In retrospect, a hurricane-scarred sea island was the right place and a perfect metaphor for celebrating my five-year cancer survivorship milestone.
The lovely Sarah took care of all the details for our surprise getaway to Daufuskie Island, S.C., the surprise being that I didn’t know our destination until we arrived at the ferry terminal in Bluffton on Friday afternoon. A box of groceries, including breakfast staples, coffee, apples and snacks, waited for us at the departure point. There is no grocery store on Daufuskie, nor a bridge from the mainland.
The ferry ride took about an hour. Once docked, we were greeted by Freddie, a life-long island resident who drove us to our rental cottage. Freddie was among the “Daufuskie 100,” the group of people who stayed on the island despite pleas from Gov. Nikki Haley to evacuate when Hurricane Matthew hit in October 2016. While Freddie had been through hurricanes before, he said surviving Matthew scared him straight. He will absolutely evacuate next time.
We met several of the “Daufuskie 100” while we were there. Everyone of them with an interesting story to tell about their experience surviving the hurricane, and about their lives. I wanted to be friends with them all.
Matthew’s wrath was evident on the short drive from the port to our rental cabin. Downed trees could be seen on both sides of the road. Some appeared pulled from the earth, others like they had been snapped in half. More than 2,000 of the island’s trees were downed by the hurricane, which made landfall as a Category 1 storm south of Myrtle Beach on October 8 after scouring the coast. There were no casualties on Daufuskie, save for a number of boats and piers, a few homes and the trees.
FEMA crews are still at work, removing debris and rebuilding some road beds. But the island teems with life. Signs warning of alligators mark every pond. We saw a large one sunning on the edge of a pond, and a couple of babies floating in another. Pelicans, egrets, woodpeckers and other bird species can be seen and heard everywhere. Live oaks, palmettos and pine trees cover Daufuskie in a lush green.
Commerce continues, and we certainly did our part to support the island economy. Our meals at Old Daufuskie Crab Company, the Eagle’s Nest and Lucy Bell’s were amazing. We took a great tour and met the owner of Daufuskie Island Rum Company. We bought two bottles: vanilla rum for Sarah and Gold Edition for me. The Gold Edition is a sipping rum aged for six months in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels. Owner Tom Chase had me at “aged in bourbon barrels.”
We trod in the footsteps of Pat Conroy, whose book The Water is Wide, is based on his experience teaching African-American children at the two-room Mary Fields School. Today, two artists operate Daufuskie Blues, an indigo studio, out of one of the classrooms. Other historical highlights included our visit to the First Union African Baptist Church and the Bloody Point Range Lighthouse.
From the back porch of our rental cottage on Avenue of Oaks, we could see across the inlet to Hilton Head. Unlike South Carolina’s tourist mecca, Daufuskie is tranquil. The sound of waves lapping the shore is broken only by bird calls and the hum of golf carts, the main means of conveyance on the island.
Sarah and I enjoyed late breakfasts on that porch. We spent a languid Sunday afternoon there, she reading Conroy while I wrote away on my laptop. On Monday night I fell asleep while we snuggled under a blanket listening to the waves, my heart at peace after five long years. In quietness and peace is how we spent much of the weekend.
I rarely went off by myself, but the couple of times it happened my goal was to procure food because we didn’t want to go “out” for dinner. I visited Old Daufuskie Crab Company, which has a tiki bar in the center of its property and serves incredible seafood. They also sell an adult concoction called the Scrap Iron, a potent blend of iced tea, lemonade, vodka and grain alcohol. The drink gets its name from historical lore about moonshiners from the island covering their product barrels with scrap iron to hide them from authorities. I don’t know about all that, but it sure is easy drinking.
While waiting for food, Scrap Iron in hand, Mike the bartender and I got to talking. Our conversation comes around the to the reason for our trip. When I tell him we are celebrating five years post diagnosis, he grabs the tequila bottle, calls over another bartender and offers me a shot. His dad lost his battle to lung cancer 10 years ago, so he understood the importance of being five years out.
It was a small moment, but incredibly meaningful to me that someone I had just met would find cause to celebrate. Daufuskie Island was like that all weekend: Quiet times and small moments packed with meaning. The island may be scarred, but it is vibrant and alive. Just like me.
We can’t wait to go back.