DECEMBER 29–Soggy Dollar Boat Days

Update, 12/30. Kitty and Andrew at the Soggy Dollar.

Caitlin never complained. Her not-complaining actually became a problem—we who knew her best honestly could not tell how she was feeling, because she always put up a good, rather jolly front. Andrew would say, “Hey, Kitty, should we go to a movie today?” Or I would say, “Want to try and go out today?” And there would be a flicker across her face, usually of pain, and she would say, “Maybe,” or “Oh, no way.”

So we came up with a system. Around late morning, she would rate the day from 1-10 (1-10 being her version of a 1 or a 10, not a normal person’s). If the day was a 5 or 6, then yes, perhaps, we might be able to take the wheelchair out, later, and go to the museum for an hour, or go see a movie.

If the day was a 2 or 3, as it often was, just showering was going to be tough—-there was no chance of an outing.

(No day was ever an 8 or a 9 or a 10, fyi.)

At one point during the last couple of years, she told me how any time she looked at photos of the previous decade, she could remember exactly how she had had felt when any particular picture was taken. In all those photos she looked great, looked like she was having the time of her life, but she would point and say, “I remember that night. I was desperately hoping that everyone would want to take a taxi.”  Or, “I wanted to run down that cliff like everyone else and jump and dance around the sand and party on the beach but all I could think was, how will I climb back up?”

I was reminded of this, today, when I was looking for photos for a tribute that’s happening tomorrow.

St. John was/is our place. Our happiest holidays were spent there and the happiest of the happy days were “boat days.” We would board a charter boat, with a captain, at 8am, head over to Tortola to do customs paperwork, then make our way to Norman Island and Cooper Island and maybe Marina Cay, always a stop at Sandy Cay, and always, always, ultimately ending up on Jost van Dyke.

Boat days always ended on Jost, at the Soggy Dollar Bar.

In the early days, when Caitlin’s health was okay and she could keep up, these were her favorite days. Here we are, back in 2004, enjoying boat day. We always took a pal of hers on vacation with us, usually her almost-sister Katie, and also always filled our boat with island friends. Those days were the best. The best of the best. I hope that everyone who reads this post gets to enjoy days like those days were: life suspended, wrapped up in hours of unending moments of sunshine and turquoise and laughter and rum punch.

3 pigs on a boat.jpeg

But: back to the reason I was reminded of Caitlin’s 1-10 system today. I was looking for some boat day pictures. I was doing this because this world we live in is a ridiculously small world.  Jess’s sister Carly is friends with the people who own the Soggy Dollar Bar on tiny Jost. Tomorrow they are going to honor Caitlin with an organ donor awareness day. They asked for a photo to make a banner and so I was looking for a good picture.

We all have 10,000 pictures on our phones and another 10,000 lost in the ether of the last decade. I know that I took photos of Caitlin at the Soggy Dollar Bar, but could I find one? No. I did find this:


Taken in 2008 on the eastern side of Jost. We were introducing Katie’s parents, our dear dear friends, to St. John. We were all excited to be there together and boat day was going to be the big event. But soon after our arrival, it was clear that Caitlin had caught a virus, despite her always-vigilant precautions.

The night before boat day, she took me aside and begged me to let her stay home in our rented villa. “I’m happy to just hang out here by myself. I’ll be fine. You guys go and have a good time.”

Caitlin was our life of the party. No one wanted to go on boat day without her. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t let her not come. I insisted she suck it up. “We’ll make it comfortable for you, I promise. You’ll be so glad you came. I know you don’t want to miss boat day.”

She gave in and we all got on that boat at 8am. And if you look at pictures from that day, you would think we were all having the time of our lives. The rest of us were. But she later told me that anytime she looked at the day’s pictures she could only remember how horrible she felt.

A week later, our trip had been cut short and she had been admitted to Boston Children’s for  what the CF community calls “cleanouts.” Cleanouts are a few weeks of IV antibiotics and chest PT. They stave off the inevitable, give people a boost, and they worked for Caitlin for much of her life. They worked that time in 2008. She “got better” and  we went back to St. John a few more times. Her last trip was with us, and Andrew, in 2013.


This is the photo I sent for the Soggy Dollar Bar to use tomorrow. I’m glad I never knew, when I snapped it, that it would be the last one I ever took of her there. Because it was a good day that did not deserve one drop of sadness. A great day. We had snorkeled and lunched and snorkeled some more and swam (swum?) onto Sandy Cay and had just landed at Foxy’s for rum punch and Roti. We were about to get back on John Brandi‘s boat to end boat day, as always, at the Soggy Dollar.

So everyone who  will be at the Soggy Dollar tomorrow for New Year’s weekend: Thank you! Honor Caitlin and don’t be sad. Do remember organ donation and how important it is. Spread that awareness. But savor your delicious painkiller, the nutmeg, the coconut milk, the rum and the sunshine. Caitlin will be cheering you on, all the way.



JUNE 29–The Update


I’ve been trying to write an update, with great difficulty. A lot has changed; nothing has changed—still waiting—and all the national emotion of the past week left me feeling oddly subdued, not ready to talk about our own issues.  But here we go–

One crappy new thing has afflicted Caitlin.  She has been unusually hoarse since having a virus in February, and has lost some of her range in her voice. Although she’s experienced laryngitis all her life following colds, she knew this was something different. She visited a voice specialist last week and found out what she suspected:  that one of her vocal folds is paralyzed.  Both folds (or chords) must meet to properly produce sound or to effectively cough; when one isn’t moving, this can’t happen.  There are temporary fixes (injections similar to getting cortisone shots) which she might undergo before transplant for some relief, (but probably not, since she tries to avoid unnecessary procedures).  She will have to have the injection soon after transplant anyway — the vocal chords need to be working properly to protect the new lungs — and eventually will have to have the minor but permanent surgery of having the vocal chord enhanced by a permanent procedure.  She sounds like she has laryngitis, and she has to speak in a higher register than normal, making it difficult for her to be heard, talk on the phone, etc. Overall, it’s frustrating.  The permanent surgery won’t happen till months after transplant, so … that’s another thing our Kitten didn’t need, but which she is dealing with with her usual grace.

Her singing career, now stalled.
Her singing career, now stalled.

The happier news is: we’ve moved! The move has been of tremendous benefit for me and my mental health, and Caitlin really loves the fact that she has more freedom, comfort, and privacy. We’ve a little balcony, and my sister and I fixed it up with a tree and plants, first thing. That little balcony is our summer vacation this year! And not a bad vacation. Pittsburgh is famous for being fireworks-crazy, and it’s home to the famous Zambelli Fireworks. We could always hear them in the old apartment. Now we can see them.  We feel very lucky.

Pittsy's Balcony
Pittsy’s Balcony

And I have a real built-in desk! So no more taking over the dining table. And here’s one thing I’m very very proud of:  Last year, on July 1, I vowed to set a timer and write for a minimum of 30 minutes a day. I knew that no matter how busy the day was, I could always squeeze in 30 minutes. I also knew that it would be easy to *not* write during this time of waiting, and that I would end up feeling really bad about myself if I went months without producing anything. I can announce that as I approach July 1, I have not missed a single day AND I’ve managed to eke out a very ugly draft. (But ugly drafts are beautiful, as my writing buddy Barbara says.)

Henry thinks it's ugly, too.
Henry thinks it’s ugly, too.

Many know that Caitlin has been a big part of a tireless effort to save the beloved Prouty Garden at Children’s Hospital Boston. She hated having to miss the gentle protest last week. But now, at a very late hour, the group has the opportunity to work with an environmental law firm that is enthusiastic and hopeful about saving the Garden.  Caitlin spent the weekend working with her group as they decided to go for it. They got a GoFundMe account going yesterday, and the group has already made great gains in raising money for the necessary legal fees. I’ve been so proud of her these past months, watching her work so doggedly at this, even at times when she’s been at her weakest.

Donations are so welcome! I can promise you that there’s not much more of a better cause than saving this garden that pretty much saved *us* during the darkest days of her childhood.

Save the Prouty Garden!
Save the Prouty Garden!

Lastly, a small eulogy. 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 they worked their asses off to be able to realize that happy dream. They moved down from Marblehead in 2005 and 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.

Captain Brandi
Captain Brandi, photo by Krista Volk



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