Since I was a little girl, Sanibel Island was my sacred place. It held a bit of magic, with its innumerable shells and uncommon wildlife and watercolor sunsets. As I grew older, it was the place I connected most with family, where our “real” lives paused long enough to rest and enjoy creation and each other’s company. It was tropical and wild and unspeakably beautiful. It was the place I felt most at peace.
About a month ago, Hurricane Ian tore across the island. The storm surge reached up to ten feet, sweeping away homes and businesses and all their contents, scattering them across the island and out to sea. It left behind a trail of devastation the likes of which I’ve seen on the news a million times but never experienced personally. Until now.
The pictures are surreal. There’s something about seeing your favorite grocery store, restaurant, bookstore, and home demolished that is irreparably unsettling. The island I’ve always loved has been turned into unrecognizable wreckage, and the aftermath is apocalyptic.
I realize I am incredibly blessed to even be writing this. I wasn’t on the island during the storm, and this isn’t my actual home that was destroyed. But it is home to decades of memories for my family, home to the realization of dreams and sweet conversations and our favorite snowy plover birds—and I deeply feel the pain of this loss. This grief is mine to own and honor and feel.
I never took the island for granted, even when I was younger. Every time I looked out our window to the ocean or watched a pelican dive for a fish or fell asleep to the sound of the waves, it felt surreal. That I would get to spend time in such a magical place and feel it restore my soul was beyond me. I became a bird-watcher, studied the different shells, swam in the ocean and walked along the shore until my feet hurt. I woke up at sunrise to bike in the nature preserve and feel the warm breeze in my hair and look for alligators and osprey.
In the wake of the hurricane, there has been so much to mourn. But what I’ll be missing the most is a place to rest: the place where I saw my parents, who never stop spinning their wheels for others, take a minute to just breathe and be. Where I saw my grandma relax and remember years of sweet memories on the island, where my cousin made creative and delicious dishes for the family and we all played card games crowded around the kitchen table.
My therapist told me that rest is an inside job—that we don’t need Sanibel in order to experience rest or have these cherished moments. I found this revelation wildly inconvenient as someone who tends to run away when life is overwhelming or sad or difficult. I would love to believe travel will solve all my problems, but I know she’s right. We need to find internal moments of Sanibel rest until we can one day return to the island.
Our carpet and furniture and walls are all moldy and gone, but the building remains. The palm and mangrove trees were stripped of their leaves, and much of the vegetation on the island has turned brown. A layer of salty murk coats the island and piles of rubble line the roads we blissfully biked down just a few months ago. But there are little bits of green appearing in the trees, the birds are returning and the bobcats are freely roaming the island. Sanibel will grow back from this trauma, but it will be different. Stronger and wilder. I look forward to the day we experience its beauty again.
Olivia graduated from Calvin in May 2018 with a double major in business and writing. She now works as an editor in Nashville, Tennessee and is eating her way through the restaurants of her new town. She enjoys weekend trips with friends, petting other people’s dogs, and drinking coffee like a Gilmore Girl.
Thank you for sharing your heartfelt reflection of beautiful Sanibel!
🙂 We will return!
WOW! Olivia, you have put into beautiful word pictures my emotions and thoughts. Thank you so much for the outstanding editorial!
Sanibel has been my homestead for over 25 years and I am still grieving
my loss and that of my many friends
who have lost a major part of their lives.
The good Lord gives and He takes away and , as the Bible says, He “makes all things new”. (Rev 21:5 & Is 43: 19)
I believe He will help us make a “new”
Sanibel more beautiful than before.
Thank you for reading! 🙂 I am sorry for your loss as well, and I absolutely agree. Can’t wait to see the “new” Sanibel.