The Circle of Life

January 23, 2023
January 23, 2023 Betsy Voreacos

The Circle of Life

I huffed and I puffed and I yanked my oversized suitcase off the carousel wondering, not for the first time, why I had to overpack. Every. Single. Trip. Dragging my luggage far from the madding crowd, wrestling to right those wheels gone wild, I found myself eyeball-to-eyeball with a very warm and familiar face.

“You look confused,” a cheery voice chirped.

“Baffled. Totally baffled,” I said.

Yet it made sense, it really did. My college roommate, Sue, knew that I was feeling a bit off-kilter about this trip so did some sleuthing to figure out when I was arriving, then passed the info on to her daughter, Jessie, who lives in south Florida. I don’t typically like surprises, but I absolutely adore Jessie. I last saw her over Labor Day weekend at her epically-fun wedding when she married Chris, a 100 percent good-guy. Well, maybe 99.9. Nobody’s perfect.

“Come on. I’m driving you to your hotel.”

A couple hours later, still on my Jessie high, I headed down to the hotel lobby to meet my friends, Theresa and Steve, who were taking me to dinner. Four women were chatting on a couch so I barged right in, as I am wont to do. I discovered that they were with Red Orchid Women’s Travel Tours and that ten of them, mostly Canadians, were doing exactly what I was doing.

I sighed in relief, convinced that everything was going to be just fine. Then I launched into my back story.

Every year, my high school soulmate of a friend, Patty, and I took a cruise together. I’d fly in the night before, she’d pick me up in her little white Ford Escape and we’d go back to her house and bulldog in Dania Beach. We’d see Steve and Linda, her brother and sister-in-law, and then go off to Hollywood, with or without them, for dinner. The next morning we’d take the dog to the vet for boarding and Steve, or an Uber driver, would take us to the port, me lugging a huge suitcase … or two, Patty with barely a carry-on. Year after year we outdid ourselves, marveling at how two rapidly aging women were still able to have so much fun.

Our last trip together was what I affectionately call the COVID Cruise. We set sail with more than a little trepidation on March 8, 2020. If you recall, the coronavirus was just rearing its ugly head – mostly on cruise ships. My ever-loving spouse, who never, ever puts a damper on my folly, assured me that it was a really, really bad idea to go. Patty, usually the cautious one, was uncharacteristically calm in the face of potential doom. She won. We went. And for a week, lived on the Edge which, ironically, was the name of our ship.

We found ourselves in the artsy lounge called Eden on our first night at sea. It didn’t take long before we inserted ourselves into a conversation (note a pattern here) with Kit and Don, BFFs from Jacksonville. We bonded immediately and spent much of the rest of the cruise together.

Meanwhile, Don had other friends on the ship – Bob and Sharon from Estero, Florida. Once we met them, the six of us spent every cocktail hour in the Martini Bar – trying to decipher the day’s stories of shut downs and rising COVID counts back on land. With every cocktail we sipped, we felt safer and safer aboard the Celebrity Edge.

Well the cruise ended, no one got COVID and we returned to our respective homes, sending a slew of post-cruise texts and liking each other’s Facebook posts during those uncertain months in the early days of the pandemic.

Life went on.

For most of us.

Sadly, tragically and life-changingly, Patty died seven months later of a completely unrelated disease. I’m one of those stoic, perhaps hard-hearted, souls who can navigate death with barely a blip. But this one cut me to the core.

Yet time passed, as it always does, and when cruise ships finally set sail again, I was itching to get back to sea. Scott, my friend from a long-ago cruise, sent me monthly, sometimes weekly messages asking me to join him and his husband on one of the many cruises they took each year. But they travel on a different cruise line that is way too expensive for me as a single passenger. I lobbied friend group after friend group but couldn’t get any takers. So I gutted it out, limiting my travels to solid ground.

(In case you were wondering – my ever-loving spouse did try to understand what I loved about a floating hotel. He went on one cruise early on and immediately knew that it wasn’t his thing. He is somewhat averse to most overindulgences in life –with over-socializing at the top of the list. Knowing that I can’t exist without it, he gave me his full blessings to carry on, as long as it was with Patty – and without him.)

Let’s circle back for a moment to the COVID cruise.

In early March of 2020, no one knew what they didn’t know, so many countries were not allowing cruise passengers to disembark at their ports. However, because we had no documented cases of COVID onboard, we were the only ship permitted to dock in St. Maarten that week. So Patty and I got off and took the water taxi into town. We ended up in one of the many, many jewelry shops in Philipsburg where – shock, shock – we befriended the husband and wife owners.

Their intuition was way more on point than ours. While we felt it would be no more than a two-week inconvenience, they were way more certain that this virus would wreak havoc way beyond our collective imaginations. Their livelihood depended on the tens of thousands of cruise passengers that came into their country every week and they were scared to death of what was to come. We bantered back and forth sharing our unfounded hopes and what proved to be realistic fears. Patty bought a pair of rather expensive gold filigree earrings and I went for silver – purchasing a modestly-priced bracelet and two pairs of dangling earrings.

“We’ll be thinking of you every single day,” I said as we left with our wallets lighter and hearts heavier. “And in solidarity, I’m not going to take this bracelet off until we meet again.”

And I didn’t. Not once in 1,021 days.

About six months ago, Bob and Sharon and Kit and Don resurfaced with a “Hey – why don’t you join us on a cruise in January? It’s going to St. Thomas, Puerto Plata and St. Maarten.”

“I’m in,” I responded without hesitation.

Yet as the time drew nearer I had my reservations. I mean, I had only known these people for seven days in my whole life. Would they be able to handle my extra cup(s) of ice, my incessant need to befriend everyone within a ten meter radius, my loathing of sand and snorkeling, my step-counting, my stories that run on a continuous loop?

Turns out, they could.

As an added bonus Joyce and Ken joined the crew, offering up two new prospects for me to get to know and love.

Turns out, I did.

Our first port-of-call was St. Maarten. Sharon, Bob, Joyce and Ken went off on a double-decker bus tour. Don and Kit went snorkeling – something I did to appease Patty, but never have to do again. I ventured out alone, hoping to close the loop on my bracelet story.

A few weeks before the cruise I began googling names of St. Maarten jewelers but nothing rang a bell. I could not remember the store’s name or location and wondered if maybe it hadn’t survived the pandemic. I scrolled through my 2020 credit card statements online, surmising that I must have paid cash – probably in a last ditch attempt to help the owners out by saving them the card fees. Admittedly, I’m not the most fiscally responsible human and am not prone to saving receipts, but I definitely lamented that shortcoming for perhaps the first time ever.

Serendipitously, I remembered purchasing cruise luggage tag holders back in 2020. I ransacked my overflowing desk drawers and, sure enough, found them beneath a stack of checks from two bank accounts ago. Tucked inside one of the plastic holders was a carefully folded piece of paper.

It was a receipt from Pavillion Jewelers on Front Street in Philipsburg, St. Maarten, dated March 12, 2020.

I know that the shop owner wanted to remember me. But three years and thousands of customers later, I’m not sure she did. I found myself choking up (remember that I’m hard-hearted) as I went through the whole story of how I was on the last cruise ship out before they suspended operation in 2020, how we were all scared to death, how I promised to wear this bracelet every single day until I got back and found out you were safe and how in the meantime, my bosom buddy died but I reunited with others from that cruise and look at us now –  we’re here, we’re both still here.

We took a picture together, hugged and off I went. With yet another brand new bangle on my wrist. How could I resist? After all, this whole thing was about supporting my St. Maarten store owner friends.

I’m still sporting both my COVID and post-COVID bangles and at this point, I’m not sure what it would take for me to ever take either one of them off.

My bracelets are a constant reminder of the friends I’ve made, the friend I lost and the friends I have not yet met. And a confirmation that this cruise was more than just another overindulgence. It offered me a string of affirmations, life lessons and you-can-do-it moments.

I learned that I can navigate a ship without my sidekick and that even if my first request for an extra cup of ice turned out to be the last I saw of my COVID cruise friends, that I would be OK. Somehow I intuited that those Canadian women I met in the hotel lobby would be warm and welcoming – and they were, every day when I ran into some configuration of them.

I discovered that a cruise cabin is downright huge when you have the room all to yourself. That I can not only tolerate, but actually enjoy, the entertainment on board – from comedians to karaoke to artfully choreographed Alice in Wonderland interpretations.

I learned that though I’ll miss my original cruise buddy every day for the rest of my life, I’ll carry her heart with me on every voyage I take. I’ll hear her voice echoing in my head reminding me that not every surprise is an ambush. That saving receipts is just plain sensible, and not necessarily indicative of hoarding. That sometimes I should just go ahead and buy the jewelry. That the chocolate sauce added to my scoop of ice cream can always be walked off and if not, who cares? Because the words size and self-worth have no place in the same sentence anyway. That it’s silly to obsess over what I said or how I said it. Truth be told, they were all too drunk to remember. I’ll hear her telling me to go ahead and order the chicken three nights in a row, but to please, please at least try the escargot. That I should always tip well those who serve me well. And those who don’t, tip them anyway.

Perhaps most importantly, her spirit will remind me that all that glitters is not gold, just as all that’s gold does not glitter. But that if I just trust my gut and surround myself with the right people, I’ll have friends to cruise with for the rest of my life.