Updated: May 11, 2020
Teeth are the only visible part of the skeleton. When we smile or laugh, we flash this little bit of our inevitable fate.
You do not so much step ashore onto Cumberland Island as you are enveloped almost immediately into its dark, pelt-like interior. Just fifty steps in and you go from the harsh squinting at the sparkling path of the intracoastal waterway during the boat ride, to feeling like you walked into a prehistoric grand parlor, all dappled patches of light through chandelier branches. The Spanish moss, which at first has the feel of cobwebs, adding age to an already prehistoric landscape, is alive – artfully draped not unlike dusty velvet curtains of an old Georgian home. There is life here; secret and quiet life. Speaking softly, your echoes are absorbed immediately into the trees and into the pockmarked sand hills of strange insects living beneath your feet in tiny holes.
There is the silent alligator languishing in a shallow pool. There is the self-absorbed, fussy armadillo, with its glossy sheen of leprosy keeping you at arms length, snuffling quietly in search of worms. There are the wild horses who seem to appear everywhere by complete surprise, never betrayed by their unshod hooves in the soft earth and sand as they appear magically on your path.
Look but do not touch. Should you forget, the Fiddler Crabs, bearing their heavy instrument-like claws for which they are named, will turn their backs, and retreat back into the sand en masse without so much as a word, leaving you strangely hurt by their arrogance.
Do not touch the animals around you, but you will see the remains of them – shelves crowded with skeletons and shells that seem to be in every home. The melancholy, thousand-yard stare of the sea turtle, the manic laughter of the horse, and the knife-life, grim tusks of the wild boar. A jeweler on the island creates gorgeous jewelry from bones cast in gold and silver — she knows that everyone yearns to touch these strange things, and indeed we all pile into her tiny shop to silently and gently fondle the bones and scales, cast in gold and designed to lay against your bare skin. Her home has the vertebrae of a whale above her lounge, suspended as if still in water.
All of the remains in this private, naked state, do nothing to dispel the feeling that although you are only 20 minutes by boat from the mainland, you could be anywhere, at any time in history. You are standing on a 18 mile, white sand beach the color of bleached bone where you are outnumbered by the scruffy and nameless wild horses who threw off their Spanish, gold-covered saddles long ago and never came back. On such a beach, you might look down to find shells and immediately come upon a small, triangular stone. Perhaps, the stone turns out to be an ancient shark tooth, a million years old.
“You found that here?” asks Ken, clearly doubtful.
“Yes, right here. It was the first thing I saw.”
Ken shakes his head. “That’s impossible. You find sharks teeth at the dredge pits on the south part of the island. Not here. Not right out of the surf.”
“I’m telling you, it was lying right here.”
Ken is suspicious. He thinks I am fooling him. But is it more believable that I am making it up? It seems to me like this place is completely covered with things that shouldn’t be here. Grand mansions in the jungle. Stone lions amongst the tendrils of vegetation — lions who Ken greets as if on cue when we pass them on the entrance to the beach. A grim forest of abandoned chimneys, from slaves’ homes. Old Carnegie ruins, surrounded by green fields. A parrot that screams hello to us, every time we pass, like an ancestor desperate not to be forgotten.
We all pile into the car and pass a white horse with a pure white foal, days old, walking along the surf, undisturbed except for the clicking of our camera shutters. Driving back into the interior of the island we pass the sand dunes that are slowly and inexorably inching their way inland, spilling in amongst the roots of the prehistoric palmettos and oak. You can’t stop it, Ken says, pointing to the encroaching beach slipping by quietly like a silent mare with its offspring. The whole island with its aristocratic wreckage, animal bones, and rogue, ancient sharks teeth will eventually be underwater no matter what we do.
When I was ten years old, I came along on a trip with my best friend’s family to Klamath Falls, Oregon. It was an unbearably long drive from the San Francisco Bay Area, traveled at some ungodly hour in the early morning, and I had a melancholy pit in my stomach the entire time we were there, being unaccustomed to being away from my family.
The camp was on a vast swath of undeveloped land, old Klamath Tribe territory, and in the study stood a giant glass cabinet full of black arrowheads found on the property, displayed like trophies. I was invited to go hunting for these arrowheads on the dusty trails behind the house, in the acres of brown fields. I put my head down, determined to find one amongst the dirt and wild grasses. Within minutes I saw a small black shard on the ground, and I pulled it out of the soft earth to reveal a 7-inch long spearhead.
No-one in the household had found anything even remotely like this before. The spearhead was taken, tagged, and locked into the glass cabinet. In return for not throwing a fit, I was promised a commemorative label to celebrate my find. I didn’t mind this forced appropriation of my treasure — at ten I didn’t see much practical use in having an old, dusty spearhead in my possession. However, I did feel guilty about being the only one who found something that day. Why should I be the lucky one?
I had completely forgotten about the spearhead until I found the tooth.
The women I’m here with, have all escaped the grasp of cancer. Somehow, despite having not gone through illness myself, I’ve been included in this small group of survivors to enjoy a few days here on the island. Cancer means crab — the long legs of the crustacean similar to the reach of illness is synonymous with this scourge which has seemed to affect so many people in my life lately. I am grateful to be here, and to experience the life in this strange jungle, the order in the chaos, the humor, love and levity amongst these strong women friends whom I love. Women who only weeks, months, years ago thought that they were going to die.
I remember the week Sasha found out she had cancer. I have a photograph of her, the crinkled corners of her beautiful, Russian eyes smiling with the happiness of beginning her MFA courses at Maine Media Workshops. She gave me a photo of a blue VW Beetle she had taken. Her focus had just begun to shift to outside of her family. Her eyes were looking through her own lens, with her own artistic viewpoint, for the first time in years after so many years of childrearing.
I remember her telling me about her doctor’s visit, and that she would need to begin treatment soon. Her perspective had been forced even further inward, in toward her very bones, and to the lump in her breast.
Her concern was not with herself, but with her children. Her daughters, restless and unhappy, bucking and kicking, needing more — needing her, needing the lens pointed at them as well as they struggled through their own growing pains.
I would watch Sasha in the next weeks, months, and years as she cared for everyone. The doctors would cut her apart again and again, sew her back together, and pump her full of pills and chemicals, and she would still focus all her attention on her family.
This morning, she isn’t a mother, daughter, or a wife. She is nameless like one of the wild horses, and out alone walking on the trails of the island, making marks in the sand, and pushing away the brush and Spanish moss hanging in her path.
Arduina is soft and kind, her feelings visible right at the surface. Her eyes are big and warm, and she massages our feet and paints our toes. Her brilliance and wit mask a darker side, one that has seen herself putting a toddler on a plane to go to his dying mother, not knowing at the time that she herself would become the boy’s parent in the next years, taking on not only him, but the love of his lion father, who has his own dark history with the grim reaper.
Ardie paints our toes, diligently, as if the order of the universe depends on it. She tells me that for years her life became smaller and smaller because whenever she made plans, cancer would interrupt everything. So, she lives in the moment, photographing ephemeral beauty like ice and stars, surrounding herself only with positivity.
“You know, it takes a year for your toenail to grow. Your toenail is an entire year of your life,” she says matter-of-factly as she paints my nails. She says it like someone who notices things like that. She cheerfully says the names of the different colors of polish she has applied, but with an understanding of the transient nature of this moment.
Later, on a whim, she offers to do everyone’s hair. She loves to blow out the hair of those around her, if they let her. No-one has any reason to get all fancied up out here, but she doesn’t care. It’s in the doing of it. Everyone she touches walks away with a luxurious lion’s mane, soft with maternal thoughtfulness and care.
Suzanne wears a black Nike cap on the island, her pixie eyes smiling even when she is serious. Just do it, the hat swoosh implies. It seems Suzanne started running when she was in college, around the time her mother got leukemia, and she never stopped. Many years later when her ex-husband got cancer, she just kept running, all the while taking care of him. She asked her husband Doug to agree to take him in to convalesce in their home once he was released from the hospital. He was never discharged. “There’s not much you can do except be the best person you can be,” she says.
When not long thereafter she herself got a breast cancer diagnosis she didn’t reveal it to her work colleagues. She wore a hat when meeting clients, disguising the fact that she had lost her hair to chemo. She kept going to the gym. She was now the only parent, the importance of the protective shell even more so.
She hasn’t stopped moving since she arrived here, darting to the dishwasher at every opportunity, setting the table, offering to help at any chance she gets. The only time she allows herself to relax is by the ocean. She has an agreement with the beach. It’s OK to sit down and not worry there, it seems. The water or the wind will wash the concerns away.
“Most people don’t get to the gym when they are on chemo because they can’t drive there. But I could crawl,” she says.“Keep going. Suck it up. Don’t fall apart. You complain about not having shoes until you meet someone who has no feet.” She pokes her toes into the white sand.
She feels uncomfortable about telling people about our time here because she’s afraid of not seeming grateful enough for the overwhelming beauty and the good fortune of being on this island. She is so very lucky, she tells me. She can not live happily without showing her appreciation, and she is fearful of seeming ungrateful. She sips her water, her skin moist from her steady, hour-long run up the beach. She stays the course, solid and unwavering. Her pixie eyes are like steel.
I told Liv there was nothing to worry about as she waited for her diagnosis. It’s just asthma, I told her, convincing even myself.
When the call came, I happened to be there. I remember standing in the bedroom doorway and seeing Ken with a strong arm around her as they sat on the edge of their bed, stunned with this new reality, both of them seeming very far away as if I was looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. Outside, summer was at its finest, every flower abloom, the sparkling Penobscot Bay in the distance unaware and uninterested in the crisis.
Over the next months the treatments would seem to never end, almost always followed by some other infection or complication. The surf, receding both in intensity and sound would always come roaring back in some form or another, before slowly retreating again, leaving one to wonder what the next wave would bring.
While the tumor slowly shrank and the fear of never being finsihed with it all hung unspoken in the air, the grandchild was on her way, a pregnancy of nine months signaling the stubborness of new life that was needed so badly. Liv said that it seemed like when baby grew bigger in the womb, the tumor got smaller.
With the never ending ocean waves comes a comfort in its continuity. When the baby was born, the relentless pounding of the surf was less important than the treasures it brought. Sometimes, after the constant irritation of its flesh, an oyster produces a pearl. And in this case, the pearl’s name was Haven.
The sharks tooth I found is not where it should be. Not in the right time, not in the right place. Actually, if we are perfectly honest, all of these shark teeth are supposed to be deep down in the muddy Cretaceous layer of the sea floor, with an inconceivable ocean of time between us.
I hold my little tooth in the palm of my hand, tracing the jagged relic with my finger.
Teeth are the only visible part of the skeleton. Sometimes, it occurs to me that when we smile or laugh, we flash this little bit of our inevitable fate.
My shark tooth was not supposed to be in the surf with its wild horses, stone lion guards, and shells shaped like armor. They are not supposed to lie up against a backdrop of brightly colored beach towels and flamingo-covered beach chairs.
None of these women should be here, either. Yet, somehow they are, smiling and laughing, their own teeth a witness to their own soft lips speaking words of love and support for each other in their diffcult, common journeys – but also for me.
I feel very lucky to have ended up here, indeed.