For the last ten years or so, Jim and I have been coming down to the Bahama Out Islands for a week in midwinter. Fernandez Bay Village in Cat Island is our favourite and now habitual destination.
The out islands are sometimes called the Shallow Islands or the Family Islands, both monikers that are highly suitable. Most people living and working in the capital city of Nassau are from the out islands, where the Caribbean sea is shallow and those who have ‘gone away’ (which is most young people) have mixed feelings about their birthplace.
For us, Cat Island is a tiny, remote desert island paradise. Here, there are no phones in our cottage and certainly no television. Only the main guest house has internet which works most of the time.
But it is not Cat Island’s natural wonders that I want to speak about today (although I could go on if anyone would ever care to chat privately about that!). Today I want to talk about isolation, family and the universality of how we care for one another.
At Fernandez Bay, I have a friend who lives here year-round. Her name is Uschi, a German short-form for Ursula. Twelve years ago, Uschi Ingersoll took it upon herself to create a visiting and support programme for Cat Island’s most elderly and isolated residents. She bought two vans and hired a couple of assistants to keep the visits going, even when Uschi herself was off the island. In total, The Cat Island Relief Aid (CIRA) visits 62 folks every two weeks, bringing a small food basket, handfuls of sweets, toenail clippers, massage oil and most importantly, hugs. Uschi says that the nail clipping followed by a massage of the legs and arms is the most important aspect of her care, because “everyone needs to be touched sometimes. It is so important.” Uschi knows that the only touch her elderly friends are likely to receive is her massage.
Last Tuesday, I had the privilege of travelling with the Cat Island Relief Team on their day of paying visits on the North Island. My sister-in law, Cathie, came too and we shared the responsibility of taking photos of each person visited. Later, Uschi will develop the photos and bring them as a gift on her next visit. Cat is only 50 miles in length, but in the twenty five miles of the northern half, we visited 28 people who were largely shut in. Homes here are simple cement affairs. Often, they look uninhabited, with closed doors, boarded up windows and flapping roof tiles - the result of last August’s Hurricane Irene when Cat found itself in the epicentre of the worst storm in most islanders’ memory. Almost without exception, the homes we visited were tidy and clean, but surprisingly dark. I doubt that anyone we visited knows Uschi’s name - they call her “Mama” or “Baby”. They also know that Uschi’s daughter had a terrible accident two years ago here on Cat that resulted in spinal cord injury and quadriplegia. Now, there is an additional bond of shared pain that resonates with the elderly women, who without exception tell me of their children who are living and those they have lost. If life is raw here in Cat Island now, I can’t imagine how it must have been sixty or eighty years ago.
Most of the folks we visited were women. They are mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers who have worked all their lives. Many continue to weave straw into hats to sell or tend their gardens. All are, to me, the embodiment of resilience.
But there was one woman we visited who was different from the rest. Walking up to her doorway, Uschi said “this woman is young, but she has two children who are disabled - and the family is very much alone.” When we lowered our heads through the doorway and adjusted our eyes to the dim light, my eyes fell on a child of perhaps ten, cradled in the arms of her older sister. The younger daughter, it turned out, was 21 and very small due to her cerebral palsy. There are no feeding tubes here, only the gentle persuading of a mother helping her daughter to swallow thickened water and mashed potato. The older sister smiled nervously, her lips trembling. I looked in her eyes and saw that she had a mild developmental disability. “Do you help to look after your sister every day?” I asked. She nodded and I complimented her devotion to her mother and sister. “May I hold your sister?” I asked. Looking at the mother, I explained about Nicholas. At first her eyes looked uncomprehending. How could this white woman from a world away have a child with severe disabilities? “Yes, you can hold her”, said the mother beginning to study me with a different kind of interest. Gently, I took the young woman into my arms, carefully supporting her head against my arm. I rocked and began to sing a song that I used to sing to Nicholas every day when he was little. “Hello, hello, hello and how are you? I’m fine. I’m fine. And I hope that you are too.” The frail limbs of my young friend began to stir from the unfamiliar touch and I helped her back into the arms of her sister. We stood to leave and I took the mother’s hand. “We are sisters”, I said. “You are a hero, you must work so very hard to keep your beautiful girl alive, to make sure that she can drink enough when it’s hot and eat enough. I know. I know.” I hugged this sister of mine and my eyes filled with the tears of a shared experience - an experience of pain, but also love, hope and despair.
Later, back at Fernandez Bay, I said hello to Sheila, the only registered massage therapist on Cat Island. We chatted as she she waited for a lift to her next appointment. When Sheila learned about the family living with disability, she immediately wanted to help - she knew her unique skills could help a tired mother's sore shoulders or limbs stiffened by neurological injury. Soon Olive, a Cat Island entrepreneur who runs a bake shop and a taxi service, arrived at the doorway. "Here's my ride!", exclaimed Sheila. Sheila proceeded to tell Olive about the Cat Island family and I explained about our family back in Canada. Then Olive said, “but I am a special Mum too! Come and meet my daughter, she’s in the taxi! My daughter has learning difficulties and she cannot speak, but she can smile....if she feels like it!” Olive’s daughter did smile at me - a gorgeous smile of perfect teeth and twinkly eyes. Olive and I chatted about her daughter’s occasional deep depression, about mothering, and about the island. We talked about starting a support group for mothers. I can tell that Olive is an organizer and a leader. We promised to keep in touch and I know we will remain friends.
Cat Island has white sand beaches that are lined with Casuarina pines and the occasional stone cottage. But it also has people who are giving and receiving care in the same way we do at home in Canada. The care here does not involve beeping monitors or social services, but it does come with hugs, deep gazes and knowing nods of recognition. As every one of the people we visited said again and again as they gazed heavenward, “God is good. Yes Lord, God is good.”