When Edelgard Weiss was first diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer, she admits she nearly lost the will to live.
But bolstered by the loving care and support of her family and friends, as well as fond memories of cycling the back roads of Grand Cayman, lying on a hammock on Cemetery Beach and swimming with the local marine life, she is fighting back and enjoying life.
Ms Weiss, 71, returned to the Cayman Islands from her home in California this month with her daughter for the fourth time since she was diagnosed with late stage cancer in 2008. She spends her time welcoming a stream of well wishers and visitors into her rented cottage in West Bay, watching friends swim and snorkel from her back deck and visiting the Cayman Islands Hospital twice a week for dialysis.
She has been coming to Grand Cayman almost every year for 30 years and describes the island as her second home.
“I would hop on my bicycle and go everywhere, down all the quiet little streets,” she said. When staying in West Bay, she would cycle from there into George Town to go to the post office or hospital. “People would say to me ‘Miss Edelgard, you must be careful of the traffic’. Of course, the traffic has changed a lot since I first came to the island in 1982,” she said.
The sea and the people of Cayman drew her back again and again, she said.
“I was born by the seaside in Germany, where I come from originally. I first heard about Cayman in 1978 from a friend, whose great, great grandfather [James Edmund Parsons] was the last custos [governor] of the Cayman Islands. She said to me ‘You haven’t seen anything until you go to Cayman’,” said Ms Weiss, a mother of two.
Ms Weiss, along with her employer for whom she worked as a personal assistant, came to Cayman in 1982 and stayed at the Villas of the Galleon.
“That was the start of it. The plane landed. Of course, it wasn’t the big airport we have now. I looked around and said ‘this is it’. I loved it immediately. From then on, whenever I needed to get away, I would come here,” she said.
Ms Weiss became a well known sight around Grand Cayman, always on her bike or setting up her “office” – a hammock on Cemetery Beach – from which she would go swimming or teach the local children how to swim.
“I never got in a car until I got sick,” she said. “I went down every niche and to every cove. I was by myself, exploring the place, I was like Robinson Crusoe. I made so many friends,” she said.
“I met the most fantastic people. They took me in. They were so warm and gracious and always smiling that Cayman smile,” she said.
Ms Weiss, who lives in Palm Springs, California, has also been heartened by the support of a creative neighbour back home. Her local newspaper recently ran an article about the thousands of Post-It Notes her neighbour Barry Noble has left her during the past four years. Each morning, he leaves notes with cartoons, drawings, pictures and inspirational or funny words to cheer her up. He has left so many that Ms Weiss has encased them in large frames to keep them together.
“Her neighbour would read the paper every morning and would leave Post It Notes on the paper on the doorstep for my mother. It started every day with a positive note,” said Ms Weiss’ daughter Sheeryn Asghari.
The early days after her diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a cancer that starts in the plasma cells in bone marrow, were “very rough”, admitted Ms Weiss, who has undergone chemotherapy and radiation and now requires dialysis because her kidneys have failed.
Getting sick came as a shock, as she said she had never even taken an aspirin in her life before that. “I just couldn’t believe it. How can a body just fall apart like that … I couldn’t even get from my bedroom to my bathroom on my own,” she said.
“I felt like I had hit a brick wall and that there was no return. I had so many plans for when I retired. I thought I would do voluntary work. I love kids and I wanted to work with the kids of the island. I loved to talk to them and I made time to listen to them,” Ms Weiss said.
“In the beginning, when I was really sick, I wondered if I had the strength to carry me through. When I came here to Cayman after that, I thought I will look at the water and break down. Swimming was my favourite thing. I used to dive down and pick up any garbage from the coral or sea bed. People would ask me what I was doing. I’d say ‘It doesn’t belong there.’ Those types of memories were going through my head,” she said.
She said she was worried coming back to Cayman that she would be upset about not being able to get in the water or go cycling, but looking out her window at the sea just a few yards away on Monday, she said: “I thought it would be hard, to sit here and be so close to the water … I had the best time of my life out there and now it’s wonderful – I’m home.”
She says the positive attitudes of her Caymanian friends have rubbed off on her and she tries to see the bright side of life. “I close my eyes and see the people with their smiles and their generosity and their kindness to me,” she said.
Ms Weiss has rented a cottage on Boggy Sand Road about five times, having met its owner Beth Raulstone while cycling around the area. They got chatting and Ms Weiss has been a regular visitor to the cottage ever since.
An avid swimmer, Ms Weiss took part in three-mile and one-mile sea swims when she came to Cayman, winning trophies in her age group. She can no longer swim because of a port in her chest she needs for dialysis. She also no longer cycles, because the disease makes the bones brittle and she cannot risk falling.
However, she sits on her porch, watching the water and says her memories of her swims, the turtles and rays and fish she saw, as well as the coral and the sea fans, still make her smile. “It all helped me when I got sick,” she said.