After four years spent living in the glorious Caribbean, we’ve finally left. All the rum cocktails on the beach, afternoons spent swimming in the most exquisite, warm turquoise seas, and lounging by our very own pool on Sundays have come to an end.
But I’m not sad. Honestly I’m not. Because, even though it looked like the instagram account of dreams — an unbelievably perfect reality — my Barbados life presented more than it’s fair share of challenges. And I’m not talking about the ups and downs of small island life (although there were plenty of those). I’m talking about the way reality, in all of it’s stark, ugly truth, was heightened there.
Firstly, death — and its resulting grief — was a big part of my life on the island. The loss that affected me the most personally, was my brother-in-law. Having died not more than a year before we arrived, at the age of 37, leaving behind his wife and three young children, the brutal reality of his death hit my husband like a brick wall during our first year in Barbados. It was terrifying to watch.
Within a matter of months, the man I married went from being a confident, positive and attentive husband and parent, to withdrawn, angry and fatalistic. He believed, he said often, that he would never recover. That life and death had no meaning. I felt like I’d lost him. As though my energetic husband had been swapped with a pale doppelganger version of himself. One that I struggled to recognise. I realised that I was being selfish. I didn’t want him to struggle. I wanted him to accept the loss — deeply painful as it was. To move on. And mostly I wanted to make things better. But he hardly spoke about his feelings — saying, even in his darkest moments, that he was fine.
Then there was the death of a close friend’s baby — aged just five months. A deep loss that defies any sense of resolution and hung over her like a shadow when she came out to visit me a couple of years later. And, unbelievably, the sudden death of another dear friend’s husband in a fatal road accident in Barbados. An event that broke her life apart and saw her flee back to the UK with her three young children.
There were other emotions to deal with. My eldest daughter, who was eight when we moved, missed her grandparents, her cousins and her bestest friend in the world with a ferocity that I felt utterly unprepared for. And skype didn’t help — in fact, it seemed to make things worse.
I now know what does help; one-on-one phone calls, regular, consistent contact. But to be honest, my family in the UK — along with everyone else who knew me, was utterly convinced that I was having the time of my life. Attempts to describe the problems we were having were repeatedly dismissed with a ‘But you’re living in paradise! What have you got to complain about?’
So gradually we spoke less until contact was a scant once monthly phone call. I didn’t feel I had anything positive to say, so I didn’t say anything.
But life carried on. And on. And it got better. And my husband started to emerge from the pit of grief. And made jokes again. And my daughter made new friends and learned that our family and friends in the UK were still there — just like they’d always been. And still loved her. And I let go and forgave them for not understanding what had been going on. And that’s why I feel that I have to spell it out, the thing that no one ever says. That life can be really tough — particularly when it seems at its most perfect.
Now I feel really lucky because living an imperfect/perfect reality for four years has taught me the most profound life lesson I could’ve ever hoped to learn: that it’s okay for things to be crap. It’s normal. Especially when you’re in a situation that is supposed to be a #lifegoal. Whether it’s your wedding day, after you’ve just had a perfect little baby, or when you’re living the high life in the Caribbean, it’s normal for things to go a bit wrong.
Because life does get better again. Life moves along like the tides. The day reinvents itself and you, if you allow yourself, flourish. You notice the moments of beauty in between the anguish. And rather than falling into the cavern that lies between reality and the way you think things should be, you float above it all. Maybe. With hindsight. If you survive. With a glass of fizz in your hand.
Written by Yvonne Gavan. She is a freelance writer and journalist moving around the world with my family. Currently in Southern Africa.