Visitor turns loss into love for Cayman

Life has a way, from time to time, of destroying our comfort zones and upending our plans.

On 16 May 2018, Roger Read, 66, received one of those painful reminders. After more than a decade frequenting Cayman’s warm waters with his wife, Philippa Thomas, a snorkelling trip turned to tragedy.

At 61, Thomas had never had problems in the water before. The couple had received their Open Water PADI certification with Don Foster’s Dive around 2007 and became regulars at Cayman’s popular dive spots.

The sunshine and warm waters offered an escape from life in East Sussex, England, and after Read’s early retirement, the couple of 28 years were able to spend more time travelling together.

While Thomas appeared to be in good health, she suffered from an undetected heart condition that would prove fatal. Thomas had snorkelled on the surface above the Kittiwake that day, and after she exited the water, she began feeling symptoms of fatigue and experienced trouble breathing.

On the ride home, Thomas succumbed to long-standing, chronic heart disease.

“She died in my arms before the paramedics got there,” Read said during a memorial event Friday evening.

Rather than abandon Cayman, Read has instead decided to channel his energy into benefitting Cayman’s local businesses, from cafes to dive shops.

“It’s learning to adjust to all of that unfairness that happens to all of us sometimes in life,” he said.

On Friday evening, he hosted a night of poetry, dancing and art in downtown George Town.

The idea brought together several of the things Read and his wife loved, including poetry and music. As a member of literary group Floetry, Read invited local poets to share their work at one of downtown’s newest establishments, Carib Café. The café’s founder, Kirk Rowe, also participated, putting on a dance performance on the outdoor stage.

Philippa Thomas and Roger Read

“To have live performance poetry, to have dance here, it brings the whole Caribbean effect to life very much so. That’s what it’s all about: it’s about people coming together, sharing poetry, loves and losses of life, also dance and movement – and hopefully having a good time at the same time,” Read said.

The night of performance art was a testament to Thomas’s “rock and roll” life, as Read described it. In the 1970s, she worked at one of Britain’s most iconic independent record labels, Stiff Records, home to punk legends such as the Damned, the Pogues and the Voidoids. Her brother, Pete Thomas, played drums for the label’s act Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

She had a lifelong love of music, books and travel.

“We were quite happy,” Read said. “We wanted to spend another 28 years together.”

Philippa Thomas sits on the boat during her snorkelling trip in Cayman on the day she died.

The coroner’s inquest into her death, on 13 May, came back with a unanimous verdict, that Thomas died of natural causes, due to heart disease. While Read suspects the strain of snorkelling may have provoked her condition, he cannot be sure.

Now, Read is putting his full energy into creating poetry and art, and has even returned to the water.

Despite the tragedy he suffered, he has also taken on coral restoration work with Cayman Eco Divers. Owner Aaron Hunt said Read is one of the few visitors who has completed his coral conservation programme, and since he has been dedicated to visiting coral nursery sites.

The ability to be out in the water is one of the things that Read says has given him a new purpose.

“I signed up about three weeks ago to get certified with Aaron in order to do the reef regeneration work,” he said.

“It is all done by like-minded, certified volunteer divers,” he said. “[I’m] keen to preserve the reefs in a healthy condition for the future well-being of the marine life, tourism and the island’s future.”

From diving to art, it’s all about learning to reconnect with and enjoy life, Read says.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot about myself. I try to live every day for the now moment.”

Roger Read recites a poem at Caribe Cafe during a memorial for his wife, Philippa Thomas. – Photo: Alvaro Serey