A serial memoir by Jean Fogelberg


Harbour Island


In March of 2006, Dan revised his will. He hadn’t given up hope, he was just being conscientious. We’d heard horror stories about men who had died with old wills, or no wills, leaving their grieving families tangled in stressful litigation for years. When his second marriage ended, Dan made some quick revisions, but much had changed since then. While he revised his, I wrote mine. By doing our wills together, it felt more like a prudent, responsible decision than any kind of surrender.

     We had discussed our last wishes two years earlier, while moving between summer rentals in the first months after the diagnosis. Knowing, as we did, how unpredictable life is, most discussions began with, “If I die before you...” In the homes of absent strangers, we confided our mortal requests. 

     I couldn’t imagine a life without Dan, and we talked about sailing far away on Minstrel and giving ourselves a flaming burial at sea. It was very romantic, but in the end, I realized I couldn’t do that to my parents. So, if he died first, I would stay behind and tend the life we’d created.

     Dan wanted to die at home or on his boat. He wanted his ashes scattered on the Reach, off of our friend’s boat, Free Spirit. He asked me to wait for a perfect sailing day, then scatter them by the green buoy that marked the turn toward home. He promised that when my time came, he would be waiting for me. I promised that while I lived, I would never expect him to return to me, in any form. I would release his spirit from all earthly ties. 

     We said it all, often through tears, then we left it behind. Death would rarely be discussed in our new home by the sea. I did play the 1934 film, Death Takes a Holiday, for Dan one day. I’d told him once, years before the diagnosis, that, if I could, I’d watch this film on my deathbed. Fredric March plays Death, who has come to earth for three days disguised as a human, to try to understand why people feared him so. 

     As the handsome Prince Sirki, he falls in love with Grazia, a beautiful young woman, and she with him. At the end of the three days, she wants to go with him, but first he reveals himself to her family as he truly looks, with the whole “Grim Reaper” black-hoodie-robe thing. “Goodbye my friends,” he says, “Remember that there is only a moment of shadow between your life and mine. And, when I call, come bravely through that shadow, and you will find me, only your familiar friend. Goodbye, Grazia, now you see me as I am.” Unfazed, she says “But I’ve always seen you like this.” As the music swells, they walk into the light together.

     Afterward, we discussed the movie and, while he thought it was a good film, he didn’t feel any more enamored with Death. I said, what if, instead of Fredric March, Death arrived looking like Michelle Pfeiffer? Yeah, okay, he could work with that.


Dan’s PSA had risen to 20 in January. The Casodex was no longer keeping the cancer at bay, so it was discontinued. In February an excruciating headache and numbness in his face and fingers sent us to our local emergency room. By the end of March, Dan's PSA was 40. Our Boston Oncologist, Dr. Kaufman, told us about an upcoming  clinical trial for a new drug called Sutent. We said we might be interested. He gave us the forms and told us to decide soon, since space was limited. Dan wanted to do it, and I agreed, so we filled out the paperwork. He took off on Minstrel for a couple of days and I put the forms together and mailed them in. At our next meeting with Dr. Kaufman, we asked about the trial and he said he thought we’d decided against it, since they hadn’t received our paperwork. The trial had filled up and was now closed.

     We stared at him in shock and silent tears ran down my face. In two and a half years, through bad test results and frightening scans, he had never once seen me cry. Actually, in all that time he’d barely looked at me, even though I went with Dan to every appointment. In the beginning it felt strange, but I began to understand that Dan was his only focus, even when I was the one answering questions about symptoms and dates, from my scrupulous notes. After a while I got over myself. I was glad Dr. Kaufman’s focus was as concentrated as mine.

     Now he was sliding a box of tissues toward me and reminding me that it was a trial drug - it might not have any effect. We understood that, but still hadn’t been able to resist pinning a few hopes on it. I felt terrible, thinking I must have mailed the forms to the wrong department or something. Dr. Kaufman excused himself to go talk to someone and I looked at Dan, so afraid I’d lost us this chance. He took my hand and told me it was going to be okay. When Dr. Kaufman returned, he was apologetic and angry. Our application forms were there; somehow, they had been misfiled. He assured us that he would get us into the trial, and he did. He was The Man at MGH Oncology.

     The Sutent trial would begin in five weeks. Since it would entail frequent visits to MGH for bone scans, CT scans, Muga scans, injections, and blood work, Dan rented us a one-bedroom apartment in a Back Bay brownstone on tree-lined Marlborough Street. Originally the home’s dining room, our place was on the ground floor and had a beautiful ornate fireplace in the living room. An apartment in Boston! Dan could cross another dream off his list.

     Because we had no way of knowing how the drug would impact Dan’s body, we thought we should take a little vacation before the trial began. We decided to return to one of our favorite places: Harbour Island, in the western Caribbean Sea. We’d stumbled upon it in our second year together and had wonderful memories from our time there.

Harbour Island ~ 1998


In the last week of July, I joined Dan in Florida for the final performance of his 1998 Summer Tour. Growing up in California, I’d heard about beaches with “warm” water, but never believed it could be true. It was! I loved the water in Florida. Walking into the surf for the first time was a revelation. 

     I’d grown up swimming in the cold, blue-gray waters off Santa Barbara County, in California. My sisters and I would splash and play until Mom called to us, then we’d run from the water, wrinkled and shivering like newborn pups. The water in Florida was a light green-blue and deliciously warm. I didn’t want to get out. But Dan had planned a vacation for us on Paradise Island, and he assured me that the water in the Bahamas would be just as warm. So, I packed my wet bathing suit in a plastic bag and on Sunday, July 26th, we flew to the Caribbean for five days of fun in the sun. 

      The first thing we did after entering our hotel room was to open the sliding glass door. Stepping out on the balcony, we looked at the gorgeous turquoise water and took a deep breath of…diesel fumes. Hurrying back inside, we closed the doors and went down to check out the beach. Described online as “secluded,” it was actually deserted, and we could see why. 

     Ropes and floats cordoned off swimming areas in the water, and just beyond the ropes, jet skis were making noisy circles in the water on their way back to Atlantis resort, which was further down the beach. If we wanted to swim, we would have to stay inside the roped-off areas or risk being run over by the smelly machines. 

     This was not our idea of paradise, so we went back to our room and Dan made a few calls, asking for recommendations. Within half an hour, we got an answer: Jimmy Buffett recommended we try the Pink Sands Resort, on nearby Harbour Island. While our travel agent, Janet, made the arrangements, we gathered our bags and headed down to the front desk. They apologized and were very understanding. We weren’t the first guests to leave because of the noisy neighbors. I felt bad for them, but not bad enough to stay, so we took a cab back to the airport and flew to North Eleuthera airport.


     We loved Harbour Island, and the Pink Sands Resort. There were no behemoth resorts, high end designer shops, or jet skis; it was just a sweet Caribbean hang. The beach below our cottage was a pastel pink and the water was turquoise green, giving the blue sky a purple cast. As Dan had promised, the water was beautiful and warm. 

     On Monday, we made a beeline for the beach and he took his camcorder. I’d packed two identical bikinis, one yellow and one lavender, and the twelve pounds gained on Dan’s cooking had filled out the tops. I was proud of my new curves, and Dan always made me feel pretty, but every time he pointed the camera at me I either froze or got silly.

     While he filmed the beach, we got to watch a photo shoot for a bathing suit catalogue, and a local man riding his horse. We ate conch soup at the resort’s Blue Bar, where the walls, chairs, tables, umbrellas and floor were all blue. Then we returned to our chairs on the beach. We stayed in the ocean for hours, talking and swimming, holding each other and kissing. I cradled him in my arms, weightless, something I could never do on land. We swam out to the coral reefs, and beyond.

     On Tuesday, we got a golf cart and set out to explore the island. It seemed that every dirt road led to a quiet cove or coral-colored stretch of beach. Each time we stopped, I had to jump into the water and swim. At the end of the day, I could say without reservation that the water was equally glorious on both sides of the long, narrow island.

     On Wednesday, I woke with chills, fever, and nausea. Oh, I was so mad! I tried to eat breakfast, thinking I’d feel better, but I couldn’t keep it down. Dan drove me to the tiny clinic, where I sat waiting for my turn to see the doctor. For two days, Dan brought me cold wash cloths for my forehead and brought me any food that sounded good to me. Either it was a 48-hour bug, or the antibiotics from the clinic worked wonders, because I woke on Friday morning slightly hoarse, but raring to go. I was determined to make up for lost time.

      We had breakfast, then decided to explore Dunmore Town. I grabbed the camcorder to film our cottage location and Dan lying in the chaise out front. The lens immediately fogged up. When I told Dan this, he started singing I Left My Heart in San Francisco, and continued singing it, even after I’d cleared the moisture from the lens. As we drove our cart toward town, he started singing one of Tony Bennett’s other signature songs, I Wanna Be Around

      We passed a fellow resort guest, who waved, and I said, “He’s gonna go back to his room and say, ‘Honey, Tony Bennett’s staying here!’” We drove through Dunmore Town and went inside St. John’s Anglican Church. The acoustics in the oldest church in the Bahamas were good, and Dan started crooning, “I left my heart....” We drove to Fantasy Corner and read the license plates, signs, and sayings there. Dan turned the camera on me and I riffed on the Michael Palin monologue from the scene with the market prophets, in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

     He had booked the cottage until Sunday, but was able to extend it until Tuesday. We would have three more days to enjoy the island. 

     I spent as much time as possible in the water. I would stand with my back to the shore, mesmerized by the purple sky, reflected in ripples dancing across the emerald surface of the sea. Dan would lie in the sun and then join me, his skin already a deep brown. We snorkeled in one of the quiet coves one day and he was so intent on the ocean floor he didn’t see that he was about to swim into a school of jelly fish. I grabbed his ankle and pulled him back just in time. 

      Knowing the antibiotics would make me susceptible to sunburn, I slathered on the sunblock. We decided to walk the entire three-mile beach from end to end, and I covered up with a sarong and a hat. But I mostly walked in the water, which washed the sunblock off. That night, my ankles and the tops of my feet were a deep red and surprisingly painful. I felt so foolish, walking barefoot to dinner. When I apologized for being so much trouble, Dan reminded me of our first trip together, a year and a half earlier. We’d gone to Banff, Canada for a ski event and he had broken three ribs while luging. He was in so much pain, we had to extend our stay for two days, and I’d missed an extra two days of work. It already seemed like ages ago, and we laughed at the memory.

      While standing in water up to our ribs one day, Dan noticed a school of tiny fish hanging out around my waist. We stood there like naturalists, trying to figure out what they were doing, and why they weren’t interested in him. Were they drawn to my lavender bikini? My suntan lotion? Dan said they recognized a mermaid when they saw one. This happened a few times, the little silver fish circling me like a waist chain, a few inches below the surface. Each time, I was reluctant to move and dispel their gentle, magical gathering.


     We were so happy. Dan had asked me to move in with him the previous June, and I’d given my two-month notice at work. By mid-August we’d be living together at the ranch; no more driving between New Mexico and Colorado every week. It felt like the continuation of something familiar, and the start of something new, and it was too, too wonderful.

Harbour Island ~ 1998

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Harbour Island ~ 2006


With the Sutent trial looming, we flew from Boston to Miami to Eleuthera on April 5th. During each flight I was conscious of coughs and sneezes. I was so afraid that Dan’s compromised immune system would be vulnerable to every germ particle in the air. I stared daggers at any frequent coughers, willing them to cover their mouths or take a cough drop. 

     On April 5th we checked in at the Pink Sands Resort and were each given a Goombay Smash, the “welcome” drink. It was off-season, and five of our ten days there would be overcast and rainy, but it was wonderful to be back. We ate lunch at the Blue Bar and dinner in the restaurant. We swam, walked on the beach, borrowed books from the lender library, and rode golf carts around the island. There was one CD on the Bose player in our room that we played over and over: a compilation of Reggae music, including, Now That We Found Love by Third World, and Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry.

     While having dinner one night at a Colonial-style hotel just down the beach, we noticed the beautiful international news correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, at a crowded table nearby. She was telling a story, and the group was hanging on her every word. I’d often wondered what kind of courage it took for a person to look so calm while standing in a war zone. I looked across the table at Dan, smiling with so much love. Over the last seven months our hard-won advantage against the cancer had diminished, and yet, his gaze was steady and unwavering. It occurred to me that there are many different kinds of war zones.


​     On one of our last days at the Pink Sands, we went swimming but didn’t linger on the beach afterward. The sky was overcast and it looked like rain, so we went back to our room. After showering, we lounged on the bed in our terrycloth robes. I was photographing the ceiling fan over the bed, experimenting with different shutter speeds in the low light. Dan was reading a book.


     Bored with the the fan, I turned the camera on myself, shooting my face with my hair splayed out on the duvet. I didn’t realize Dan was watching me until he put his book down and said, “That is the sexiest thing I have ever seen.” 

     I was pleased, but unsure how to respond. For two years he’d been taking a cancer drug that severed the “sexy” connection. Taking my hand, Dan pulled me to my feet. He turned the bed covers down then gently pushed me back on the crisp white sheets. I moved up toward the headboard and opened my robe as he moved to the bottom of the bed.

     The ceiling fan stirred the humid air against my body, and rain began lightly  tapping on the roof. He still remembered all the subtle things my body responded to. I stretched my arms out on the sheets and tried to let go of everything but the sex, but even as I abandoned my body to the familiar pleasure, my heart was filled with an immense grief for us. As tears streamed from the corners of my eyes, I vaguely registered that it was raining harder now.

     I rode the waves of pleasure and sorrow as the orgasm coursed through me and the rain outside became a deluge, thundering on the roof and pelting the trees around our cottage. As the last spasm shook me, I sank back onto the sheets with a sigh and the rain abruptly stopped. In the sudden quiet, Dan moved up next to me.

     “How did you do that?” he asked in wonder.

     Even after watching me flail ineffectually against the cancer for more than two years, he still believed in me. I was the woman who could extinguish every light in the San Juan Mountains with the twist of a Christmas bulb; the mermaid who could share a good cry and orgasm with mother nature. If love truly could conquer all, the cancer would have been vanquished from his body in that moment.

     Pulling him to me, I held him close and wished we could lie there forever, coaxing the rain to return and listening to Bob Marley telling us that everything was gonna be all right.


Posted April 17th. 2021 Copyright ©Jean Fogelberg 2021