Labor Day is as late as it can be this year, and the town feels September-quiet in the week preceding the holiday.
The humid heat is back with a vengeance much like the cancer that returned last year and finally, yesterday, took my cousin Denice's life.
The world conspires in odd ways. Today came the announcement that the government is dropping “McKinley” from the great mountain in Alaska and officially restoring the native name Denali. I might still have it captured in a particularly beautiful image in a set of postcards sent to me by Denice's family then living in Anchorage.
Her parents, newly certified teachers, headed north where salaries were high in the territory having just received statehood. I imagine my Uncle Bert insisted it would be a grand adventure and carried everyone along on the sheer power of his will. He wanted to come back to Block Island, perhaps thought even the bleak 1960's here would look better after Alaska and this was their next home.
We island girls were lucky they arrived. Denice had two older sisters and their dad wanted them to keep busy so he came up with the idea we would play basketball. Never mind we had no gym — we had the Spring House sand and oil tennis court. Never mind it was a tennis court — he convinced the power company to set poles and others to help build backboards. Never mind that the school was one place, the court another — we'd make a path and run over every afternoon. It would be great, especially in the snow! We even played mainland teams, a treat when overnight trips were not commonplace.
We were all part of the Living Christmas Card filmed in Providence, unlikely angels, so few of us that everyone was included, our voices of little matter, and we all sang in the girls choir at the Harbor Church wearing white tops with ribbons ties, different colors for different seasons. We walked around the island in February because, again, Denice's dad convinced us it would be grand, as we were not going anywhere on vacation. In one day, in February, when we were in junior high . . . and we had such fun, he had us believing, we did it again in April.
They were here but two years before moving on to one of several places they would live before settling in Michigan. Denice attended college there, joined the armed services, and following her Army Air Corp father sent back photographs of her uniformed self surrounded by a billowing parachute after she had jumped out of a plane.
It was not until her father died, also too young, also of cancer, that she came back to Block Island to teach school, Denice, the Army officer, with her always carefully accessorized outfits, flats and matching clutch purses. One week she and I did coffee at church because, like her father, she had an ability to convince me “it'll be fun!” I made cream cheese brownies.
She returned to Michigan, to the house her parents built with their own hands, on a suburban street in East Lansing, with the man she would marry.
“It's held together with duct tape!” she insisted of this house of which her father was so proud and once when I visited she pulled open the door to the basement stairs and proclaimed “see!” Sure enough, there was duct tape sealing a crack.
I was not a traveler and told her only when I was arriving at the airport in Detroit but she somehow managed to get more information, convincing some poor clerk that she was me and I had somehow forgotten both my airline and my flight number. It made no sense but they gave in to the sheer force of her will.
It has been some time since I last saw Denice, I think when we were all in Boston for my niece's senior recital at New England Conservatory of Music, founded, we liked to note, by our great-great-grandfather's sister's son. Driving around that city in my brother's minivan, taking on faith the directions my niece was issuing from behind the back seat, it took Denice to ask aloud “doesn't anyone else think it's odd the only one who knows where we are is in the cargo space and is blind?!” (My niece is legally blind)
They thought to come to Block Island one last time, she and her three siblings, in December, on a crazy trip only children of my Uncle Bert would consider. Their brother would fly to East Lansing from Las Vegas where he teaches school, he would drive Denice to Valpo, Indiana where another sister lives and was chartering a plane, they would all fly to Virginia and pick up another sister before coming here for a few hours. Good sense, in the person of a doctor, intervened. I was both saddened and relieved. “She must be rich” someone said and I, “no, she loves her sister.”
It was in that same church where we all sang in the choir that I knew Denice's long battle was over, so certain was I that I pulled out my silenced phone expecting a message. She died perhaps thirty minutes after that moment. I think I was so sure when she was rewinding her life and hit one of her times here, when she was healthy and strong and smiling the beautiful smile that was almost all that was left of her in the last photos I saw, a Cheshire cat without the evil overtones. One with “done” nails, of course.
It is cooler, now. A childhood friend called from Oregon, saddened by news of Denice. After agreeing there are too many times there is no rhyme or reason to cancer we put that reality aside and laughed over long ago memories filing the gaps in each other's.
The daylight faded while we talked, the cicadas became emboldened as darkness fell.
Soar beautiful girl, your earthbound days are behind you.