Unlike the Lost Colony that landed in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1587, my whereabouts in Kitty Hawk will be well known if only because I am a lone, Texas woman traveling with a cat. Gatita does not, however, partake of the beach with me on my early morning walks or my end-of-the-day strolls.
I was so anxious to see the ocean on that first day, August 19th, that I emptied as much of the Jeep as I could, hurrying in my sky blue flipflops to the entrance of the beach as though the water might disappear before I got there.
I walked north first, to the Kitty Hawk Pier, my face looking out toward the white swells of water rushing in to greet me. I swear I could hear, Welcome, we’ve been waiting for you… A mixed laugh-cry almost escaped with that first view as I felt all the second-guessing of this trip recede with the tide. And my chest, heavy with joy, almost giddy, and holding the most important part of me, knew that my faith had not been for naught.
This is exactly where I am meant to be.
~ ~ ~
Whatever final tears I hiccupped out as I drove away from Austin on August 13th, I did while saying out loud, almost in defense of myself, “I have to do this!”
The oppressive, 104 degree heat from that last day had not only worn me down, but left me with a dusty smell and a shirt that stuck to my back, while sweaty running shorts continued to crawl up my crotch. I’d spent the last four hours in Austin shuffling small possessions back and forth between the Hook House and the storage unit while I battled a stuffed up swimmer’s ear that still has not completely gone away. I was starting to feel not as though I’d never get out of Austin, but that I’d never escape the hell of south Austin. It was 10:30 at night when a drug-free Gatita and I hit the road. Since I was determined to leave regardless of the late hour, my sister-in-law, Mary Joy, suggested I stop in Waco, so I’d at least be out of Austin but halfway to Dallas.
I took her advice which was easy to do because my eyelids drooped as soon as I left the city. Since I hadn’t researched venues that accepted pets, I checked into a Motel 6 knowing the price was in my budget. I assumed a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and requested a room on the bottom floor to easily transport the cat to and from the Jeep. Aside from crying for the first 30-minutes of our trip, Gatita was exceptionally calm at least until we realized that there must have been hookers in the room next to ours. Doors opened and closed all night long, but oddly this motivated me to be freshly showered and on the road by 6:30 am, making for a cool, early morning drive into Little Rock. The tunnel of green trees lining the highways in Arkansas was a welcomed sight from the browning, burnt foliage in Texas. When we crossed state lines, I whispered, “Good-bye for now,” in anticipation of everything good, especially my first visit with an old friend and colleague from the mid 1990s.
After two nights in Little Rock, I drove east toward Nashville and met up with the daughters of one of my best friends. My plan was to stay only one night, but I hadn’t booked a long-term stay in Kitty Hawk yet. Even though I’d already called three realty agencies representing a good portion of the 200-mile stretch of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks, and even though I scoured Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO sites while sitting inside a well decorated, cat-friendly La Quinta (way outside our budget), and even though I spoke with private owners who indicated “pet friendly” on their websites only to openly practice feline discrimination, my options for finding long-term accommodations that would accept a cat were dwindling fast.
There was one more hour before I had to decide whether to re-map a route from Tennessee up to Michigan by way of North I-75, instead of remaining on East I-40 straight into North Carolina. Although Kitty Hawk was my preferred destination, I’d spent so much time on the internet and the phone that I would have agreed to any place that allowed Gatita. Otherwise, I was going to have to alter my entire 12-month driving route.
~ ~ ~
Sea Kove in Kitty Hawk
When the cat and I arrived Kitty Hawk, our heads hummed from the accumulated 1,720 miles I’d driven. Although she has been an ideal travel companion, her map reading skills are nada, and my brusque, unfolding of paper maps seemed to freak her out at inopportune times.
But I want to write, here and now, that I am forever grateful to the travel and cat gods for the presence of Gatita. I absolutely love having her with me and only slightly more than I love, Love, LOVE living in Kitty Hawk.
Three days before, on the 16th, I’d spoken with Bill, whose kind, southern accent I knew would lead to an elderly gentleman. He runs a series of rustic cottages called Sea Kove with his artist wife, Cari. He promised to call me back even though his website clearly states: We are unable to allow any pets. I explained my sabbatical and how I was looking for a place to write for six weeks, and would he consider allowing me and my cat to rent one of his inns? I probably said I was quiet, that Gatita wouldn’t be any problem; I may have even offered to breathe less oxygen. I’ll have to ask him why he altered his long-standing pet policy since I hadn’t dropped the widow card, nor blurted out how this was messing up my plans to create a whole new life.
Bill said that my “kitty cat” was welcomed and that although he didn’t have the same cottage for the full six weeks, he would make sure I had a place at Sea Kove for my entire stay. The next day, Gatita and I left Tennessee, making an overnight stop in the rural town of Hickory, North Carolina. This halfway point from Nashville to Kitty Hawk allowed me to have dinner with a friend, my first tenant that leased out my home in north Austin during the Mexico sabbatical in 2004; forever spoiling me to expect perfection from future tenants.
And all the foot dragging I did before getting here? It inadvertently helped me to avoid most of the summer beach pricing. In another week, I’ll be in off-season rates making this a perfect fit for a sabbatical budget.
~ ~ ~
In my room of retro wood-paneled walls and vinyl faux tile floors, there is no microwave but wi-fi and cable are free – a television treat I never allowed myself in Austin. Central air does not exist but a personal a/c wall unit above the electric stove, with burners wrapped in tin-foil, keeps my efficiency ice cold. The rock hard mattresses might squeak when I lay down but not before I say goodnight to the rhythmic sound of the ocean from my private backdoor porch. While I do this, Gatita takes her nightly dump underneath the cottage on stilts, in what has become her gigantic, sand litter box.
Yes, we are in harmony with our new home.
In the mornings as the sun beats in from the southeast, I walk out the front door to sit in the long, shaded balcony that connects me with my neighbors. This is where I sipped my coffee that first morning as the cool northern breeze floated in, and where I met Becky, another a widow of only nine months. She lost her husband of forty-nine years, Big Dave, to congestive heart failure. I remembered what nine months felt like for me. The only reason my cottage was available to rent was because someone from Becky’s family, who’s been coming to Sea Kove for over 20 years, wasn’t able to make it this summer.
Becky was “Mom” and “Grandma” to her family, but she was a woman with a broken heart to me. Before she left three days later, we exchanged hugs and information about a book, Seven Choices, written by a Texas professor, Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld, who lost her husband after only four years of marriage. Seven Choices led me to find the strength to do this sabbatical because even in grief there are multiple junctures where we must choose: To stay stuck in the past or dare to move forward.
No widow wants to lay in misery, to remain rooted in sadness, but it’s a Sisyphus kind of existence, seeming as though no action will ever lead to a different ending. I was hardly a woman who was half a person when I met my husband. I was then as I am now — whole — but when you love someone, you meld into one another. They do not leave this earth without a part of your own spirit going with them. You don’t even have a say so, and this isn’t something that heals in a year. Harper Neeld gathered research data that indicated — on average — four, long years to move past grief when it is no longer the primary way in which you identify yourself. In the future, when you meet a widow and she is happy again, know that time does not automatically heal all wounds. That widow had to work at it. She is a warrior! We are all warriors — my widowed friends and me — because we dare every.single.day to make choices that test our emotional boundaries, hoping that these actions will carve a path to a future full of joy again.
~ ~ ~
Had I remained in Austin one more night, I would have insisted on staying in my emptied house, pulling Hook’s thermal sleeping bag from the Jeep, unrolling it upstairs on the shampooed carpets then wetting my pillow with tears until I fell asleep. Instead, I only wept as I drove away. I apologized to Allan for not being one of those widows satisfied with starting over where things ended. Or, maybe there was guilt wrapped up in the fact that if it weren’t for his death, I wouldn’t be taking this sabbatical at all.
In the past when I’ve needed a re-boot, a healing of sorts, I would venture out, leaving my homeland for extended periods of time. This sabbatical is not about the travel, though; It’s about the writing. In the same way, that it was the spilled words of grief that saw me through the first year, I will write my way into this next phase of my life, doing finally what he and I have been waiting for me to do all along: Set myself free.
The book I’ve chosen as my debut will be the reality fiction story of Ava and Daniel, about love, loss, and the beautiful struggle to find joy again. It’s got Hollywood written all over it. The working title, Down Under (In The Land of Oz?), has little to do with Australia or at least I don’t think it does. I’ve already written 70,048 words because I’ve been rough drafting on and off since last November. I’ve yet to plot the timeline or even create descriptions for the characters, so I’ve weeks and weeks of background work to organize to get it to a place where I can move into a second draft.
In the meantime, I jump out of bed each morning hoping to hit the sand before 6:30 am. I give greetings of “Hello!” and “Good Morning!” to my fellow disciples of this liquid healing, sitting in meditative state, or walking with the woosh! of the waves, our only music. We are the new pilgrims of the 21st century, welcoming the sun or saying good-bye to the moon.
At night, my gluteus maximus aches from the twice daily hour of sand trudging. But even though I worry about the intense sun on my adult face, I am a child in wonderment each time I bend over and reach down to collect the black and gray and beige shells littered along the shoreline. I cannot resist these treasures from the ocean any more than I can hold back the transformation in my heart that is happening.
The second anniversary of Hook’s passing is coming. Until then, Gatita and I are comfortable in our place of contemplation and with life on the Atlantic. And if I may, I’d like to dedicate this post to those Warriors of Love, whose widowed paths I’ve had the good fortune to cross, who have helped me at various steps along the way: Gail, Greta, Celia, Karron, Cindy, Tomas, Valerye, Kristen, Russell, Felicia, De, Sharon, Laura, Becky in Colorado, Becky in Maryland, Loretta in Arkansas, and the young ones – Erin and Taryn.
And to Megan Ehrisman for recommending the unbelievably, perfect Outer Banks when my original plans for San Diego fell through.