Saying goodbye is par for the course when you travel by boat. The people you met ashore stay on land as you sail away. The friends you make on other boats sail in the opposite direction. Saying goodbye is something you get used to but it never gets easy. But when you miss the opportunity to say goodbye altogether it feels like something is missing.
I never got to say goodbye to Shelley.
I met Shelley on the island of Laipari in the Solomon Islands where we have been moored for the past several weeks. She worked at the local store and lived nearby with her husband and 5 children. Always welcoming with a friendly smile and bright eyes I found myself stopping to chat for a while whenever I went to buy a few onions or a bag of flour. One day she offered to lend me her coconut scraper and I ended up sitting in her thatched-roofed cook house for almost an hour talking about everything from how to make coconut rice to global warming to the intricate cultural differences between various Solomon Islanders. We had plans to make bread together and bake it in her 44gl drum oven.
Then one night she coughed up blood and Shelley’s husband chartered a local boat and took her to the nearest hospital 12NM away under the cover of darkness – not a trip I would like to do even in good health. The next time I was in town I made a point to go to the hospital to see her. She was jaundice and gaunt but greeted me with her usual smile and good humour. We chatted for a bit and she said she was feeling much stronger, she hoped she was on the mend. When I returned home I dug out a stack of magazines and sent them to her, something to take her mind off her dreary surroundings. A few weeks later, before I got a chance to visit again, her condition deteriorated and she was transferred to Honiara for further care.
Shelley died on Thursday morning.
The small community at Laipari was deeply saddened by the news and as a sign of respect the store closed and all work on the island halted. It was a time to reflect. Speaking to people ashore the conversation seemed quiet practical; where would she be buried? What would happen to the children? How was her husband coping? Life in the islands is not easy, and death is a normal extension of life. There is room for sorrow, but not always for sentimentality. Her body was returned to the Western Province and on Saturday they buried her on a nearby island where the family was building a house.
Saturday also happened to be my birthday. I didn’t have much planned. Steve has been away working for the past 9 weeks and it’s hard to get excited about another bday when you’re going to be alone. But Thursday changed something and at 0800 I found myself in the galley making a batch of breadfruit gnocchi and experimenting with a chocolate crème de pots recipe. I suddenly had dinner plans. I spent the rest of the morning dancing around the cabin with the stereo blaring. I deep conditioned my hair and painted my toes. I made myself a nice lunch and poured myself a glass of wine.
As I ate in the cockpit overlooking the lagoon my thoughts turned to Shelley; her warmth, her kindness, her light. It occurred to me that I was not so much celebrating my birthday but celebrating life. I counted myself lucky for making it through another year; one that brought me to the Solomon Islands and let me meet a lovely woman named Shelley.