Adventures in ditching the office and making a life on a small island nobody's heard of
Author: Brian J. Cantwell
A former travel and outdoors editor at The Seattle Times, I'm now exploring Washington's San Juan Islands on my classic runabout and trying not to smash my fingers with the hammer while I fix up my island cabin.
FEW THINGS FEEL MORE HEALING than sitting on the old wooden porch of Isabel’s Espresso in Lopez Village and sipping a strong drip coffee with three Stevias and a dollop of half ‘n half — the diabetic widower’s special, I guess — on a blue-sky morning in May. It’s bloom time for the island’s wild hawthorne and dainty white bells of salal. I sniff a heady perfume of flowers and fir pollen on the lazy swirls of fresh air that haven’t worked quite hard enough to be a breeze.
Just sitting, doing something normal, and reading one of author Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak mysteries, set in the Alaska bush. Barbara’s not with me, yet she is, in my choice of reading. For years my wife tried to convince me I’d love this sassy Aleut detective, Kate, with a half-wolf dog named Mutt. Dumbly, I resisted, until last fall. Now I’m on Book 13. Two things I’m glad Barbara lived to witness: Trump’s humiliation and my Kate Shugak conversion.
It’s heartbreaking that Barbara’s not sharing in this simple pleasure, just sitting on a sunny deck, reading a good book and sipping a cup of something hot and reviving. But I milk a little enjoyment from knowing she’d have loved it, too.
Neighbor John, the Mad Birder, astutely summed up for me the paradoxical elements of grief. To paraphrase: You don’t honor your loved one by succumbing to a lifetime of emotional paralysis. Barbara wouldn’t wish that on me, and would hate to be the cause of it. Yet how can I stop thinking of her and loving her, and wouldn’t it be wrong to stop missing her?
It’s not simple. It’s not easy. It’s wrong that she isn’t with me, but somehow it’s right that I should find a small pleasure sipping my coffee on the old wooden deck while devouring a good book that Barbara turned me on to.
I love you, sweetie. With a tear in my eye, I love you.
EVERY ISLAND IN THE SAN JUANS has its own character. Even a 10-minute hop over the water in WeLike can be like a little vacation.
My old friend Daniel Farber and I put that to the test when he was visiting earlier this week. Daniel and I grew up less than a mile from each other in the Seattle suburbs, went to the same high school, and were housemates while attending The Evergreen State College. He was my best man when Barbara and I married in 1979.
His visit was part of my continuing determination to accept kind invitations and offers of companionship to help me weather my grief at losing my dear wife. It was a month ago today. It seems like yesterday.
But good company helps. We packed a lunch and zipped southward on the blissfully calm waters of Rosario Strait to tie up to a San Juan County Land Bank buoy in Lopez Island’s pretty Watmough Bay. Raptors swirled above us, catching updrafts from the soaring, rocky cliff of 470-foot Chadwick Hill as we munched our lunch. Only one person lounged on the sandy beach. Otherwise, we shared the little bay with a pretty sailboat rocking gently at anchor.
Filled with food, we cast off and turned back northward for a 15-minute run to James Island, a marine state park not much more than a frisbee’s throw from neighboring Decatur Island.
It’s only a few hundred feet across a narrow saddle of forest from one side of James to the other, between two bays equipped with a boat dock and mooring buoys. Daniel and I hiked out to a viewpoint with a wide panorama of the Washington State Ferries route and the high ramparts of Cypress Island. We were the only people wandering among empty campsites that will likely be bustling in a few weeks. I skipped stones from the beach piled high with myriad little agates and tide-polished rocks the size of a martini olive in shades of red, green and ocher.
Back on my island, I saw that the wildflowers called sea blush were frosting our knoll with pink. I found a few calypso orchids, the tiny flowers also known as fairy slippers. Having bloomed when I wasn’t looking, they were already fading.
Daniel left yesterday morning. Today, as I returned from an outing with my chainsaw to bring home firewood from the community log pile, a splash of orange caught my eye among the shadowy woods. I looked up to see a small glass vase of nasturtium flowers hanging on a tree at the side of our back drive.
It thrust me back to four Thursdays ago. My island friend Dan Lewis was driving the community pickup truck. I rode shotgun. Barbara’s siblings Julie and Sarah crouched in the truck bed to ensure that the backboard stretcher to which their sister’s blanket-wrapped body was strapped didn’t slide out the back as we made our way to the community dock. From there, Dan’s fast boat would take us across the strait to Anacortes to meet a driver from a nearby mortuary. It was part of the gritty reality of a life’s end on a remote island. My love chose to finish her days here in view of towering trees and sparkling saltwater rather than in a cold and sterile hospital.
As the truck mounted the small hill behind Nuthatch cabin that day, I saw first one, then another, then another vase of fresh flowers hanging from trees along the drive. I instinctively and immediately knew it was the work of our dear neighbor, Monique, the island’s farmer, who had visited Barbara the previous afternoon, holding her hand and whispering comforting words as she faded. The whimsical display of spring blossoms added an air of love and grace to our sorrowful cortège.
Just the one hanging vase remained this morning. It looked as if fresh flowers had been added recently.
I cracked a small smile. I’ll never get over my loss, but these islands, old friends and kind neighbors continue to look out for my soul.
For my 65th birthday, five days after she passed away, I got the gift of a packet of reporter’s notebooks, the slim, coil-bound pads that every journalist carries in a pocket — all over the world, in my case. They aren’t easy to come by if you don’t work for a newspaper, but Barbara had found them online and ordered me a bunch. She planned to give them to me at the birthday party she didn’t get to attend.
It would be easy to pack it in and stop writing. She represented so much in my life that was good and happy and comfortable. And I like to write about the good, happy and comfortable parts of life. I don’t like learning that it’s hard to insert contact lenses when your eyes are full of tears. I don’t like waiting to awaken from this bad dream so I can hear her call me to dinner.
But Barbara, Nuthatch Cabin’s friendly ghost, would want me to write about the good parts, so that’s what this post is about — a visit from an old buddy who didn’t hesitate to come running when I needed company. A week ago, my friend Ken Brinkley came up from Portland for a five-night visit.
It reminded me of a painful time 15 years ago when I went to Ken’s side after a sailing tragedy took the life of his wonderful 18-year-old son, Andy. I asked him to come now, in part, because I knew he’d been through the kind of grinding grief I’m facing.
It happens that I met Ken for the first time in these islands. It was the 1980s, and a group of colleagues from The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Washington, where I worked for 10 years, took a party weekend at Rosario Resort, on Orcas Island. (Incidentally, it was a stupid place to party. I seem to recall a late-night visit from a sheriff’s deputy.)
Ken, who was married to one of my co-workers, stood up at a meal gathering and asked if anybody else was interested in hiring a sailboat for an afternoon on the sparkling waters of East Sound. I was the only one to raise my hand.
It was the start of a 35-year friendship. Barbara and I later joined Ken and his (now-ex) wife in chartering a larger sailboat in the San Juans, an adventure that eventually led us to acquire Sogni d’Oro, the sailboat on which we explored these islands every summer for decades, and sailed to Mexico in the mid-1990s.
Just having company at the Nuthatch this past week was a blessing. I did all the cooking, with tips I’d learned from Barbara (vegan barbecue rarely tasted so good) and a menu prepared with the help of daughter Lillian, who had returned to Seattle and work. Ken pitched in and helped me with rough and tough cabin chores that had been deferred for months. The hard work was a good distraction from sadness. He brought a bulging satchel of old movies. (All VHS tapes! Ken is 10 years older than I.)
After a trip to the Lopez Island dump on Sunday, we took a sack lunch and hiked to gorgeous Shark Reef Sanctuary, where we sprawled on a sunny cliffside and watched gray whales spout and tail-slap among the roiling tidal waters off Cattle Point. The morning Ken departed, we sat at a favorite Center Island bluff with a view of the snow-draped Olympic Mountains and sun-dappled Lopez Sound, where an otter dove and played. I’d never seen either of those creatures in those places. I think Barbara is pulling strings for me now.
It’s just me and the cats in our cabin for the next few days. The loneliness can be grueling, but I have other visits in the offing. Sometimes an old friend, ready to listen and ready to help, is life-saving nourishment for an emotionally starving man.
Barbara wanted me to keep writing. Here I am.
An old friend from college, Kathy Pruitt, sent this poem that gives her comfort when thinking about loved ones who have passed away.
Finding you in Beauty
The rays of light filtered through
the sentinels of trees this morning.
I sat in the garden and contemplated.
The serenity and beauty
of my feelings and surroundings
completely captivated me.
I thought of you.
I discovered you tucked away
in the shadows of the trees.
Then, rediscovered you
In the smiles of the flowers
as the sun penetrated their petals
In the rhythm of the leaves
falling in the garden
In the freedom of the birds
as they fly searching as you do.
I'm very happy to have found you,
Now you will never leave me
For I will always find you in the beauty of life.
-- Walter Rinder
The oncologist said Barbara might have four months. She had three weeks.
The love of my life passed away in her favorite chair in the Nuthatch cabin’s front room in the darkest hours of the morning last Thursday.
Unlike many cancer victims, she had not been experiencing significant pain, for which daughter Lillian and I are profoundly grateful. Unlike many cancer victims, she was able to stay in her home until the end. That meant a lot to her and to us.
The prior week, she was happily teaching Lil old favorite family recipes in the kitchen. That Sunday, Barbara and I spent a cozy day by the fire. We played Scrabble. She gargled, sipped lemon water and worked hard to get her weak and raspy voice working, so she sounded like her old self. We sang a favorite song, and had one of our best days together in months.
The next day, everything changed. She had a hard time waking. She stopped eating. She could barely stand. A written directive filled out in better times instructed that we pursue no further medical solutions.
A few days later, as I slept near her, she left on her next journey. Another dimension? A bird on our railing? A ghost in our loft? Lillian says her mum is just taking a long walk on Cannon Beach. Wherever she might be, she is forever in our hearts.
Well-meaning people whom I love talk about how good a death it was. But Lillian and I will never stop missing her. Her wit and her smile. Her doting love and attention. Her simple ability to make herself and others around her happy. To us, she was perfect. Her death can only be wrong.
Friends and family have reached out, from Center Island, from Seattle, from Mexico, from Australia. They have been wonderfully kind and supportive. They are making sure we are not alone. They are helping us stumble through our agony.
But after 48 years with my sweetie, suddenly the chair next to me is empty. Overnight, everything has changed.
SPRING HAS ARRIVED with the rush of a barreling Piccadilly Line train crammed to the exit doors with Marmite-breathing riders eager to reach Cockfosters. If you’re still stuck in a winter mindset, do Mind the Gap.
Apologies for the London fixation. Perhaps I’ve been immersed in too many Bertie Wooster stories, our favorite read-alouds as of late in our cabin refuge. (I pride myself a bit on my Jeeves characterization.) That, and I have travel on my mind, as we’ve been receiving missives from (fully vaccinated) Maui-visiting friends who accused me of being “analog” when I requested postcards. (Note that mail takes a full week to get here from Hawaii now, thanks to Postaldisaster General Louis DeJoy.)
But the here and now has its up sides. Returning to the San Juans a few days ago from the Seattle area, where I got my final COVID vaccination while daughter Lillian stayed with Barbara, I enjoyed the full whammy of spring-has-sprung treats as I crossed the Skagit Valley.
First, there was Fir Island’s blizzard of snow geese whirling overhead. Touching down in farm fields for a last bit of fattening up before winging it back north to Alaska and Siberia, they honked up a cacophony reminiscent of a Friday-night rush hour in Manhattan.
Then came my first-of-the-season stop at the Snow Goose Produce stand, self-proclaimed home of Immodest Ice Cream Cones. There I bought a pot of genuine Skagit Valley tulips, ready to pop into bloom in a couple weeks. They’re parrot tulips, Barbara’s favorite, in a striking purple, according to the tag.
Wending my way along the Best Road, next came astonishing carpets of blooming daffodils, farmed for their bulbs, splashing yellow like spilled paint across the valley floor.
Back home at Center Island yesterday, Barbara and I stepped out on the deck to take in the seasonal wonders, from rain-washed fresh air to spring bird calls.
Ravens are among our March visitors, croaking and gronking from the treetops, and at times producing a surprising, loud clicking noise not unlike those ratcheted noisemakers New Year’s revelers twirl in their hands.
We also have woodpeckers galore this spring — the small Downys, the big Hairys, and twice at our feeder in recent days a Northern Flicker the size of a small chicken and nattily fitted out in what resembled a handsome gray morning coat and speckled cummerbund. From somewhere on our rocky knoll yesterday we heard a woodpecker’s rapid-fire drumming — the mating-season pneumatic hammering meant to show off to other woodpeckers, not the slow, pecking-for-lunch thump common year-round.
We smiled to each other as we heard the same staccato drumming again and again. It conjured a picture of a geeky teenage woodpecker looking for love, shouting out the avian version of Rod Stewart’s “If you want my body and you think I’m sexy” song.
MY BARBARA ISN’T WELL. Many “Reef” readers know that. For others, this is news.
I last posted to this blog in days of winter snow. Now, what a difference in our world as we’re on the verge of spring, with daffodils adding lemony zest to our island landscape (they’re one of the few flowers deer won’t devour) and the first bloom blushing pink on my beloved wild currant (surrounded by wire fencing). Brilliant sunshine floods the windows of the writing hut and warms my hands as I type.
I took a journal-keeping hiatus because my dear wife has reached tough times in her illness. It’s been almost five years since she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, and three years since we retired to our island so as to make the most of life.
It’s been 12 days since the oncologist told us there were no more “tools in the drawer.” What a difference in our world.
Heretofore I haven’t written much about Barbara’s illness. This blog was to be about the joys of island life, all wrapped up with meeting the challenges of isolation in a place with no stores, no cars and few services. City folk figuring out how to be island folk. Stocking up enough firewood, keeping the boat running, figuring out composting, weathering winter storms.
But now the Nuthatch cabin is our refuge. Our place of comfort, festooned with photos of family, treasured artifacts of travels, and a peaceful and comforting view of towering firs, glittering saltwater and apricot-tinted sunsets.
Tending to my sweetheart’s needs is now my life’s focus, as long as we can make things work for her here. I’m treasuring each day, savoring her every beautiful smile. We’ve been married 41 years; a couple since I was 16, she 17. So far, she still preps many meals, but now I’m the shopper and the sous chef. I’ve gotten handier with a broom and a dish brush. Daughter Lillian is a frequent visitor and a wonderful helper.
I guess it’s all part of the pageant of island life. Hospice service doesn’t come here, but neighbors pitch in with loving help and support. When I told neighbor John, the Mad Birder, we could use a wheelchair ramp when we returned from Barbara’s last round of doctor visits, he put the word out. The next day he emailed photos of the newly constructed ramp. (Thanks Dan, Sean and Jim.) Almost every day, another friend asks, “What can I do?”
When the situation becomes more difficult, it’s likely we’ll ultimately repair to the mainland to homes of loving sisters whose generosity is beyond compare, and where home-care services are more easily obtained. Knowing my wife’s fortitude, I expect we’ll be on our island longer than many might guess. And, yes, I’m being careful to take care of myself as well.
For now, extending wishes of wellness to friends and family, we’re just enjoying the little bit of magic on our rock.
“FRASER VALLEY WINDS” is a phrase bound to provoke shivers in islanders this time of year.
It’s a reference to the icy breezes that funnel southward out of British Columbia’s Fraser River Valley, a place commonly mentioned by our Canadian neighbors in statements such as “That Fraser River Valley is quite the blooming deep freeze, eh?” To which some guy named Graeme, or perhaps “Gord,” will reply, “No doubt aboot it.”
The Fraser winds are upon us, blowing from 46 miles north-northeast. The thermometer outside the Nuthatch’s window is stuck in the Fahrenheit 20s, with a wind-chill factor skidding into the teens.
With the predicted plunge in temperature I finally took the (still-blooming) fuchsias in off the deck early this week. I hung them in the woodshed to take a chance at reviving in June. I chopped more firewood. The electric heat pump gets us through much of winter, but on these briskest days a fire in the woodstove is required to keep the cabin cozy.
Yesterday we celebrated Barbara’s 66th birthday. Just the two of us, COVID-style, though masked neighbors came knocking with cupcakes and gifts. Daughter Lillian planned to drive up from Seattle and catch the water taxi Saturday morning for a repeat celebration, but snow forecasts appear to be putting the kibosh on that plan.
We awakened to a snow-frosted world this morning. Just a half-inch overnight but enough to add a glistening mantle to the salal and swordfern. Sunshine briefly broke through the clouds, and Galley Cat insisted on going out to frisk up the rocky knoll behind us. As I made coffee, outside the kitchen window birds were mobbing the nearly-empty feeder. I counted a dozen juncos waiting on a nearby fir bough. While the brew dribbled I stepped outside in slippers and robe to replenish the seed supply from the galvanized can on the back porch. As I stepped around the corner to the feeder dozens of birds took flight in panic, emerging from under the porch, beneath the rain barrel and from every perching spot nearby. It felt like an arctic migration.
Once back inside I looked out again, directly into the eyes of a young buck deer who had stopped by to munch fallen birdseed and keep up his energy on the frosty morning.
Days like this feature repeat trips to lug wood in from the shed. Extra cups of hot coffee and a few extra minutes with a crossword puzzle. Time to sit and jot some words about it. In a while I’ll bundle up in my winter coat and Elmer Fudd hat and stretch my legs with a walk to the mail shack.
Just another February day, with Fraser winds. Stay warm.
THE FUCHSIAS ARE STILL ABLOOM on the Nuthatch deck this first of February. We’ve yet to experience a killing frost this winter. For weeks on end, it seems, our temperatures have been stuck in the 40s. No really frigid nights, no unseasonably warm days like we often experience at least once in January. This week, just plain damp and cold. Cold-ish, anyway.
The fuchsias aren’t as fat and happy with blossoms as in August, it’s true. Some leaves are dropping. Nor are birds swarming the feeders. We stopped filling them a couple weeks ago because of salmonella poisoning among songbirds up and down the West Coast. (Humans aren’t the only pandemic victims.) Right now, the real “wow” factor in our little world, its horizon shrunken by health threats, low clouds and drizzle, is the Amazing Amaryllis.
We’ve never grown an amaryllis before. This was a holiday gift from our island neighbor, farmer Monique, who presented several island friends with bulbs in pots attractively trimmed with moss and fir sprigs.
We got it around December 1, and for a good month it sat dormant. We weren’t certain it was going to do anything. I watered it once or twice, and waited. Around New Year’s Day, a green sprout showed. We moved it to a windowsill behind the kitchen sink.
A week into January, it decided to grow. And grow. And grow some more. By mid-month, it was like something from “Little Shop of Horrors,” an inch-thick green stalk seemingly ready to take over our kitchen. A kid named Jack might have planted it from a magic bean he got in trade for a cow.
Then it blossomed.
Now 30 inches tall, the Amazing Amaryllis is a glorious thing. Four massive, trumpet-shaped blooms, light pink with apricot-colored tiger stripes, each measure nine-inches top to bottom. Another stalk, topped by another bud, is on its way up.
February has arrived. We could still get massive snow. The fuchsias might finally go into the woodshed. For now, though, we have our own winter wonder, on the windowsill behind the sink. So far, it hasn’t popped the roof. But we’re keeping a close eye on it.
Another token of island friendship. Merci, Monique. (Did you have to trade a cow?)
ON THE NUTHATCH RAIL today we are showing the American flag presented to my family at my father’s funeral in honor of his World War II service. As our neighbor John suggested, it’s time to reclaim Old Glory. So we’re showing the Cantwell family flag, rededicating it on this historic inauguration day for the side of truth, justice and the American way. Cheers, friends, from a little island nobody’s heard of, in the far Northwest corner of these United States of America.