It’s the paradox of Harbor Days: the same exact thing every year, which is just the way we like it.
I know where that aluminum can airplane artist will be, at the far end on the harbor side of Shipyard Park, and right opposite that will be the stuffed animal marionettes. In the corner by the ice cream stand will be the plant sale, and up front by Water Street will be the clinking wind chimes made of glass bottles opposite the nautical rope doormats.
Everything this year would be in its place as usual as I walk by, browsing at wares I never ever buy but admire and frame in my camera lens as I look for a brand new angle on the annual event I’ve now covered five times for The Wanderer.
The scent of the sea, the sunglasses reflecting a mountain range of tent tops all around, the Showstoppers in front of the gazebo performing a pop tune that usually annoys me on the radio but somehow delights me when a child sings it; this is the sensory swirl inside the brief moments when Harbor Days is among us. Everything will be there as it should be, except for one thing: Veronika. This year, she would not be there.
For some years now, she was there at Harbor Days selling her handmade silk scarves, the expression of creativity she loved to do, that she used to do in the studio space I let her have in my basement for a few years. Nothing could keep her from spending hours down there, mixing paints, marbling colors, and experimenting with new techniques to make her Suminagashi scarves more unique than anyone else’s, and nothing could keep her from setting up that booth at Harbor Days to put them on display, even if just to show the world what she was capable of creating. Not even cancer would stop her from Harbor Days. Back then it didn’t, anyway.
Cancer never kept her from coming over to my house either, whether as a babysitter, keeper of cleanliness, downstairs to make scarves, or to drop off some rolls of paper towels because she went to the megastore and knew I needed some and wouldn’t have time to go buy any on deadline day for the newspaper.
Cancer didn’t keep her from coming over just to sit in my company and laugh the laugh that was exclusively her laugh, laughing along with me like that time we did four years ago, only instead of laughing I started crying – something, for whatever unhealthy reason, I would rarely do in front of another person.
But that particular way she looked at me that day as I said what I said, what I dread – my lip turned tense and my jaw clamped shut while I panicked and paused to determine if I could continue on to the next word without cracking or if I needed to shut up to keep from blubbering my face off – just looking at her face I knew there was no point in holding it in. A heavy dark cloud of emotion was about to burst, a downpour, and it was all hands on deck. I was taking on water just as she opened up her arms and took me in as if I was a tossed-about boat and she was a safe harbor.
During that moment I couldn’t remember the last time someone had held out their arms to hold me in to cry. But knowing she wouldn’t judge me, knowing that the storm would settle inside there, I let go and she held that space for me.
After that day we would hold our own ‘harbor days’ every now and then, each of us, friends – even closer, like family – there for each other to sail into when seas got rough and the sky drenched our world with rain. Like that time her employer let her go when that second battle with cancer came ‘round and she wasn’t able to perform certain functions of the job; let go right there, without notice, as if the world had no further use for her. She looked to me with an expression of pending tears and I steered her back in with one of those hugs. She would always say she needed a “Jean hug,” and the best thing about giving her a Jean hug was that I would get a Veronika hug.
I was there with her when she got the news that her battle with cancer would be ending soon and there was no ammunition left for the fight. And as she faded, I wanted to sail alongside her through the fog and stay with her as she drifted on home.
Last year was her last Harbor Days at Shipyard Park. She was so tired, so beat, so cancer-sick that she could barely lift a silk scarf and hold it steady in the breeze. She sat behind her display, a small bucket next to her in case she felt nauseated, boldly bald with a scarf around her neck, not on her head.
I remember my last ‘harbor day’ with her two days before she died. We knew it was goodbye, that she was moving aside to let us sail her vessel for her as she waited for her passage home. I asked her if she would mind if I cried one last time in her arms, and she said yes, barely able to make that sacred space with her arms, exhausted at her helm. But still, she took hold of my helm for a moment and sailed me into her and let me float there a while as I, aware it was our last harbor day, wailed and reckoned with the certain emptiness of that horizon without her.
After, we agreed on her symbol, the one she would use to send me signs that she was still ‘there,’ settling on the dragonfly.
This year there was another vendor in the spot where her scarves used to move in the wind and send swirls of silky color about her like spray from waves inside a dream. This year it was a couple doing henna tattoos, and as I watched I saw on the table the henna tattoo design book open to a page with the picture of a dragonfly, and I knew that it was Veronika telling me that she was there. Veronika was still there.
Happy Harbor Days, Veronika Ross. 6/6/1965 – 9/16/2017
This Imperfect Life
By Jean Perry