I had watched the battle. While she still had the sparkle fight in her eyes, that lust for life that defined who she was, I could see that the disease would ultimately win. We actually both knew it, but did not discuss the grim matter. Her deep look back to me told all. That was the last time we met. And the cancer did eventually conquer. Last spring, Marlis died.
I had met Marlis when I first moved to the island. After all, her sail repair shop was right across the street from where I live. The shop was in a vibrant pink Antillean house with blue shuttered windows and squared-off parapets. This was also her home where she lived with cats, dogs, parrots and a monkey. Marlis loved all animals and the store served as an unofficial M*A*S*H unit for injured flamingos that people brought to her for cure.
Marlis was also a sailor who never left. She was one of the people who initially inspired me to start writing the local newspaper series, The Sailors Who Never Left. Unfortunately for many readers and me, I procrastinated starting the series and by the time I did begin to write, Marlis was too weak from the cancer and chemo to be interviewed. She was in a fight for her life. I do know that she arrived on island from Germany by sailboat some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and then made Bonaire her home.
In the time before her sickness, I would occasionally wander across Boulevard Gobernador Debrot just to shoot the breeze with Marlis. She always had a big smile and a grand, husky laugh nurtured by cigarettes and late-night libations. She liked to party, to dance, to engage people. At times, Marlis dabbled in the outrageous. I heard that while visiting a politically unstable banana republic a few years back, she yelled out ¡Viva la revolución! during a pause in a speech given by the local, two-bit dictator. She, of course, was never arrested much to the surprise of the surrounding crowd. Marlis was simply intolerant of injustice, but she always helped the needy whether they be human or another type of animal.
Her sail repair shop was more than just a place to mend an old jib. She sold beautifully reverse appliquéd molas from Panama, offered dive bags that she crafted from recycled sail material (I still use mine), and was a vendor of stunning South American folk art and clothing. This commercial endeavor required Marlis to visit various countries on frequent buying trips. It also fed her insatiable passion for travel. On repeated journeys to Colombia, Marlis befriended a family there, and upon her death, willed funds to cover the educational costs of the family’s children. She had no children of her own. Well, perhaps she actually did.
Another stipulation in her will was that after she died, a festive birthday party was to be held in her honor. This was no memoriam. Rather, Marlis paid for all the expenses—copious amounts of beer and wine plus a delicious dinner catered by Restaurant Bravo right on the beach. She gave instructions that the event be held at Red Slave at sunset, a gorgeous site on the south of the island where Marlis had spent countless hours photographing her favorite bird, the Greater Flamingo. But that was not all. Set on a pickup tailgate were piles of molas and boxes of her photographic prints. About forty of us had gathered for the party, and each person was asked to choose a mola and several photos as gifts from Marlis. The photos you see on this page are my special gifts from her.
As the sun began to set, the crowd gathered on the beach. Marlis’s ashes were gently spread upon the waves. Guests tossed island flowers into the sea in a farewell tribute. Someone in the group played a guitar. Tide and wind slowly escorted the flowers away from shore. We all stared at the water, watching the day end. About the time the gold ball of a sun kissed the horizon, a line of a ten flamingos flew in front of us, just yards above the sea. Thank you, Marlis. This was one hell of a last tango. I will miss you.