I’m going to tell you guys a little secret, the first time I visited an island, I absolutely hated it. At that time, I couldn’t possibly imagine living my life on a… ON A ROCK, in the ocean, with no Target or CVS. I was positively befuddled by those who chose island life over ‘civilization’. Calm down, calm down, let me explain before ya’ll crucify me in the comment section.
Come back, with me, to late 1999
*Insert Television Program Harp Chords*
Blackberry was the pinnacle of smartphones, the Backstreet Boys were king of the airwaves, Netflix was sending movies through the mail,‘The Phantom Menace’ brought back the force and we were all a little nervous about Y2K – even though most of us didn’t even really understand what it was. Ahhh…simpler times.
As for me, I was a 22 year old college drop-out and my mother had just found out that her cancer was back after an 8 month remission. She’d valiantly battled Stage 4 colon cancer the year before and we thought everything was going to be ok, until the fateful day a tumor showed up on her MRI. This time, it was her lungs. The prognosis wasn’t good. My family was devastated. I’d also recently been diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and told that my chances of having a child were next to nothing. Those were dark times, my friends. Dark times, indeed.
My parents were estranged for most of my childhood, but when my mother was initially diagnosed my father (who could be described as flakey at best) stepped up (like a boss) to help out. He was beside himself with the news of her cancer’s recurrence.
My parents were very different people. My mom was a homebody and my dad had an adventure streak that was a mile wide. He’d been traveling to Aruba for a few years and loved it more than anywhere on the face of the Earth. When he decided to surprise; my mother, his mother and myself with a spur of the moment trip to the island for a three week vacation over the Christmas holidays, he naturally assumed we’d be filled with strong emotions. He was expecting surprise and delight, but was met with shock and horror.
I know what you’re thinking. “Why I never! If someone wanted to whisk me away to Aruba I’d definitely be surprised and delighted! How ungrateful are you, you crazy so-and-so?”
Here’s the thing: though it lay unspoken between us, my mother and I both knew it would be her last Christmas. We were looking forward to all of our homey traditions; decorating the tree, sipping cocoa while watching Rankin Bass specials and celebrating with extended family. My mother was also quite reluctant to travel with a colostomy bag. As for my grandmother, she’d become increasingly agoraphobic in her old age. In the five years since my grandfather died, she’d left the house exactly 10 times: 6 trips to the doctors, 3 special occasion outings and one hellish weekend when the house had to be sprayed for ants. Did I mention that the woman had also never been on an airplane?
Ah-ha! You’re starting to see the predicament. My mom and I begged to go, literally, any other time and my grandmother begged to be left behind, but my father had four compelling arguments: non-refundable tickets. Fa-la-la-la-F-me.
On December 22nd, 1999 I found myself wedged on a plane, between a rosary-wielding octogenarian (who was having panic attacks despite copious doses of Valium) and a cancer patient with airsickness. #GoodTimes
When the plane touched down, I was struck with two things at once: the first was a wave of heat that crinkled my hair while offending my ghostly white, winter skin and the second was a realization that I’d never seen the colors of Aruba’s sea and sky in nature before that day. Even in my misery, I realized that I’d just arrived in the most beautiful place I’d ever been.
Everything got better from that point and we had the most magical vacation ever. Naw, I’m just messin’ with you…everything that could have gone wrong on that vacation, did. Sunburn, food poisoning, forgotten medication and colostomy bags…it was just one thing after another. Plus, we stayed all inclusive and I had the dubious honor of, somehow, being the youngest of the adults and at least 5 years older than everyone else. I’m not saying that we didn’t have any fun because we definitely did – it just wasn’t the way I wanted to spend my last Christmas with my mom. My attitude wasn’t great, I was very lonely and responsible for my neurotic grandmother (whose attitude also wasn’t great).
As the clock struck midnight on January 1st, 2000, I was sitting alone on the balcony of my hotel room; chain smoking, drinking heavily and feeling more lonely than I ever had in my life. With a backdrop of fireworks and the sounds of revelry below me, I knew one thing for certain – I’d had my fill of Aruba.
We lost my mom in October 2000 and my grandmother, unexpectedly, 2 months later. I shut down, gave-up writing, became a workaholic and resigned myself to a dreary life. I had a nice apartment, a good job, lots of books and shoes; but I’d stopped dreaming of anything more. All of my friends were getting married and starting families, drifting away to other parts of the country, one by one, but I was stuck.
Fast forward 5 years >>>>
Not much had changed in my life but I was considering getting a cat…or five. My father, on the other hand, was making big moves. He’d been staying in Aruba for months at a time and was trying to set up a water-sports business on the island. When I was forced to take vacation time from work, he asked me if I wanted to fly over and visit him. My initial response was: meh. (I know, I know…I’m an ingrate.)
My father was a stubborn man, however, with the uncanny skill of being such a giant pain-in-the-butt that you eventually gave him what he wanted just so he’d shut-up about it, and he eventually wore me down. I reluctantly packed my bathing suit and boarded the plane, fully expecting to be as miserable on the island as I was last time. I had a window seat, on the left side of the plane, and I remember feeling my spirits lift when the tiny speck of Aruba became visible beneath the clouds. My heart thrilled a little when I remembered the color and the coolness of the Caribbean Sea. As the plane touched down something occurred to me, I was feeling something I hadn’t felt in years. I was excited.
I had the best time on that trip. My dad and I stayed in a timeshare at Playa Linda, just off the lanai. We had a kitchen and the ocean was just right there. I met friends of my father’s and we saw so much more of the island than just the hotel area. Once I got a feel for the ‘real’ Aruba that flourishes best outside the hotel compounds, I had to admit it: I’d misjudged the island terribly and had, inexplicably, fallen head-over-heels in love with a rock.
Best of all, a few days before I had to leave, I met a super cute local. called Ivo. who asked me out on a date. It was the best date I’d had in years. We ate and drank and danced all night long. That time, I dreaded having to leave. My new gaggle of Aruban friends tried to convince me to stay another week. As much as I wanted to, I had work responsibilities and several houseplants waiting for me – so I regretfully declined. The day of my departure, with my new suitor’s number in my pocket, I reluctantly watched Aruba fade into the ocean as the airplane carried me home.
I went back to my boring life; but kept in touch with my new Aruban friends – Ivo in particular. He’d say crazy things like, “You should just quit your job and come live here.” Tempting as it was, I’m a huge fan of stability and predictability. I honestly couldn’t imagine leaving the USA for good, but I was happily anticipating a return to the island ‘one day’.
‘One day’ came sooner than expected in the form of a work related injury. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I really messed-up my shoulder and had to relax for a while. These events corresponded with my birthday that year so my father (again) surprised me with a ticket to Aruba. This time I really was surprised and thrilled. Convalescing on the beach was a much better option than convalescing in wintery New Jersey.
My love for the island deepened every day of that vacation. The heat helped my shoulder feel better and, while I wasn’t up for dancing all night long, Ivo took me all over the island, showing me places only the locals know. That trip, I did extend for a week and when I eventually left, it was with a heavy heart and the sudden realization that I was leaving behind more than I was headed toward. Little did I know, that very soon, that my life was about to change forever.
To be continued…