Overboard is my 2,500-word entry for last year’s CBC literary awards. Next year I’ll share my recent Nov. 1 submission (once I’m allowed to).
OVERBOARD: A KALEIDOSCOPE OF KINDNESS
Twelve Augusts ago my husband and I immigrated to Canada from Johannesburg, South Africa, with itchy feet in our well-worn shoes. We left our homeland in search of mountains and snow; the Canadian Rockies offered both—in abundance. Upon clearing customs in Calgary on the first of September, a man in a white hat greeted us with a cheery “Welcome home, weary travellers!” and I realised I was home. This was the city that would capture our hearts, the country we would quickly call our own.
Sue Bethune, a Canadian from Ontario, is married to my husband’s school friend, Julian. They make their home in Niagara-on-the-Lake where they choose to live a life of simplicity. Sue makes her own wine and cheese; she cherishes books and poetry and people. Before we left South Africa Sue sent me a handwritten journal in which she’d penned a miscellany of poems, quotes and literary snippets. Upon our somewhat lonely arrival in Calgary in 1998 (we knew five folk across the continent), Sue mailed a “Welcome to Canada, eh?” box of goodies to the Regency Suites, where we overlooked the Bow River during our first home-hunting month. The parcel included a six-pack of Canada Dry™ ginger ale, a bottle of ice wine (our first), maple syrup and maple butter, wax-ironed maple leaves from her garden, a compilation of Canadian music, and a Daniel Lanois CD. These treasures and other treats were wrapped in a Canadian flag—our first taste of the generosity of our new kinsmen.
On the first of October we rented an unfurnished apartment—The Phoenician on Dalhousie Drive—while awaiting the arrival of our container of goods, shipped from Cape Town and expected in Vancouver later that month. Within walking distance stood a black-and-white building: Dalhousie Community Church. We entered the sanctuary on our first Sunday in the city’s northwest and heard a hymn we’d sung at our South African wedding in 1995. We never left. The folk at DCC adopted us as family, and soon we’d settled into the social and spiritual rhythm of our immigrant life.
After six weeks of living in our bare apartment, sleeping on a single mattress on the floor (a time of renewed intimacy for our marriage) and using borrowed crockery supplemented by Dollar Store essentials because our boxes were due any day, we received a devastating phone call. (When the owner of a shipping company asks if you’re sitting down, you know the news can’t be good.) Thorscape—the ship carrying all our earthly possessions—had run into Hurricane Mitch during its Atlantic passage via the Caribbean. Mitch had won the battle, washing half a dozen containers overboard. In one short phone conversation, we downsized our earthly possessions to the contents of the Samsonite suitcases we had carried on the plane.
A scene from The Perfect Storm comes to mind: the indestructible chains holding the colossal crates snap like toothpicks and the power of nature stuns the audience into silence. Hurricane Mitch was named an act of God by our insurance company. Thankfully the captain and crew survived the storm, but alas, our earthly treasures did not. The container cracked open and was lost at sea, dispersing our goods to the bottom of the ocean. As far as we know, they’re still there in their watery grave. In the Disney movie, The Little Mermaid, one of the characters (a Caribbean lobster) sings: “It is much better, down where it’s wetter, under da sea.”
Our new life had taken a most unexpected turn.
Once I’d finally agreed to join my travelling companion on his journey across the curve of the globe (at first I’d vehemently resisted and told him I’d miss him and write often), we had begun looking forward to life in our brave new world. In the months leading up to our departure from Africa, my spouse and I had undergone a ruthless and somewhat painful selection process, including only those items that we felt we could not do without. If Canada was to be our future home, we intended to surround ourselves with our cherished possessions.
On the container were countless slides and photographs taken during our travels abroad. My husband is a photographer and I am a global correspondent, and we felt it safer to ship our priceless treasures—photos and handwritten letters—than to send them by air. Statistically, airline losses are far more frequent than incidents of luggage lost at sea.
Shortly after our marriage we accepted a work assignment in Prague and moved to the Czech Republic for three seasons. While living on the continent, we travelled east to Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, south to Austria and west to Germany, France and Switzerland. We captured on film an astounding array of stained glass windows in Europe’s enchanting castles and cathedrals. I wrote prolifically.
Apart from a wealth of wedding gifts and general household paraphernalia, clothing and furniture (including the Victorian lounge suite and oak bookcase I had inherited from my maternal grandmother), we also lost more than five hundred books, an irreplaceable collection Robin and I had begun as children.
In addition to my grandparent’s letters to me, and mine to them, I had saved a sea-chest of correspondence since I was old enough to read and write. (People ask me what I do: I’m a letter-writer.) Our love letters and photographs remain among our biggest losses; we felt as though we had misplaced part of our childhood memories—part of our togetherness.
Sadly, Sue’s hand-penned diary sank along with everything else in our treasure chest. Undaunted by the loss, she laboriously and lovingly rewrote each page and sent me an almost identical copy! In her second postal package, Sue included a letter and a couple of C.S. Lewis volumes from a friend of hers who’d heard our story and wanted to contribute in some way—“These are to begin your new collection,” read the inscription. We remember with gratitude the sweetness of that time.
In the weeks leading up to our loss, we had met several strangers who would become friends in the subsequent seasons. Once our story spread throughout our immediate community, acquaintances and new friends alike provided for us in ways we had never imagined possible.
Eleanor (then a stranger but now my sister) organised a kitchen shower; Margaret replaced our iron and ironing board; Dennis and Joy gave us a dinner service; newlyweds Keith and Christa shared a set of cookware with us; Darlene donated Tupperware; Gerry bought us an electric mixer; Ian and Linna surprised us with a fully-stocked toolbox.
From the smallest gifts of tea towels and light bulbs to furniture and a double bed, our community of kindness more than met our physical needs. Barb and John’s life group bought us a loveseat. Ron and Judy offered two pairs of skis and boots—the perfect fit. Another couple, Christine and Dwight, phoned us on the day they heard about our mini-catastrophe and invited us into their closets—and subsequently into their homes and hearts. We were told we could take any of the clothing they had laid out for us. (Some women fantasise about going into someone else’s home and trying on clothing.)
Christine also donated artwork for our bare walls. Someone anonymously donated a microwave and a box of kitchenware.… The list is endless. It was truly a humbling experience. To this day my favourite gift remains a ragtag assortment of Sheila’s secondhand books from the MCC thrift store.
Even now, more than a decade later, we are in awe at the generosity showered upon us with no strings attached. Tonight, as I type these lines, I realise how thankful I am for the people we’ve met since coming to our new home—many as a direct result of our disaster—and also for folk faraway who’ve stayed in touch across the barriers of time and space.
Our brush with Mitch has taught us many lessons.
We discovered that Canadians in general and Albertans in particular are generous, selfless givers.
We learned to receive gifts from complete strangers.
We try not to take people for granted; they are infinitely more precious than possessions.
We learned how much value sentimental items can hold—not only for the recipient, but perhaps for the giver as well. My mother cried when she first visited our Canadian home. Each new memory of loss brought a fresh sense of sadness. Where were all our wedding gifts? Our beautiful tablecloths, crocheted by my grandmother? My wedding dress, sewn by my favourite aunt? The long-stemmed hand painted wine glasses from a colleague? Our collection of ducky dinner plates from Greatermans given by diverse girlfriends?
On occasion I still ask myself why we didn’t carry our photographs and slides with us; why I risked shipping all my travel journals; why we didn’t keep our hundreds of priceless letters in our hand luggage; why I didn’t wear the irreplaceable cardigan my grandmother knitted for my grandfather fifty years before. On the whole, however, the extent of our loss was minimal in comparison to what we gained.
We realised how little we need to be happy.
We learned that people deal with loss differently.
We refocused our hearts and minds on the Giver of all good gifts, and spiritually reoriented our journey. Like other hopeful immigrants before us, we had come west to seek our fortunes, only to wake up in a foreign country with few friends, even fewer earthly possessions, and no financial security.
It was possibly the best thing that could ever have happened to us. I believe that’s how I ended up at the seminary in Cochrane, where I registered the following year for a Master’s in Divinity. (I’m still there. Once I completed my MDiv I was invited to contract as an adjunct instructor, teaching English and History of Western Civilization to a motley crew. In South Africa I had taught linguistics and literary theory to classes of several hundred multilingual students, a position I deeply regretted leaving when we emigrated in the late nineties. I cannot say with absolute certainty that I would have considered studying and then teaching at a school with fewer than fifty students and a dozen faculty members had it not been for the direction my life took after our encounter with a hurricane.)
On our answering machine I saved the message my husband left for me on the day we heard about our container—an ill-fated Friday the thirteenth of November: “Just remember, we still have each other.” After phoning our parents, I went for a walk. My mom cried and my dad laughed, prophetically adding the words: “What a story you’ll have to tell!” I remember seeing a Hallmark card once which read: “Into every life a little rain must fall.” Inside the card was written: “Along with storm winds and damaging hailstones.”
An article in National Geographic several years ago provided a penetrating picture of God’s wings of protection. After a forest fire in Yellowstone National Park, forest rangers began their trek up a mountain to assess the inferno’s damage. One ranger found a bird petrified in ashes, perched statuesquely on the ground at the base of a tree. Somewhat sickened by the eerie sight, he knocked over the bird with a stick. When he struck it, three tiny chicks scurried from under their dead mother’s wings.
The loving mother, keenly aware of impending disaster, had carried her offspring to the base of the tree and had gathered them under her wings, instinctively knowing that the toxic smoke would rise. She could have flown to safety but had refused to abandon her babies. When the blaze had arrived and the heat had scorched her small body, the mother had remained steadfast. Because she had been willing to die, those under the cover of her wings would live. The psalmist writes: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge” (Psalm 91:4).
This, too, our experience has taught us: there is refuge from the storms.
In his book Six Hours One Friday, author Max Lucado speaks of Hurricane David, which whirled through the Caribbean during the Labour Day weekend of 1979, “leaving a trail of flooded islands and homeless people.” Lucado tells of a group of men trying to protect a houseboat owned by one of them:
Don’t ask what I was doing with a houseboat. Part adventure and part bargain, I guess. But that Labor Day weekend was more adventure than I’d bargained for. I had owned the boat for three monthly payments, and now I was about to have to sacrifice her to the hurricane! I was desperate. Tie her down! was all I could think.
I was reaching the end of my rope, in more ways than one, when Phil showed up. Now Phil knew boats. He even looked boat-wise.
He was born wearing a suntan … He spoke the lingo and knew the knots. He also knew hurricanes. Word on the river had it that he had ridden one out for three days in a ten-foot sailboat. They made him a living legend.
He felt sorry for us, so he came to give some advice … and it was sailor-sound. “Tie her to land and you’ll regret it. Those trees are gonna get eaten by the ’cane. Your only hope is to anchor deep,” he said. “Place four anchors in four different locations, leave the rope slack, and pray for the best.”
In 1989 yet another earthquake hit San Francisco, a city built along San Andrea’s Fault. (I once saw a T-shirt sporting the slogan “San Andrea’s not my fault.”) During the earthquake, the Golden Gate Bridge suffered no damage. It is a suspension bridge built in such a way that the bridge moves when the earth shakes. On any given day it can move several feet from side to side. At either end, a huge anchor is driven into the bedrock. A cable is attached and the bridge is built and hung on the cable.
Two main cables pass over the tops of the Golden Gate Bridge’s main towers; they are secured in the concrete anchorages at each end. Each cable is made of 27,572 strands of wire—and there are 129,000 kilometres of wire in the two main cables. When the earthquake hits, the bridge moves, but the anchor remains firm.
Shortly after our arrival in Canada, we lost everything—but we lost nothing—because we still possess those gifts that matter most.
We are encircled by loved ones, far and near; we are privileged to live in one of the loveliest countries on God’s green earth; we are part of a global community of kindness. When we encounter hurricanes and other adventures of the unexpected, we know we are not alone. Neighbours reach out helping hands. Strangers show compassion. Friends share love. People care.
We have learned to anchor deep.