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.
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 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.
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.