“It’s part of why the idea of souls makes sense to me. This place is just like a ropes course for souls. A learning center. It never changes and the collective body of humans can never sustain their progress too too much or else there is not enough to challenge the souls. Imagine all the people living life in peace ✌️ John Lennon – well that wouldn’t really work if you believe we need to be challenged to grow.” —Caitlin O’Hara
I haven’t been blogging because I am focused on writing “the Caitlin book,” but we are on our family’s beloved island of St. John right now, and it seems a good time to say hello.
In 2014 (4 years ago, how can that be??), we had a big trip to St. John planned. I had rented our favorite villa. It sat on a hilltop looking down over the Caneel Bay resort peninsula. These photos really do not do credit to the view.
Andrew and Katie and Alvaro would be joining us. We had “boat day,” our favorite day of vacation, all booked with our captain, John Brandi.
On Christmas Day, as Katie and I talked in our hyped-up, excited way about the trip plans, I remember reading Caitlin’s face. She knew, as she would later tell me, that things had changed irrevocably for her, that there was no way she was going to be able to go. I remained in desperate denial for a couple of weeks but at one point, I said to Katie, “She’s either going to get better, like she always has, or we are entering a whole new place with this disease.”
A year and a half later, I wrote:
We are still waiting. There is that hope that a year from now everything will be normal again, or better than normal. St. John seems like the paradise it’s always been, even more so now that it is out of reach.
Everyone knows how much we love St. John. The highlight of our trips are always our days on the water, zipping around the BVIs. Over the past decade, we always went with our favorite captain—the vivacious, enthusiastic, safe, and professional Captain John Brandi. John and his wife Sue had long dreamed of retiring to St. John, and when they moved down from Marblehead in 2005, they launched Palm Tree Boat Charters. Canceling “boat day” was without a doubt the most depressing part of canceling our annual trip two winters ago, when Caitlin first got sick. And then late last year, a startling post appeared on our Facebook feeds: a sudden announcement, by John, that “due to health issues,” he was selling his beloved boat.
It turned out that back pain that had been niggling at him all year was actually cancer; the world lost him last week. The outpouring of sorrow on St. John has been both wonderful to see and terribly heartbreaking. Everyone loved him, and of course, everyone’s memories of him are wrapped in their own memories of happy, happy days. As I’ve cried for him, I know I’ve also been crying for myself. Some days are just well and truly over, and there’s nothing to be done about that, except to say “onward,” and make these new days the best they can be.
Godspeed, Captain Brandi.
Last winter, Nick and I could not yet bear the thought of visiting St. John, but this past summer, we decided we would go in January. In early September, I began looking for a small villa for the two of us. I planned that we would spend part of the vacation in a villa and part at Caneel Bay. I’d only begun my research when the hurricane warnings started. Then Irma hit. And a week later, Maria. Two Cat 5 hurricanes that tore through these islands, sucking away every bit of vegetation.
That house I loved? Roof ripped off, the insides destroyed:
A couple of restaurants we’d been visiting since the 1990s? Flattened. Gone. Caneel Bay was closed, with no opening date in sight.
With such a huge recovery effort, there seemed no possibility of us going, so we didn’t plan to. But recently, friends who live here urged us to visit. “We are getting back on our feet. The beaches are still beautiful, restaurants are now open, there are places to stay! We need tourists/visitors/customers!”
So we are here. Our longtime island friends Delbert & Delrise are hosting us in their beautiful 8-unit vacation-rental condominium building on Turner Bay, Seashore Allure. I’m listening to the tranquilizing crash of the ocean as I write this.
Every single meal we’ve eaten has been extraordinarily good. Maybe because the chef/owners are actually cooking every night…. I don’t know. But La Tapa, Extra Virgin, The Longboard, The Terrace, Greengos, Cruz Bay Landing…all are consistently fantastic.
Our friends Ruth and Ron, who own the great little shop St. John Spice are back in business, resilient, like the rest of the locals who love this island. We had dinner with the lovely Karen, who gifted us with a beautiful piece of heart-shaped coral for the mausoleum. Her Treetops B&B sustained very little damage and is welcoming vacationers again.
Every morning, Nick and I have hiked the Lind Point trail into Honeymoon Beach and had it all to ourselves for at least an hour. It’s like being back in the 1990s, when we first started coming here, when Caitlin was little and we fell in love with this place.
Nick has been taking pictures of the beautiful island stonework as he prepares to build the mausoleum come spring. He returned from a walk near the island cemetery one morning, enthusiastic about a beautiful tomb he’d seen. The stone is the classic St. John stone and brick combination, and he pointed out the beautiful blue glass heart.
Being here has been strange, sad, surreal, lovely. It’s weird to see photos of us smiling, when two minutes earlier we were all choked up. But that’s how it goes. It’s also been really good. Just this morning, we talked about how last March, we were at a hotel in Vero Beach, Florida, and it seemed like we were surrounded by happy families with kids and grand-kids, and it was all a reminder of what we no longer had. Here, as in California last month, we are reminded that we are not the only ones who’ve borne hardships, and that honestly does make you feel better… sad to say.
We rather bravely decided to do our own quiet little “boat day,” with Cleve, the sweetest guy and a really good captain. Local Flavor is his boat. We got a water’s edge view of so much of the damage. Gorgeous Caneel Bay looks like a place abandoned after an apocalypse.
Word is it will likely won’t reopen until 2021.
We headed over to Jost van Dyke, where the damage was extensive. Here is a picture from ten years ago, when we had lunch at Foxy’s Taboo with Kitten and Katie and Kate’s parents, two of our oldest and dearest friends.
Foxy’s Taboo, now:
For those who know Jost: Sydney’s harbor is trashed. Disappeared houses in one spot, untouched houses right “next door.” People are living in tents.
On Great Harbor, the sandy Main Street looks so bright, so exposed. Very few trees left standing. The roof and windows of the pretty little church were blown out, but the congregation has erected a tent and set up chairs and a pulpit there.
Vendors are open, selling water and rum punch and painkillers and chicken roti and Johnny Cakes. Original Foxy’s is in good shape. And this survived there:
Foxy is some kind of Trump supporter (yikes/eek/#toomuchrum) and wearing a Trump hat and pin, but he’s still singing.
We ended boat day, as we always have, on White Bay. A photograph of the Soggy Dollar was one of the first photos I saw, post-Irma. STILL STANDING, they had posted.
We knew they were open but weren’t sure what to expect.
It’s rebuilt and a bit roomier for the workers and visitors, and it looks great! They’re planting 100+ palm trees all the way down the beach and into the other harbor.
Jess’s sister Carly’s friend Annie is a manager at the Soggy Dollar. Her parents own the place. After Caitlin’s service, Annie arranged an “organ donor awareness” day there, on New Year’s, 2017. They used a photo of Caitlin and Andrew, taken there in 2013.
While we were there, we suddenly remembered that Annie was probably on the property. Nick went to look for her.
Annie is one lovely person. So warm and kind. We learned that her family lost her beloved brother CJ six years ago.
Her parents live on St. John and we hoped we would run into them, and St. John, being such a small island…well, of course we ran into her dad and other brother a day or so later.
As talk progressed, we realized that the beautiful tomb that Nick had admired and photographed was CJ’s, the blue glass heart one of the favors at his island wedding. Another coincidence, one of many.
RIP, CJ O’Connell and Caitlin O’Hara.
“You think all this is important, but all that really matters is loving people and being kind.”
So it’s been a year since Caitlin’s transplant. A fact that’s as hard to believe as her absence.
This post from that day, if the lungs had come a month earlier, before the weeks on ECMO…. … too painful to think about, really.
I’m going to let Caitlin’s words take over, with thanks to Kate S, an old friend of hers who has most recently, graciously, shared her correspondence. The “Caitlin book” that I’m writing has a lot to do with this search for faith.
Emails with Kate
can i ask you something personal? If you don’t want to answer I understand. I have never been that religious but i have always had faith. i hope that makes sense to you. as i get older i struggle more and more with the reality side of my brain and the side that wants to hope and pray for the best, and have faith. i am always so interested in how people like you — really smart people that is — stay so solid in their beliefs and faith. i don’t know, i guess i am just curious about it. then sometimes things happen that make me feel like i am more connected, and that it is possible. i’ve been trying this thing where i “dialogue” with my illness. it was recommended by an astrologer who did my chart, and it is something i kind of do a lot anyway but in a different way. its like visualizing sessions of going through your body and imagining healing. but this takes it a step further with actual talking to your disease. anyway i was lying in bed this morning doing that for like half an hour. andrew was there, he was like half awake, we were just laying around. anyway i never said i was doing that. then when he got up and was walking into the living room he just said casually “i feel like god was in the room this morning.” It was so odd, that is not a normal thing for him to say (obviously). It was just kind of cool.
Email to Nick
So what I always loved about Early Christian art was that it was so …early. Really the beginnings of Christianity , and thinking about what that meant is neat for me. This was years before even the crusades, the first really violent time in the name of “Christ” (well except for Christ himself obviously ). So there was violence of course … In Rome and in the Byzantine empire. But Christianity hadn’t even reached a point yet where people were “fighting in the name of the Catholic Church” etc and things were still more modest.
You can see the change in how Christ is portrayed in the art in these small churches. He’s still a shepherd but he’s wearing roman robes and looks more regal. So it’s the beginnings of it…. But it’s unlikely that these religious people then were implementing awful atrocities on people
I think the area seems beautiful and peaceful. But also something I can’t really place, and don’t necessarily need to figure out. I just would like to go.
There is always going to be bad in the world. I think that is what makes being good so important.
I know all the dates.
Yesterday a year ago was the last night Caitlin would ever sleep in her own bed. That night, she was so weak she did not have the strength to sit in the bathtub and let me wash her hair. I was so alarmed I emailed her doctor at 10pm.
On the 16th she was admitted to the hospital for the last time.
I wonder now, how many times in her life was she admitted to a hospital? I don’t know that I could even guess.
After I went home for the night, she texted me
Caitlin: Had to get an echo. Feel sick. And tired and can’t breathe. Love you. Hope you get rest.
Text message: 11/17/16 9:14am
Caitlin: My score is 70
Maryanne: Oh my God. Oh wow. What happened?
Caitlin: Dr hayanga came in. Because of my oxygen
Maryanne: What did hayanga say
Caitlin: He was optimistic. Very. He was Iike, we expect to get offers.
Caitlin: Andrew says we HAVE to be hopeful
Maryanne: We ARE hopeful. This is going to happen.
I drove to the hospital that morning with a light, happy heart. It was finally going to happen. The head surgeon came in and said he had been up all night fielding offers for her. None of them were a match, but with so many offers coming in, and with her score so high, a match seemed imminent.
She was on a lot of oxygen but she was stable, and felt much better than she had at home. Finally, finally, finally, after 2 1/2 years, it was going to happen.
Yesterday, another CF tragedy occurred. Mallory Smith of California, who, like Caitlin, could only be transplanted at UPMC and moved to Pittsburgh to wait, received her transplant in September. Her recovery was hard but she was recovering. She was on the other side. Just a few weeks ago, she celebrated her 25th birthday. Soon after, when the docs removed her last chest tubes, she said, “Today is the happiest day of my life.”
Then a pneumonia took hold in her chest. Without an immune system to help her body fight the infection, she became sicker and sicker. The cepacia bacteria that had damaged her native lungs began to destroy the new lungs as well.
We were all hoping for a miracle of science for Mallory, but she slipped these surly bonds yesterday afternoon, her most beloved people by her side.
She was brilliant and kind and everything wonderful. A few years ago she wrote an essay that contains these words:
My life is a miracle because I should be dead. Your life, even if you’re healthy, is a miracle, because your existence is the result of stars exploding, solar systems forming, our Earth having an environment hospitable to life, and then, finally, millions of highly improbable events accumulating over millions of years to bring you, a capable and conscious bag of stardust, to the here and now.
Acknowledge that miracle. Existing is a rare gift, a privilege. It isn’t a right. Think of all those atoms that never ended up inside a human body.
So pick something, do something, to respect that miracle. Step up to the challenge of making your own meaning out of mere matter. Let the whole, the human, be altruistic, be greater than the sum of the parts, the selfish genes of our genome.
Set an intention and get after it feverishly, frenetically. Give back what we’ve taken by paying it forward, save a life, smile at a stranger, climb a mountain leaving nothing but footprints, inspire a child, take care of your body, bring happiness through laughter, plant a tree, and sometimes, just breathe and exhale a little bit of calming energy to your environment.
Give back in whatever small way you can, any time you can, because we are not small. No one of us can do everything, but all of us can do anything. Do it because we have survived, and that is a miracle. Do it because why wouldn’t you? Do it to justify your life.
I hope Caitlin found you, Mallory.
Caitlin’s friend Shelley and I were just talking about the origins of Halloween—Samhain. She sent along a great link about all that, and about the “thinning of the veil” that supposedly occurs during this autumn/winter transition point: Halloween, Samhain, and the Thinning Veil. She said she was interested in paganism.
I said, “I agree. Connected to the earth, cycles of nature, the spiritual. And then greedy men had to turn it all into religion, for their own gain.”
Shelley: “Yesss.” She talked about having her husband read the link, because he was “all down on Halloween, hating the commercialization aspect of it, the excess. I couldn’t quite describe why I appreciate it and then that article made it really clear, how it’s this last remaining pagan holiday that’s widely celebrated, and wasn’t co-opted by the Church, aka the patriarchy. It’s really a big F U to all that. And a returning to a life more in tune with natural rhythms.”
In Mexico, these 2 days are called Los Dios de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead. People visit their departed loves ones in the cemeteries; they celebrate. Interesting to me now to remember that one of my first published stories was a musing on this holiday and how it compared to Irish Catholicism. I published “Afterlife” almost twenty years ago. The ending reflected my beliefs at the time, that there was “nothing but this moment.”
I’ve changed my mind, although I have no certain opinions anymore, other than that I do believe there is more to life than this life. I’ve believed that for a long time, and even more so these past months, when the signs I receive are outrageous and constant.
Last year on this day, we drove to Schenley Park in Pittsburgh. Andrew was going to play disc frisbee and she and I were going to go for a “walk.” A walk meant that I walked and she rode the little seated scooter she had recently bought for herself. But she didn’t have the energy for it, so we sat in the car and talked instead. It was a beautiful day. We were up on a hill with a view to the city. When the radio began to play “Monster Mash,” she got a crazy little burst of energy. She opened the door and got out and danced for a minute, happy.
The sweatshirt says I AM A CAT. The hood has ears.
My friend Diane just texted:
Thinking of Kitten. Thinking of how great she always looked in any costume she wore🎃
Such happy memories of your parties❤️
Caitlin as Audrey Hepburn was as good as the real thing. Caitlin as Mia Wallace, with a syringe sticking into her chest was typical bad ass Kitten.
( She would shake her head to know that I just had to look up Uma Thurman’s character name because I’ve never seen the movie. She used to get so ticked off at me, for not seeing movies. )
Here’s a little video I just took, of Henry wearing the costume she made in Pittsburgh two years ago. A. Red sweatshirt, bag of leaves, glue gun.
Happy Samhain. Keep your spirits aware.
From a little notebook of Caitlin’s:
April 27th, 2012
I am grateful for —
My apartment & car
My ability to be able to go out and have fun even though I’m sick.
In July of 2014, 6 months into full time care-giving, I realized that I hadn’t worked on my new novel and that it would be easy to continue to ignore it, indefinitely. So I started carving out a daily chunk of time. I would set my timer to 30 minutes and write, with full focus, for at least that amount of time. At the end of each session, I circled the date in red.
It’s amazing what you can do with 30 focused minutes. I managed 254 pages–a decent draft of a new novel. In 2+ years, I did not miss a day until I finally gave up, in the ICU, on December 11.
Last week, on September 18, which was our 35th wedding anniversary and the 9-month anniversary of Caitlin’s transplant, Nick and I walked around Walden Pond.
When we came home, I started setting the timer again — for 33 minutes, in honor of Caitlin. But instead of working on the novel, for the moment I’m compiling parts of this blog and other words into something that I’m just calling “the Caitlin book” for now.
At this point, it is painful. I started at the beginning of the blog, but now I’m into the December posts, which I had not read since I wrote them. Reliving each shock after shock, the kernel of faith, the hope, the desperation, and then that final joy when she went into the OR on December 18 and received lungs.
It’s still impossible to believe things played out the way they did.
But a week does not pass that I don’t receive a blog comment, an email, or a hand-written note from someone, somewhere, who has been bettered by Caitlin’s story. Here is a recent one (accompanied by heart-shaped rocks for Caitlin’s memorial). It’s a reminder of why I want to create something more permanent than blog posts in the ether.
It will not be a story about anger and illness. It will be the story Caitlin wanted told: about light, love, and fierce positivity; about life and afterlife.
I am still figuring out the form it will take.
I told my wonderful friend Jane, in Pittsburgh, a beautiful writer, that I was doing this, and she responded:
Happiest thing in your letter: you’ll start the Caitlin book! This has to be done. This is going to be so wise, so beautiful, such an honoring of life, of soul, of friends, of motherhood, of grief, of CAITLIN. It is going to be a unique gift to the world. And to many many people who suffer terrible illness and loss, But really a gift for everyone. Mothers! Daughters! People who need Inspiration!
I have printed her words out and hung them over my desk, to keep me going.
I’d like to recognize/document summer, and appreciate the continued kindness and interest in what is going on with us.
They started with Caitlin’s “main” ICU nurse, Erin, who visited us with her husband and three charming little daughters (3 under age 5!) in June. They called me “Miss Maryanne,” and Nick, “Uncle Mike.”
In July, Dr. Penny, the CTICU director who did everything she could to save Caitlin, visited us, too.
Emotional times. But anyone who’s lived inside an ICU knows how intense it gets there. These people became part of our lives.
And next week, four wonderful friends/Pittsburgh neighbors are coming. I guess we will always be tied to Pittsburgh.
MORE PICS FROM CAITLIN’S BIRTHDAY
Turns out Nick took some photos I didn’t know about. I’m usually the one taking pictures, so I’m in some, for once.
People have been continuing to send us beautiful heart-shaped rocks. There was even an anonymous, perfect one in our mailbox. Thank you! There is no time limit. We haven’t even started building the memorial, and will always have room for more. Here are some more pictures.
The Islands and Irma
We are worried about our beloved islands and everyone in Irma’s path. We haven’t made many firm plans yet, but going back to St. John is one of them. Like the Vineyard, Caitlin’s spirit is surely there.
I made a good friend in Pittsburgh, Barry Lavery. He was living with ALS and — talk about an inspiration. He had a wise, expansive spirit. I looked forward to our weekly visits/conversations, and after I left, we would text and I would send him videos of New England beauty and the wildlife. He was a lifelong photographer and photography teacher, a bird lover and hawk expert who volunteered at the wildlife center after he retired from teaching at the Art Institute. He was a lifelong student of philosophy, a Taoist. A man who never lost his sense of humor. I will write about Barry in whatever I end up writing about all this. He was certainly a part of the whole story. He left us during the August eclipse and promised he would seek out Caitlin. It’s a welcome thought.
This was his public Facebook profile pic, so I feel comfortable sharing it. It was obviously taken when he was still well, still volunteering at the wildlife center. The hawk connection is so interesting. I still haven’t written about the hawks, but I will.
This hasn’t happened much, but when it does it’s kind of awkward. We think of Caitlin all the time and talking about her is part of this new life.