Bernice and Garry: Christmas in the Caymans

My original plan was to tell the Bernice and Garry story in simple linear fashion. The end of the story would coincide with my final tribute to Bernice, the running of the New York City Marathon in 2012. I’m driven to deviate from the plan by the reality that this will be my very first Christmas without the love of my life. In order to balance the ache of not having her with me I want to step out of time and return to our first Christmas together.


Christmas Eve

When it comes to vacations, all glory goes to Bernice. She conceived, planned and directed them. Not only that, she had to put my life in order to make them happen. In December, 1993 that included getting me in and out of the hospital (hernia repair), and setting up a rehab plan that would make me travel worthy for our first vacation together, a vacation that would have us arriving on Grand Cayman Island on Christmas Eve.  

Conversation on the plane:
Garry: Ok, so we get transportation to our condo. Then what?

Bernice: What what?

Garry: What do we do? Eat, take a walk, do a Christmas party at some resort?

Bernice: I thought we might walk to the beach. If you can handle it.
Garry: I can’t believe you got us a condo right on the beach.
Bernice: We were lucky.
Garry (to himself): I was lucky. You were smart.
Garry (to Bernice): I hope there is some food in the fridge.
Bernice: We are supposed to have food amenities, stove and refrigerator. I don’t know about food. Maybe we should save our peanuts, just in case.

Garry: Well, we can always go buy some food, right.

Bernice: Maybe, but it is Christmas Eve.

Even before the taxi let us out a few feet from our condo, I knew we were in heaven. There was a bone soothing warmth in the air, and the breeze was just strong enough to remind us that we were in the tropics. Walking to our cabin, we could hear the waves rolling restlessly over the shore. We would have to settle for the sounds because the immediate area was pitch black. There may have been lights along the beach but we weren’t positioned to see them.

Inside we postponed our search for food long enough to explore our island home. We liked what we saw. Simple living room with bright pictures of the famous Seven Mile Beach on the walls. Small kitchen with even smaller amenities. A bedroom with a queen sized mattress. A bed cover with tropical flowers inside a red trim. More Island pictures on the wall, these including people and scenes from Island life. Bamboo shading for the bedroom window. And a quaint bathroom with enough knick-knack diversions to hide its true purpose.

Our post tour conversation went something like this:
Garry: There are some candies in this bowel on the living room table. Some pepperminty, Christmasy looking stuff. What’s in the fridge?
Bernice: You don’t want to know. I knew I should have asked the cab driver where we could get some food.
Garry: This is not good. Hey, don’t we have a phone. We can just call around.

Bernice: Here’s the phone and I guess this little notebook looking thing is a phone book.

With raised spirits we combed the notebook for likely food sources.
Bernice: You call, I’ll read you the numbers. 
By the fourth or fifth call our spirits had bottomed out.

Bernice: Looks like everything is closed for Christmas Eve. We can’t even get Chinese. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.

Garry: But you always think of everything.

Bernice: Not always I guess. Not this time anyway.
Garry: So what are we gonna do?
Bernice: How well do you think peppermint candy and airplane peanuts go to together

I don’t know if it was her deadpan delivery or the absurdity of the combination that made me laugh, but my reaction triggered Bernice’s involuntary response system. Her eyes popped wide and a smile lept across her face.
 I’ve seen this look before. She always gets it when she is about to lose control. Fist the look, then a rush of soundless air, and then a laugh way back in her throat, like she is trying to suppress it. We are like two kids in church who know the dire consequences if they don’t stop laughing but they just can’t. I giggle and Bernice lets her laugh loose. It’s a normal laugh at first but it quickly accelerates into a desparate gasping. She is approaching critical mass. If I don’t stop now, her body will go into convulsions, giving new meaning to the phrase “laugh until you cry”. But the worse she gets the more I laugh.
Desperate for control she lurches at me, grasps my shirtfront with one hand and tries to cover my mouth with the other. As I try to twist away, the hand on the mouth slips into a headlock. I’m thinking she is actually trying to squeeze me into submission. I’m laughing too hard to fight back. I try a knee drop to counter the headlock, but instead of escaping I knock us both off balance. Now she’s on top of me, breathless with tears in her eyes.
“You …have… to …stop…I…can’t …breath.”

“Get off me then. I’ll try. Really. Really I will. You have to get off me.”

 She rolls off me and onto her back. Collects herself. My laugh stops. A long beat of silence. We roll over to look at each other, notice we’re on the floor, and just like the kids in church we’re off again. The stopping and starting goes on until finally we are laughed out and silent. We sit up shaking our heads, almost afraid to look at each other. 
Bernice: Well I guess we might as well go to bed.

Garry: Can we take the peanuts with us?
Bernice: Don’t make me laugh. I could hurt you. 

Going to bed actually proved to be a great solution. We were both wired and had no interest in sleep. We began a conversation that lasted into the wee small hours of the morning. We may have talked of Cabbages and Kings but mostly we talked about our future together.

Christmas day   

Christmas day began like most of our weekends and holidays back home, late. We had perfected the art of postponing the events of the day until every fibre of our bodies demanded release into action. As excited as we were to explore our Island Paradise, we were in no hurry to leave our cocoon. Our only concession was to prop the windows open in order to better hear the waves. We played a game of matching our breathing to the swells of the ocean.

When finally freed from our languor we dressed in haste and set about to scavenge for food. Our game plan was to make house calls on our neighbors in hopes of getting a line on some groceries. The plan fell apart when we found nobody home in the several cabins we approached.
Garry: You think everybody went to the beach?
Bernice: Maybe they went someplace for Christmas.

Garry: They are someplace for Christmas.
Bernice: Yeah, they’re probably all at the beach.
Garry: Should we head for the beach? I mean it would be kind of weird. ‘Excuse me sir, we just arrived from the states and we don’t have any food. Can you help us?

Bernice: I don’t think I would use that approach.
Garry: How far is it to the beach?

Bernice: Not too far. But I remember coming in last night, we turned off a main street. That might be our best bet.

Garry: Right, we could catch someone out for a walk or hail a cabbie.

Bernice: You can hail. I’ll do the talking.

We had barely reached the sidewalk of the main street when we saw a man and woman headed in our direction.
Bernice: Excuse us. We’re staying in a condo down the way and we just got in last night. Can you tell us where to buy some food?
Man: (Sounding American, midwest) It’s Christmas. Everything is closed.

Garry: Everything?
Man: Everything I can think of.
Woman: Well Howard, they could get a meal at any of the hotels.

Bernice: We need more than one meal. We have to get through this afternoon and evening. No grocery stores are open?
Man: No grocery stores, I’m pretty sure. But now that I think of it, there may be a convenience store a ways up.
Garry: Can you tell us how to get there?

Man: Like I said, it’s a ways up. Pretty hard to give directions unless you have a map.
Bernice: I have a map of the Island.
Garry: You have a map?
Bernice: I always have a map. So would we go this way, towards the shopping areas?
Man: No all the shops are closed. Let me look at the map. Ok, we’re right here and the liquor store is way over here.

Woman: Howard, why don’t we just walk them over? (to Bernice) We came down here to get Howard some exercise but it’s like pulling teeth, getting him to move.
Howard proved to be in better shape than his wife had indicated. He practically drug us at least a mile to the store. Then, with a hundred meters to go, he pointed to the store sight, and said. “There you go. Good luck. Hope you find something you like.”

Woman: (heartfelt) Merry Christmas
Bernice and Garry: (In unison) Merry Christmas and thanks

The food pickings were slim, but we got enough cold cuts for a couple of meals. I perked up when the proprietor recommended a bottle of Tortuga Rum. I perked up more when we bought it.

Back at the cabin Bernice got busy making sandwiches and I found an old radio I hadn’t noticed when we did our walk through the night before. I turned it on, expecting to hear either Christmas music or maybe some calypso tunes. Instead it’s a lady, speaking with a distinctive British accent, delivering some sort of address.

I am speaking to you from the Library at Sandringham.
Four generations of my family have enjoyed the solitude of this library.
Four Generations of my family…

Garry: Bernice, I think it’s the bloody Queen of England!
Bernice: It probably is. The Cayman Islands are still British.

Garry: Wow! We’re really in a foreign country. How’s that sandwich coming?
Bernice: The sandwich can wait. I want to listen to the Queen’s speech.

And we did. Very uplifting speech. To my delight, Bernice went ahead with the sandwich. She was never happy doing just one thing at a time.
After the speech we hurried off to the beach. When I think of that afternoon, three things come to mind, the beach was pristine white and looked to be every bit of seven miles long. The ocean, the same color blue as the sky, was immense, and Bernice was a knockout in her new bathing suit. She already had a better tan than anybody on the beach.

We didn’t swim or walk much. Partly because I wasn’t one hundred percent, but mostly because we were so drawn to the ocean. We sat as close to the edge of the waves as we could, never minding the warm waters flowing over our legs, occasionally leaping to our feet to avoid being swallowed by a big wave. 
Later we became enthralled with the setting sun.

Bernice: Somebody was telling me that just before the sun disappears, there is a big explosion of color.

Garry: We better stick around for that.
 On this night the sun, after casting a thin orange glow over the horizon, slipped tamely out of site. But there was no disappointment. With the blue-black onset of night, the explosion was in our hearts. It was our world. It was our time.
“Merry Christmas”

“Merry Christmas”

Bernice and Garry: Sweetness and Light

It is easier to remember “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, the tragedies, the down times. Happiness is generally something one enjoys and moves on, making no attempt to mark its passage. And yet, I will never forget the sweetness of the days following the arrival of Bernice’s provocative postcard.  

Every waking moment was filled with anticipation. Anticipation I hadn’t experienced since I was five years old, right after my mother told me that I was going to take a train ride to spend a week with my Dad. At the time Dad worked for the H J Hines (Ketchup) Co in faraway Muscatine, Iowa and didn’t always make it home for weekends. When he did he loved to regale mom and me about the mighty Mississippi River. No kid in my neighbourhood had seen the Mississippi, and no kid in my neighbourhood had ever been for a train ride. As my imagination swept me away the only thing holding me to earth was the conviction that I had to be the luckiest kid in town.

Waiting for Bernice’s return from Phoenix, I thought, “Maybe I’m still the luckiest kid in town.”

My energy level was off the chart. As a runner I had often experienced the vaunted “runners high”. But now my endorphins seemed divinely charged. In a single run I could play out the entire Bernice and Garry story and have time left over for speculation on exciting scenes to come, such as our first kiss. 

Before Bernice, it had been said of me that I did not suffer fools gladly. Since the postcard, I became the most approachable man on the planet. With great eagerness I would enter discourse with friends, shop clerks, strangers in the convenience store, seatmates on the bus, even wrong numbers got a play.

I have little doubt that I was headed for burnout if Bernice stayed away much longer. But return she did, looking vibrant, tanned, bright eyed, and more than a little, mischievous. Like maybe we were sharing a secret or maybe she knew I was dying to be let in on her secret. For my part I was trying hard to not appear like an excited puppy dog. “Keep your tongue in your mouth. Don’t wag your tail. Keep your paws down.”

We wasted little time arranging our first date. Dinner and a movie. Dinner was a medium pepperoni pizza and a couple of beers. The pizzeria itself never became one of our haunts, and I don’t remember its name. But I do remember us. Heads together like teenagers. No social conventions between us. So eager to fill the moment, we were stepping all over each other’s lines with glorious impunity. Looking back, I think we devoured the pizza just to get it out of the way of our conversation. I remember her face, engrossed in the moment, beaming with delight, smiling all the way up from her toes through her twinkling blue eyes. She seemed somehow released and determined to make the most of it.

Then off to the movie theatre, the stately Birmingham Theatre in pricey downtown Birmingham, MI

As we enter the theatre I make an automatic move to the concession counter. True, we had just polished off a medium pizza, but for me popcorn is a conditioned response. In fact, I think it is downright barbaric to be asked to sit through any movie, anywhere without popcorn.

Garry: I’m going to get some popcorn. Would you like something?

Bernice: No thanks. I’m full of pizza. I might nibble on your popcorn.”
Garry: Ok, see that’s why I asked if you wanted something. I have this thing about popcorn. I don’t like to share. For one thing, a full bag is just the right amount of popcorn for me. And for another, I have to pick just the right amount of popcorn to chew without distracting myself from the movie. And the motion from bag to chew has to be smooth. So the bag has to sit at the correct angle and be sufficiently open so that I don’t fumble around. Somebody’s hand in my bag upsets my rhythm.

Mistaking her bemused smile for one of amusement, I lead on to our seats. As we settle in for the previews, we are talking low and intimately. “Do you know anything about this movie,” I ask. “No but my girlfriend says it’s really good.” My popcorn hand is deftly doling out just enough corn to chew imperceptibly. Life is good. But as I turn my attention to the opening credits, my ninja-like reflexes detect movement in the area of my popcorn. I look down and there is Bernice’s hand lazily collecting some kernels from my bag.

“I thought you didn’t want any popcorn.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I can go get you your own bag if you like.”
Then she lays her hand gently on my arm and fixes me with those baby blues. “Listen Mr. if you want to be with me, you’re going to have to learn to share.” I knew she was talking about more than popcorn. However grudgingly, I capitulated. For the rest of the movie we cohabited the bag, snickering when our hands would collide going in or coming out.

Her friend was right, the movie, Prince of Tides with Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte was engrossing and emotionally charged. We laughed in all the same places; Bernice cried a few more times than I did. But most telling of all, to this day I can’t abide the thought of having a whole bag of popcorn to myself.

Progress Report: Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

My training schedule for this Saturday called for a ten miler at South Mountain, but as indicated in last Notes on grieving, I opted for the Sally’s Run 5K in honor of Sally Meyerhoff and her family. My coach, Jeff Hall, was understanding if not pleased with my decision. Not only am I training for the New York City Marathon, I have the IMS Half-marathon coming up in February. In discussing ways to make up the mileage and keep to schedule, we agreed that I could do an additional seven miles on Sunday. 

Sally’s run turned out to be a fabulous success. Right at 1,000 runners showed up for this inaugural race. The weather was near perfect and the course, Kiwanis Park in Tempe, was great for wimps like me. It was touching to see and hear from people from all stages of Sally’s life, from pre-high school up to her short career at Duke University. Ordinarily I leave races as soon as I’m fit to drive home, but I stayed to the end this day and was able to have a few words with Sally’s mother. I would like to become part of the Sally Meyerhoff Foundation but don’t know if it will conflict with my commitment to the Pat Tillman Foundation.

But before I can give you my race evaluation, I have to bore you with an update on my hip/groin condition. I’m still having difficulty walking and the groin pain still wakes me up at night. However, I arrived early at the race-site and warmed up with some slow running and a few run-outs. At the start of the race, I was less cautious than I have been of late and felt like I moved into a nice pace for me. My hip & groin loosened up and I was able to focus on my pace. I know I picked it up on the last mile, but my time did not reflect any of these successes. Slow as it was, I was satisfied with my effort.

The Sunday seven did not go so well. I ran along a wash that extends for miles from the golf course bordering my condo complex. I didn’t warm up so the first mile was torturous, allowing for pity-pat progression. I did ultimately loosen up and achieve a tempo run pace. Unfortunately, I spent the first two hours of post-run-recovery in bed. But I did some yoga stretching, took a shower and went to a movie, My Week With Marilyn. By the time I ate my dinner, pan fried chicken thighs, and watched the latest Boardwalk Empire episode, I was feeling nearly human.