Bang and Vanish

A trip to Key West becomes an unexpected journey involving a sacred bird, a beloved dog, and the challenge of coming to terms with the nature of fate.

Janice Gary | Longreads | April 2018 | 20 minutes (5,587 words)

 

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap …

— Ted Hughes, “Wind”

 
We had been in Key West only five hours when the shit hit the fan. Six fans. One in the kitchen, two in the living room, one in the bedroom, and the two in the dining room where my dog lay on a red oriental rug panting incessantly, his sleek black-and-white body trembling from head to tail.

I squatted next to Winston and pressed my hand against his chest. His heart beat erratically. “What happened?” I asked my husband.

He ignored the question. “Where the hell were you? I called. I texted.”

“I turned off the phone,” I said. “I’m sick. I didn’t want you to wake me.”

“Well you’re awake now.”

I was awake alright. Awake and alarmed. Winston stared out into space, his eyes glassy and unfocused. It seemed like he didn’t even know I was there. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”

“I don’t know,” Curt said. “One minute he was walking down Duval Street with me and the next thing I know he could hardly move. I had to carry him home the last two blocks.”

Instinctively, my hand moved to Winston’s belly. The first thought was bloat — a twisted gut, always a possibility for large-chested breeds like his boxer–pit bull mix. But his stomach wasn’t distended. I pulled back his lips. Pale gums. Not a good sign. I considered taking him to an emergency clinic but simply walking through the door of one of those places could cost hundreds of dollars.

“Take him now,” my sister screamed over the speakerphone. She said it could be anything — bloat, internal bleeding, a brain hemorrhage. After hanging up, Curt and I looked at each other suspended in a trance of uncertainty. My sister was known for histrionics when it came to health, canine or otherwise. I asked Winston what he wanted to do. Like Jesus rising from the dead, he got up on shaky legs and walked to the front door. “I guess we’re going,” my husband said.

***

We hadn’t even been in town long enough to unpack. This was not a vacation. It was something bigger, a trial run for living and working on the edge — the southernmost edge of the country — a jumping-off point for artists and eccentrics who had one foot on the ground and the other on something much less solid. But the endeavor felt jinxed from the start. Leaving three days before New Year’s Eve, we ran smack into holiday traffic and an accident that had us crawling through the state of South Carolina for hours. In Georgia, we passed a burnt-out carcass of a car frame — a stark reminder that one wrong lane change could end everything. Even worse, for most of the trip my husband was sick with a terrible cold, which, despite my best germ-avoidance techniques, left his body and began to assault mine by the time we reached the Florida state line.

***

Winston’s crisis gave us our first lesson in what it was like to live in the Florida Keys. Outside the ubiquitous convenience/liquor store, all-night resources were far-flung and limited. The only emergency veterinary clinic in the entire island chain was 50 miles away in Marathon. And there was only one way to get there — U.S. 1, the Overseas Highway — heading back in the direction we had come.

Usually, driving on the Overseas Highway thrilled me in a way nothing else could. It was all sea and sky, the waters a liquid kaleidoscope changing from aqua to olive to cerulean to a million shades of turquoise with the slightest shift of light or shading of cloud. I loved that water so much that my last will and testament included a map indicating the exact spot on Bahia Honda where I wanted my ashes scattered. But at 1 in the morning with no moon, an invisible sea, and the threat of rain in the sky, the only thing out there was a black void, and in that void I saw another road, the one we had traveled earlier that day, traversing a sea of grass into a time and place where the confluence of the ordinary and the mythical appeared out of nowhere and disappeared just as quickly.

***

Coming down we had driven from Naples to Homestead on the Tamiami Trail, an old two-lane highway connecting the west coast of Florida to the east at the southernmost tip of the state. The trail, named for its Tampa-to-Miami route, bored straight through the heart of the Everglades as part of the Army Corps of Engineers’ earliest attempts in the 1920s to drain the Big Cypress Swamp.

The asphalt unspooled across a vast expanse of grass, extraordinary in an ordinary way, full of nothing but sun, sky, sedge, and glittering water concentrated in concrete canals, which constricted the rivers that once flowed freely. The only visible wildlife were birds — predators mostly: falcons, egrets, herons, and cranes arcing in wide circles high above the marshes, searching for their next meal.

Somewhere mid-route, a large white heron flew out of a tree and soared across the road in the direction of a drainage ditch on the other side. As the bird made its descent, I turned my attention to my iPhone and some god-knows-what internet headline. Suddenly, my husband yelled out, “Shit! What the hell?” His voice was so startling I immediately looked up from the phone, and there, on the tarmac in front of us, saw what he was screaming about — a mangled white bird body, its twisted white plumage flapping in the breeze.

Then it — and we — were gone.

“It was that van,” my husband said, motioning toward the windshield. Two cars ahead, an old tan minivan slowed and wobbled toward the shoulder.

“The bird was flying across the road, when bang, just like that! It went straight down into the path of the van.”

I turned to the passenger window and studied the landscape of the Glades. Sun glinted silver on a patch of water. Two hawks soared against a blue-white sky. I felt my heart drop into my stomach. “This is not good,” I said.

“What do you mean?” my husband asked.

“A white heron dying like that. It’s a bad sign.” As the words left my lips, I felt a weight pressing on both of us.

***

I come from superstitious people, Eastern European Jews who created elaborate rituals and mythic narratives as a way to elude the dangers of poverty, death, and religious persecution. Safe was never safe. Brides could be raped and killed while traveling to meet their grooms in the next village. Boys sent out for milk might end up with their heads lopped off by drunken Cossacks sweeping through town. The only way to control the uncontrollable was through tricks of the mind, making deals and appeals to the demons, the dybbuks lurking just out of sight.

Growing up, my mother wouldn’t let us pass over open safety pins. Bad luck, she’d say. So was walking back into a house once the door had been locked. But all the closed safety pins and doors in the world didn’t stop me from walking out the door one morning to find my father dead in our driveway, a suicide finally carried out after years of threats. It didn’t protect me from being taken down and raped on a dark street far from home. Still, or maybe because I know bad shit can happen anytime, anywhere, I look for signs.

‘A white heron dying like that. It’s a bad sign.’ As the words left my lips, I felt a weight pressing on both of us.

It’s complicated, this way of seeing the world. My default setting is not logic, but supposition, born of an overactive mind constantly searching for metaphor and meaning. As a student of Zen Buddhism, I’m fully aware that in order to see the true nature of things I must free myself from this web of delusion. “Life as it is,” my sensei says, which means a dead bird on the highway is just a dead bird on the highway. But I struggle with this. Magic and myth are part of my epigenetic inheritance. There is a crazy witch living inside me who constantly fights the clear-seeing samurai warrior on the Noble Eightfold Path. And although I’m embarrassed to admit it, more often than not, it’s the witch who wins.

***

After hitting the bird, the driver of the van pulled over and turned on their emergency blinkers. At first, I thought he had stopped to check on the bird, but no doubt he wanted to see if his car had been damaged. I pulled up Google and entered Great White Heron symbolism. There was some new age bullshit about taking a stand and finding stability. Another site said it represented following intuition. When I found a brief mention that the bird could represent death, I followed my intuition and stopped my search.

“It means death,” I told Curt at the time.

He gave me a puzzled look. “Whose?”

“My Mom. Maybe yours. That’s my guess.” Both of our mothers were in their 90s.

We continued on in silence. A large wooden totem loomed ahead, marking the Miccosukee Visitor’s Center, which advertised gator shows and airboat rides. I must have still been in shock from seeing the shattered bird; I remember how I longed to jump out of the car, hop on an airboat, and glide down that silver water, stopping time and movement to make sense out of what had just happened. But we continued on the Tamiami Trail to its terminus at Homestead where we picked up the Overseas Highway and made our way down the Keys while the cold germs settled into my body and the memory of the white bird fluttered in my head.

***

The emergency clinic was easy to find; it was one of the few places on Marathon that actually looked open for business at 2 a.m. We rung the bell and were buzzed in by a pleasant blonde woman who took us directly to an examining room. Within minutes, a young vet dressed in blue surgery scrubs entered. He bent down, listened to Winston’s heart with his stethoscope, and then stood up and studied him. Winston moved slowly across the tiled floor, wagging his tail half-heartedly when the vet called his name.

“I think your dog is stoned,” he said.

My husband and I looked at each other and shook our heads. “Stoned?” my husband asked. “How could he be stoned?”

Apparently there were many ways a dog could be stoned in Key West. A roach dropped on the sidewalk on top of an errant French fry. A piece of pot brownie discarded on the curb. A bud embedded in a splotch of ice cream, slurped up by a quick tongue. It seemed crazy. But possible.

Our mood lightened for a moment. If it was true, we’d have a great story to tell; our dog would forever be known as the Little Stoner. But even though he looked stoned and acted like it, I couldn’t shake the dread that followed me all the way down the highway to the clinic.

“What about internal bleeding?” Before leaving the house, I had done some quick research on Winston’s symptoms on the internet. It seemed like a possibility.

“Maybe,” he said. “But I’ve never seen a dog with internal bleeding wag their tail.”

That barely moving tail was a faint shadow of Winston’s usual boisterous greeting. The vet suggested my husband drive to the 24-hour Walgreens to buy a drug-testing kit. Who knew you get those things in a drug store? I hoped the test would prove he was stoned. But as I sat on the stool under the harsh fluorescence of the examining room, the white bird sat next to me, his mangled feathers fluttering like the panic in my gut.

“I could do an ultrasound if you want me to,” the vet said.

I wanted him to. He took Winston to the back. When he returned without him, his face told me what I had feared. “He’s bleeding.”

The foggy image on the ultrasound showed a swirl above his spleen. The X-ray that followed was clearer: a huge mass had ruptured and was spreading through his system. He needed to be stabilized immediately, the vet said. Then, the spleen would have to be removed. After that, a biopsy.

“Fifty percent of these masses are benign, fifty percent cancerous,” he explained. Our options were to operate and hope for the best. Or do nothing and have him die that night. There was no hesitation on our part. He was a young 11, puppy-like at an age some would say is old in a boxer. We were not ready to say goodbye.

Is anyone, ever?

***

We left Winston with the vet and drove back into the darkness. On the way home, bridge after bridge, key after key, I mentally dissected the incident of the white heron on the Tamiami Trail and compared it to what just happened. My husband saw the bird hit by the car but I only saw the aftermath. Curt witnessed the moment Winston went into shock; I only saw what happened after. Both events came out of nowhere, the bird doing what a bird does, the dog doing what he does, both taken down suddenly and in mid-movement. The similarities were startling.

My default setting is not logic, but supposition, born of an overactive mind constantly searching for metaphor and meaning.

One small detail gave me solace: We didn’t hit the bird, the van two cars ahead of us did. I clung to that distance of a few hundred feet as it were a lifeline. Maybe this meant Winston would be okay. Maybe this would be a close call and nothing else. Maybe, maybe, derived from the Old English may it be. Later that night, I repeated may it be in the form of a Buddhist metta chant recited over and over: May he dwell in the heart. May he be free from suffering. May he be healed. May he be at peace.

Some people push beads down a string as means of supplication. I pile words on top of words. Beads, prayer, paper, it’s all the same, an attempt to create order out of eternal chaos.

***

The surgery to remove Winston’s ruptured spleen was successful. (Dogs, like people, do not need spleens to survive.) He was sent home after three days at the vet with a cone over his head, a slew of medications, and a biopsy shipped off to a lab to determine whether the mass was cancerous. We picked him up just hours before my first memoir workshop began in Key West, one of three I would be teaching over the month. By the time we got back, I barely had enough time to run to the studio. After introductions, I gave the students a writing exercise and walked the art-filled hallways while they wrote, studying the work of local artists. The walls were covered with paintings of blue seas and tropical flowers. But my favorite piece was a 3-D installation of a baby doll with an eight ball around her neck entitled “Born to Lose.”

I wanted to buy that one.

***

The Friday after we brought Winston home, I sat on the oriental rug in the rental house, painting my toenails with polish while he lay beside me, his blocky black-and-white head ensconced in the plastic cone. Curt was out, making the rounds of the music clubs and I was still nursing the bad cold, sipping tea and watching the news. At one point, I got up to get something, and while looking at my dog or the television or anything but the floor, slammed my third toe against the hard plastic sole of the shoes I had thrown on the rug.

The pain was intense and familiar. I had broken my toes twice before — once right here in the Keys — and it felt a lot like those earlier injuries. Hoping it was just a bad sprain I iced it down and went to bed, leaving Winston to his deep sleep in the living room.

Sometime after midnight, I woke to the sound of Curt’s voice, alarmed and incredulous. Afraid that something was wrong with Winston, I jumped out of bed and stumbled into the living room. The dog was still sleeping on the rug where I left him. Curt was at the dining room table on his cell phone. When he saw me, he held the phone away from his mouth and whispered, “It’s Rob. He’s had a heart attack.”

Rob was Curt’s younger brother. He ate too much meat and worked ridiculous hours, but had no real health problems that we knew of. Now his wife Carmela was on the phone, speaking rapidly in her mixture of Tagalog and English, saying something about him losing oxygen on the way to the hospital. “He had a leg cramp,” she said. “We go to bed. I wake up, and he isn’t moving.”

The fan whirled above my head, still on high from when it was set for the afternoon heat. I stood there, shivering in my camisole and panties. In the dark of the dining room, the cell phone cast a ghoulish reflection on Curt’s face. “How is he?” I asked.

He stared into the phone and shook his head. “I’m not sure.”

***

The next day, I drove to an urgent care facility — a human one — and limped my way into the lobby. They showed me to a small examining room where I sat on a paper-covered table waiting for an X-ray machine to be rolled in. On the wall next to the table was a large print of a white heron standing in a mangrove hammock, its plumage as delicate as dandelion puffs in the wind.

“You again,” I said.

The X-rays came back, showing a break on the third toe of my right foot. The doctor taped it, gave me a couple Advil, and told me to rest and ice the toe. Putting my socks and shoes back on, I thought about how bad things supposedly came in threes. First Winston, then Rob. This toe would make three, wouldn’t it? I stared at the bird, as if it had the answer, but the beady eyes refused to meet mine. Before leaving, I snapped a picture of the heron with my phone camera, knowing I might need to prove — even to myself — that I had actually seen it.

Someone once told me that an aunt of hers was driving down the highway when a vulture flew into her windshield. “Can you imagine?” she asked.

Actually, yes, I can.


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By the time I returned from the clinic with my taped toe, Curt had found out that Rob had already gone into cardiac arrest before he arrived at the hospital. The doctors had induced therapeutic hypothermia, hoping to stem any further damage to his brain by reducing his core temperature. Within 24 hours, they would begin raising his temperature again and monitor his progress. All we could do was wait, which we were already doing for Winston’s prognosis. Both of them — and both of us — were in that limbo borderland between life and death, knowing and not knowing.

That night, I lay in bed half-awake and half-asleep. In this hypnagogic state, part of me was in the bed in the rental house, and part of me was in my closet at home, going through the shelf where I kept the box holding the ashes of Barney, my dog before Winston. In the dream, Winston entered the closet and jumped up, first on me, then as high as the shelf where Barney’s box was. Then he fell from the shelf. When he hit the floor, he was no longer Winston but rather a box — his own cremation box. At that point, I awoke with the dreaded certainty of what the pathology report would reveal.

The following week, the veterinary clinic called. Several times. I kept ignoring it, wanting to wait until our visit later that week to hear the news. Finally I took the call. Just as my half-dream predicted, the tests came back showing the mass was malignant. It was hemangiosarcoma, the aggressive and always fatal canine cancer they had warned me about when we first brought him in. “I’m sorry,” the woman on the other end of the phone said.

Both of them — and both of us — were in that limbo borderland between life and death, knowing and not knowing.

I hung up, refusing to feel anything. Winston lay at my feet, looking the perfect image of a healthy and vibrant dog. “You’re going to have a good couple of months,” I said to him. “I’ll make sure of it.”

Over the next few days, as Rob remained in a coma, both Curt and I began hearing stories about people who had come back from hypothermia-induced comas with varying degrees of success. A lot of them were okay, if not exactly 100% perfect. In a reversal from my usual pessimism, I began to see Rob recovered and back at his farm again. He’d have to retire from work, of course, but he’d come out of this. Finally, he’d be able to take it easy, enjoy his family, slow down some.

It felt good to envision good things. I wanted to imagine a happy ending was possible somewhere in all this mess. But the Gods were in a winter mood, even in Florida.

Unbeknownst to us, when we crossed the Tamiami Trail on our way to the Keys, strong upper-level disturbances were already headed in our direction. Fifty miles to the north, Palm Beach County would be hit a few hours later by a 90-mph tornado; to the east, gale-force winds would end up pounding the coast, ripping up whole sections of shoreline. Nothing appeared on the horizon as we drove, not the toxic blood pouring into the spleen of our sleeping dog, not the time bomb ticking in my brother-in-law’s chest, not the rogue wave of air building enough strength and momentum to slam a bird into the path of a tan minivan and onto the pavement.

The wind is always blowing something our way. We just never notice until it knocks us off our feet. This may be the Buddhist in me talking, but it’s also my experience.

***

Rob did not recover from the coma when his temperature was raised. The doctors told us that if the machines strapped to his chest, nostrils, and veins were removed, he would not be able to function. There was an intense and delicate conference call between Rob’s wife, Curt’s mother, a hospital chaplain, and us in Key West about unplugging life support. The decision was made to let him go. He would have to be moved to hospice where we would wait for nature to take its course. It felt unreal.

Almost immediately after hanging up the phone with Rob’s doctors, we jumped into the car and drove back down the Overseas Highway for Winston’s follow-up visit. While he bounced around the room, covering the vet and her assistant in kisses that were thinly disguised entreaties for the beef-flavored biscuits in the jar on the counter, the vet again explained the aggressiveness of this cancer. Our options were limited. Chemo would only give him a few weeks more — at best. She suggested herbs and supplements. Not to heal the cancer, she emphasized, but to help him live better. We left with the herbs and some hope, a little anyway.

The wind is always blowing something our way. We just never notice until it knocks us off our feet.

Not long after we rescued Winston from a kill shelter in West Virginia, when he was still less than a year old, Curt and I sat in our den and watched a blur of a dog zooming around in circles with a deflated chew toy in his mouth. He was so full of joy and energy, it filled the whole room. Out of nowhere, Curt said, “This one’s a shooting star.”

I remember the dread that flooded my body in that moment. The pronouncement felt like a prophecy, not just an offhand remark. I looked at this pup racing around the house and feared he was indeed a shooting star. And now the star was falling.

***

Rob took his last breath less than 24 hours after being taken off life support. His wife told us that the night before the heart attack, Rob stood in the kitchen and told her he loved her. A few weeks earlier, she said, he had paid off the house. She wondered if he knew. Was it even possible?

***

On New Year’s Eve, the day before Winston’s first bleeding incident, we had stopped in Naples to visit old college friends. Dave and Sally were hippies with brains, an engineer-turned-herbalist and an arts advocate who was using her expertise in fundraising and political networking to save the west coast of Florida from falling into the sea. They were delightful hosts, offering good food and drink and heady conversation. Even Winston had a blast, running around their five-acre property with their dog Bandit, at one point breaking into a giant box of Milk-Bones and grinning wildly when caught in the act, as if this were the greatest party ever.

Twenty-four hours after the great Milk-Bone caper, we’d found ourselves in an emergency veterinary clinic examining X-rays of a burst tumor. Could all that partying with our friend’s dog on New Year’s Eve have caused the rupture?

“It’s possible,” the vet had said when I asked about it. “But it doesn’t matter. It would have happened eventually.”

By this time, I understood the rupture was inevitable. But what about the cancer? Was there something I could have done to stop it from happening?

Now I did what I could do: mixed vitamins into Winston’s food, stuffed Chinese-herb capsules into duck-and-pea-flavored pill pockets, measured out 60 drops of mushroom extract twice a day. I had no idea whether I was really prolonging his life or rubbing a good luck charm in the form of an exotic-medicine bottle.

***

Our remaining time in Key West was spent in a kind of shell shock. We drank lovely cocktails — maybe too many of them — smoked pot, and haunted the streets, taking Winston with us as we walked in the valley of the shadow of death among tourists in Tommy Bahama shirts and drag queens in high heels and homeless men who slept curled up like dogs in their blankets under the covered porticos of closed churches and shops.

One month later, we walked down a hill behind my husband’s family’s church with friends and loved ones to spread Rob’s ashes. After the service, we all went back to Curt’s mother’s house and sat in the living room talking about the things families talk about when they have lost one of their own. We had brought Winston, who waited at home during the funeral and acted as a therapy dog while we talked, offering up kisses and comfort until, bored by the lack of food and action, he wandered over to the fireplace and sat down next to an immense basket of memorial flowers.

It was a striking scene, the black-and-white dog, the red-and-black fireplace, the towering display of white roses and pink-flecked lilies. I took a picture with my phone’s camera. It was so perfect it looked staged. Like in a magazine.

Not long after Winston’s pose, my husband walked him to the car and noticed that he seemed unusually unstable. In the car, Winston was restless, unable to sit down or stay still. By the time we arrived home, we knew for sure something was wrong. We drove to the after-hours vet clinic near our home, where an X-ray confirmed another bleed. “Could a tumor grow that fast in six weeks?” I asked.

“Yes,” the vet said. “That’s what this cancer does.”

She suggested putting him down. Curt and I sat in the bare room with our spacey dog debating whether to end his life. First we said yes. And then no. Then we asked Winston what he wanted to do. The door to the hall was open. Just like in Key West, he got up, walked into the lobby, and proceeded to the exit on the far end of the room, where he waited patiently to be let out.

For two days Winston was fine. Then, one evening, while napping in Curt’s office, he jumped off the couch and stood there glassy-eyed and immobile. This time, there was no discussion about taking him to the emergency clinic because we knew what was happening. As his symptoms worsened, he crept off to my office and curled up under my desk, obviously wanting to be alone.

In the morning, when I walked into the office, I didn’t expect he would still be with us. But he was. Kind of. He was obviously weak and unstable.

With each passing hour, he showed signs of being more alert, but my illusions about his prognosis were stripped away. I knew tumors were lining up inside him, each one with a fuse that varied between short and shorter. I called the animal hospital and scheduled a time later that afternoon for the euthanasia. By the time we arrived at the vet’s office, Winston had recovered enough to jump up on the assistant and give her kisses. It killed me to see it. This time, I didn’t ask him what he wanted to do. I didn’t give him a chance to walk to the door. I let it close, knowing it was shutting on both of us.

If there is anything more painful than this, I don’t know what it is.

***

According to a Mexican proverb, whatever you do on New Year’s Day is what you’ll be doing all year.

What I was doing: traveling, witnessing sudden turns in fortune, facing deaths, fighting a cold. Also: witnessing wonder, beauty, wide blue seas, and infinite night. And this: sitting in a veterinarian’s fluorescent-lit examining room made of tile and metal, looking past the nothingness in the air and seeing molecules filling empty space, watching the dance of the hidden and ever-present — the there, here, the here, there — all of it, revealed.

***

Aside from the pain of losing a loved one, Rob’s death set off a chain of repercussions that forced my husband and me to revisit our wills. As the younger brother of a man with no children, Rob was the next in line to receive most of what we had. Now, the legal mumbo jumbo of “what if” became alarmingly real: What if A is deceased before B, what if B is deceased before A, what if neither Beneficiary E nor F is alive …

In the lawyer’s office with its cherrywood bookcases and soaring windows, I could see my old-world grandmother huddled in the corner, saying Men tracht und Gott lacht. Yiddish for Men plan and God laughs.

Following the charts with their lines of succession, all I could think was, You’re right, grandma.

***

I have three advanced degrees and a healthy aversion to anything that smells like a cult. My religious life is focused on the here and now, or is at least a Buddhist’s attempt at it. Even so, I wear evil eye bracelets to ward off danger. Rings with precious stones that supposedly contain mystical powers. One of my bracelets is a mala made of skulls carved out of wood, a reminder that life is short and death ever-present. I stare at those skulls each morning as I slide them onto my bony wrist. You’d think I’d have gotten the message by now.

But nothing says death like death itself.

A few days before leaving Key West, things seemed to be settling down. Curt and I took a kayaking trip into the dense mangrove islands east of town. In the midst of the hammocks, the water was calm and easy, and I had no trouble paddling through the narrow root-lined passages. But by the time we headed back, a freshening breeze threaded the air and rain clouds hovered on the horizon. As we entered Cow Channel, the water was already churning with small whitecaps. I quickly fell behind. It was a struggle to not be blown off course.

Halfway across the channel, I saw a white heron fishing in the shallows. I called out to Curt, but he was too far ahead and the wind carried my voice away. Was the bird a sign? Did it mean we had finally come full circle?

In the middle of unruly waters with a wind that seemed bent on turning me around, there was no time to dwell on it. Maybe it was a sign, or maybe I was just a woman in a small boat with a big need to believe. Keeping an eye on the sky, I grabbed the double-bladed paddle and pushed against the current, determined to outrun the dark clouds.

The rain began just as I pulled into the dock.

***

One year later, I stood on that same dock. Now, planks of fresh pine outnumbered the weathered wood. Except for those boards and a couple of blue-tarp roofs jutting out above the tree line, it seemed hard to believe that only three months before a monster hurricane named Irma roared into this channel carrying the sea on its back. Boats, buildings, and lives were destroyed. Bang! Just like that.

There is an old Zen saying: Everything changes.

And for now, I’m still here.
 

***

Janice Gary is the author of Short Leash: a Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, winner of the Eric Hoffer Prize, Nautilus Book Award, and a finalist for the Sarton Award for Memoir. She is on the faculty of the Master of Liberal Studies Program at Arizona State University and conducts memoir workshops throughout the country. Her work has been published in River Teeth, Brevity, The Spring Journal, The Potomac Review, and other publications.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross