On and off, for almost 50 years, my family and I have been returning to the Island for at least one month every summer. My first rental in 1962 — a ramshackle old sea captain’s cottage — is still there, isolated and sea-swept, not far from the Gay Head Light. I was 30 years old and recently divorced against my husband’s wishes; I had come to the Island with my four young children, little steps ages seven to three for a summer of healing. There have been many other rentals since then. My second marriage brought two more sons into the family; even though their father had no special warmth in his heart for the Vineyard, somehow we made our way back. The Vineyard and its lore got under our skin. And no matter which house or what year, I have always been blessed with a month of renewal.
July 2008. I’m back for the 10th year to a big, airy four-bedroom house on Stonewall Beach. My four children from my first marriage, now ages 53 to 49, are with me for the Fourth of July weekend — Derrik with his wife Marge and my beautiful granddaughter Sheyna, 18, from Vermont; Jim and his fiancée Pam from Los Angeles; Lisa and her husband Buck from Pittsburgh; Teke and my sweet grandson, Cruz, almost five. Teke and Kristie married here on the property in July 2000; she has stayed home in Dallas with Pilar, just a year old and not travel-proof. My two sons from my second marriage, Bo, 39, and Jonathan, 36, will be coming later in the month.
At dinner Sunday evening, everyone is mellow — opening up, sharing and bonding. It seems to be a special time for reminiscences and revelations. I drift off to sleep later that night, thinking that so far this is the best summer we’ve ever had.
The first phone call comes in the following morning. Bo has been ill all weekend with excruciating pain in his left calf, flu-like symptoms and an intestinal upset. His domestic partner Andy is on the phone from the emergency room at St. Lukes Roosevelt Hospital in New York city, where Bo has been taken by ambulance from their apartment on West 69th street nearby.
Bo is a gifted makeup artist; He is also a runner and goes to the gym religiously. By noon he has been sent home on crutches. Diagnosis: intestinal flu and also a muscle strain in his leg.
Andy calls again the next morning. Bo is feeling worse and has been to see his internist, who has sent him to St. Vincent’s emergency room. “They’re looking for a blood clot,” Andy tells me in a worried voice.
The phone calls from Andy continue every few hours throughout the day — each one more dire and terrifying than the next.
“They’re still looking for blood clots.
“They’re taking him into surgery.
“The doctors are mystified.
“They may do open heart surgery.
“They may have to amputate his leg if he pulls through.”
By late afternoon — with fear and uncertainty in the air — we turn to food and drink, sipping wine in the kitchen while Pam and Jim prepare a gourmet dinner. Lisa and Buck have returned to Pittsburgh earlier that day. Andy calls again. This time there is terror in his voice. “The doctors have told me to notify the family.”
I put down the phone, frozen in disbelief. I turn to everyone. “What does ‘notify the family’ really mean?” I ask desperately.
Over dinner we eat, we drink, we plan. Bo’s younger brother Jonathan is already on his way from Denver; Lisa is flying in from Pittsburgh. Jim, Pam and Sheyna decide to leave right away on a private plane to be with Andy, Jonathan and Lisa at the hospital. Teke will fly back to Dallas with Cruz as planned the next morning, then return with his wife Kristie to New York. Derrik and Marge will drive me to the city in the morning. I go to bed, hoping for a miracle.
At one in the morning I’m wakened from a sound sleep. It’s Andy again. Lisa is with him at the hospital. “Joan.” His voiced cracks. “Bo is dead. Your son is gone.”
Marge and Derrik have heard the phone ring and rush in to my bedroom. We cling to each other, sobbing uncontrollably. I’m numb with shock, but briefly come to my senses. I tell Andy to insist on an autopsy. I collapse on my bed. “I don’t want Teke and Cruz to hear this until they wake up. Let’s all try and get some sleep.”
In the morning, black coffee steadies me for the black hole ahead — the interminable drive to New York. I hear Teke sobbing in the upstairs hallway. Derrik must have just shared the terrible news. Then I hear adorable Cruz: “Why did Uncle Bo have to die, Daddy?”
What did I do to deserve this?
What did Bo do to deserve this?
I hate you, God.
In the city, the family gathers along with Andy’s family from Maine. Together, at the apartment on West 69th street, we make arrangements for Bo’s cremation and write the death notice for the Sunday edition of The New York Times. “Bo will always be remembered for his dazzling smile, wacky sense of humor, unique interpretive dancing and rampant creativity. His greatest gift was making everyone he came into contact with feel special . . . We have lost our spark.”
Bo was always high maintenance — a colicky baby who slept intermittently, a hyperactive pre-adolescent. In college there were other challenges — coming out as a gay man, a diagnosis of bipolar illness. I think back to all the many ups and downs — but when Bo was on course he was one of the funniest, kindest, most creative people you would ever meet. Everybody loved Bo. How could this have happened?
We learn that Bo died of necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as the flesh-eating disease — a virulent form of strep that usually enters the body through a cut or blister. Initially it attacks a muscle, liquefying it and often necessitating an amputation. If it’s not caught in time, it rapidly attacks all vital organs. By the time the doctors recognized it, it was too late. Bo’s kidneys failed; then his heart stopped beating, forever.
Back on the Vineyard for the rest of my July stay, I call the Gazette to place an obituary. “Bo loved the Vineyard,” I tell Julie Wells, the editor. I explain how he came to the Island in 1986 with seven of his classmates who had just graduated from Trinity Pawling School. They rented a house on Church street; he soon discovered the Vineyard Playhouse just a few doors away, joining Afterwords, an improv group that eventually turned into WIMP, and performing Shakespeare roles over ensuing summers.
At the end of our phone call Julie entreats me to write about Bo. I think to myself: there are no words.
Condolences pour in from all over the world — by snail mail, by e-mail, by phone. The first handwritten note arrives from one of Bo’s Trinity Pawling roommates:
“Bo brought so much love and joy to the world. One of my last memories of him was on the Vineyard. He insisted that Andy and I drive him to Lucy Vincent so that he could dance naked on the beach. Even though it was cold and it began to rain, this did not stop Bo . . . Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could all just dance naked in the rain? I know Bo is doing the same in heaven.”
I have never felt pain like this. I’m constantly weeping. I’m raw, I’m ravaged, I have no skin. Something has been gouged out of me. I contemplate suicide — to alleviate the pain forever — but realize I don’t know how to go about it without inducing more pain. A huge, shaft of sunlight has gone out of my life — I’m living in the shadows.
A year has passed; I’m back on the Vineyard. I still miss Bo terribly every day, but the psychic pain has diminished — it’s duller, scarred over. I still weep, but I can also smile again; I can even laugh. And I can write about Bo. Yet the more time that passes since his death, the more senseless it seems. Nothing will ever be the same.
This July, I don’t know if the Island can surprise me with the kinds of magical moments that used to lift my spirits — a cobalt blue lobster, a sea of gaily-colored wildflowers, a double rainbow. I don’t know if I believe in the magic anymore.
This July, I don’t know if the Island will reassure me — as it has every summer — that despite everything, there is some kind of order in the universe.
I do know that on the Island, for me, there’s a serenity that comes with being close to nature. I know that its sheer beauty sometimes takes my breath away. I know that the tempo of life is simpler here. I can live off the land and the sea. I can savor one day at a time, even one hour at a time. I can try and live the way Bo would want me to live this first July that he’s gone — on this place that he loved beyond reason.
Here on the Vineyard, the moon and the stars always seem nearer to the earth. On the first anniversary of the night that he died, I’ll be on Stonewall Beach, looking up at the heavens — yearning for, reaching for, still trying in some mysterious, sacred way to touch . . . Bo.