on every TV channel and all over the Internet, a red, churning bulls-eye centered on Abaco in a slow crawl over to Grand Bahama. BAM…spot on.
Then came the aftermath, the footage of unrecognizable places and missing faces. I stared, squinted and shook my head at image after image of what the meteorological circles and arrows had actually left behind. At first, I tried to drown my denial with Captain Morgan and the familiar taste of my last happy hours at Sur La Mer. I failed miserably. Then I tried to write about it, somehow caption what I was seeing. Hard, but do-able, I kept telling myself. “Use your gift, your English degree, your Thesaurus, if necessary. You can always find words!” But finally I had to concede to what I believed my whole life to be a cop-out, a lazy writer’s lame excuse: “No words can describe what I saw.” I deleted every trite, worthless description.
“Horrific, catastrophic, apocalyptic…GONE,” reported a reconnaissance pilot who flew over the island. Blunt, to the point, and so sadly true, those were the words I was left with as I scanned the aerial footage. Was that the airport? The harbor? Where was the row of shops and restaurants along Bay Street? I couldn’t find a point of reference in the rubble or the flooded, flattened, treeless landscape. Bleary eyed and broken too, I had to back away for awhile, get back on my bike.
“How could it all be GONE? Wiped out?” I cried to the treetops. How could my days at Sur La Mer be over, taken away so suddenly by the same wind and waves that lulled me to sleep, put me at peace? And what about all the families beyond my little hideaway who’d built the soul and structure of Abaco? What about Lydia and Keith, my friends who tried to ride out the storm?
Realtor, property manager, and descendant of British loyalists who settled in Abaco, Lydia was the reason Tom and I found Sur La Mer in the first place. She loved to expand her island “family” and immediately brought us into the fold, gave us first dibs on renting again. “You can never sell this house or fix it up too much,” we teased. “You’ll put it out of our price range!” She’d been featured on the HGTV channel showing Sur La Mer to an island oasis hunting couple, and we’d watched with excitement and more than a little apprehension.
“I feel like I’m right on the water,” the wife cooed when she saw the sand and surf from the living room windows.
“That’s because you ARE right on the water, you silly…..!” I yelled at the TV. But she just couldn’t see Sur La Mer the way Tom and I did. She noticed the lack of stainless steel appliances, granite counter tops, and side-by-side bathroom sinks. Saying something about a “total gut job,” she moved on in search of less rustic real estate. Good thing for us, though. So what if the water pressure in the kitchen was non-existent, the toilets needed a double flush, the deck chairs were duct taped, the original pine floors scuffed and sagging. It was a house in the Bahamas! On the sea! It had survived plenty of tropical storms, hurricanes even. So, naturally, it was windblown and rusty here and there. And it could stay quirky and quaint just the way it was.
Our friend Keith, owner of Dive Abaco, knew how we felt. “Aaah, yes, you’re staying at Sur La Mer!” he said. Eyes the color of fair seas and a kindred sense of humor, he gave us a mini French lesson while we booked our next snorkel trip. “On the sea,” he said, slapping his hand on top of the counter, then moving it underneath. “Not Sous La Mer. Because sous would be under the sea and you wouldn’t want that. Not inside the house, anyways.”
Guiding people on and under the Sea of Abaco was Keith’s job, his passion for decades. Every day the weather permitted, he’d lead people out to the reefs, over coral towers and down through deep canyons teeming with fish. He’d take you to meet Gidget the Grouper, get you face to face with stoplight parrot fish, queen angels, and every eye-popping species out there. “Vitamin Sea,” he called it. And he made sure you got a good, healthy dose. Until September 1.
When Dorian hit, Keith and his wife, Melinda, lost everything but their lives. Boat, home, business…everything. They were without insurance, too, or any hope of the nest egg that would someday come when they needed to sell off their investments on Abaco and retire. Melinda said she felt blessed, though, “simply overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and concern and offers to help” and the generous online donations coming from all over the world. She gave thanks for all the shared memories—of laughter and adventure and long, carefree afternoons floating along behind Captain Keith. And hoped that everyone could continue to smile, hold that close.
Lydia lost almost everything to Dorian, too. Except her family, her faith and her will to help her community survive. Almost immediately, she saw to it that those who could stay and wanted to stay had basic necessities. She mobilized a search for still-livable dwellings for the displaced who needed shelter, for volunteers coming to help, and for those wanting to eventually return. As of this writing, she’d coalesced enough food, clean water, clothing, medicine, supplies, and volunteers to help keep makeshift neighborhoods healthy and hopeful day by day. “God has many hands and feet,” she said. “He’s got this.” And, in Lydia, God and the people of Abaco have a heart as big and strong as they come.
After hearing from Melinda and Lydia, I knew it was self-centered to be wondering about Sur La Mer, to need to see for myself what happened. Too difficult to imagine where anything used to be, warned a friend who rented down the shore. But when he sent me a link to a closeup video, I knew I had to look. Over and over I paused the picture where the narrow road used to wind past the ferry terminal, along beaches on both sides, and into the stone pillared driveway. But there was nothing…no road, no walls, no splinters of sea foam green from the exterior walls, nothing even floating around the vague shadow of the old foundation. Any last vestige of a house was obliterated, erased. Stripped of all trees and scoured right down to limestone, the very shape and contour of the surrounding land held nothing familiar.
I stopped trying to make sense of the pictures, of somehow trying to rearrange puzzle pieces that were no longer there. And when the images kept me awake that night, I didn’t block them. I snuggled into my warm, dry bed and let them come. When finally I drifted off to sleep, I dreamed I was back at Sur La Mer, back in the vivid, happy moments I’d shared with Tom and his sister, Chris.
“Magical,” Chris kept saying soon after she settled in. Believing it was the only place in the world you could watch the sun rise and set over the same house, hear water splashing and palm trees rustling from all rooms, she moved from bedroom to living room to the second floor loft in daily affirmation. “The best thing about going home from here will be painting it,” she said each evening, scrolling through the pictures on her phone. “I’ll call this Sunset on Eastern Shores. And this one, I’ll do in pastels. See if I can capture the crazy endless blue at Casuarina Point.” She’d paint the turtle we swam with over Mermaid Reef, too. “The coolest thing ever,” she said before entertaining us with a rum-inspired imitation of Crush from Finding Nemo.
I awoke with a smile and two, simple words. Love and gratitude. That’s what Sur La Mer still stood for, how it could teach me to turn grief into healing rather than despair. It gave me a special space in time for capturing precious moments, for connecting with people stronger than what nature took away. The lesson in the loss, for me, is never losing sight of the quaint little cottage by the sea or the void left in its place. So, as the days turn to winter and the trees to gold, I will carry it into my “here and now,” grateful for every second my travels return me safely home. And if and when I find another sanctuary on the sea, I will raise a toast to Sur La Mer. Before. After. Always.
Please join me in helping the people of Abaco by donating to a relief effort. Here are the two mentioned above.
- Hurricane Relief for Marsh Harbour (organized by Lydia Hill)
- Dive Abaco Hurricane Dorian Relief (for Captain Keith and Melinda)