Around the Island

‘We were each other’s everything’: A remembrance of D. Gordon Potts

On our first date, he took me to Home Depot. 

I’d never been to Home Depot, but I know rapture when I see it. And rapture it was. Gordon was filling his eyes with tools and buckets and motor oil as we marched toward the toilet tanks, the object of this particular exercise.

We were unloading his purchases in a pelting rain when the phone rang inside his Little Ram Island house. Gordon dropped his end of the toilet tank box on my foot and ran to answer the call. It was of course a friend offering to introduce the newly-widowed Gordon to a woman who would be “perfect” for him.

When a friend called the next day to ask me how the date had gone, I told him the above. I heard an intake of breath, then a long moment of silence as the friend centered himself in the Buddhism he had adopted. Finally he spoke: “At least he’s not flying under false colors.”

Thus began what would turn out to be more than two decades of adventure and a joyful if somewhat eccentric life together.

DGP — or “My Honey” as I came to call him – was at least as impressed that I kept a vegetable patch as he was with my professional accomplishments. I was impressed with the fact that he, unlike many men nearly 20 years my senior, had a beautiful head of white hair, plus his own heart and knees.

And I was more than impressed by his droll wit, his gentle wisdom, his gentlemanly manners and the light that came into his eyes when he spoke of his native New Zealand. I even came to appreciate the broad streak of Calvinism that seemed to emanate from his very soul.

He liked my cooking and the casual comfort of my Baldwin Road home.

Gordon was internationally renowned as a neuroradiologist; I came from the arts. Over the summer of 1995, I introduced him to the work of Calvin Trillin and Garrison Keillor.

He introduced me to Ngaio Marsh, the New Zealand mystery writer. And he thoroughly enjoyed the rapid repartee over a dinner gathering that included some colleagues from my days as a CBS 60 Minutes producer. The next morning, as I threw his bow line to my 60 Minutes mentor in Congdons Creek, Phil shouted from his deck, “You’d better keep that one.”

Gordon and I were married on March 2, 1996. A snowy day, the usual sounds of Shelter Island in winter muffled but for cardinals and chickadees alighting at my bird feeder. I dug under the fluff to gather snowdrops and make them into a boutonniere for Gordon’s lapel. In late afternoon, just as the sky cleared to a glorious sunset, we said our vows before Judge Hannabury, then celebrated with a dinner by the fire at the Ram’ s Head Inn.

Thereafter, our Shelter Island life took flight. We threw “New Zealand farm-house” dinners for the benefit of the Historical Society. Gordon spit-roasted an entire lamb, using a motor to drive the spit until about 10 minutes before the guests arrived. Then he’d hide the motor and put a handle on the spit so that all would think he’d been turning it throughout the day. Most years, many of the guests — a la Tom Sawyer — asked to take turns.

We watched young talent bloom at the Perlman Music Camp. We danced at Mashomack’s annual fundraiser. We weeded and helped distribute vegetables at the Sylvester Manor CSA. Gordon chaired the Ram Island Association through a controversy over zoning issues on the Ram Islands.

And there were his oysters. He was recruited to the SPAT program’s efforts to replenish the shellfish stocks in the Peconic estuary system and took great pride in monitoring the salinity rates of the water, the growth rates of the oysters and the survival rates of his early efforts.

Every spring, he floated a thousand baby oysters off the end of our dock. Each fall we threw an “oyster fest” for friends. Raw, roasted in the French manner, in shots of icy vodka, guests gobbled down hundreds of oysters. When the last guests left, we debriefed. “Well,” Gordon would say modestly, “I think that was a success, don’t you?”

“Success enough,” I’d answer, “that crashers showed up.”

Winters we spent in New Zealand, where Gordon owned a 100-acre tract of native bush on the North Island’s Doubtless Bay. He had had his shoulder to the wheel throughout his long, distinguished career.

Taming the place we called Fern Hill — after the Dylan Thomas poem that draws a perfect picture of him as a lad — had been the only dream he allowed himself. It was our shared hope to make that dream come true. We did.

It was isolated —  a mile up, and 1,000 feet up to the gate of our little two-room cottage. The nearest neighbors were more than a mile away through the bush. But we had a quarter of a mile of shoreline for fishing and swimming and exploring, heard kiwis in the night and saw the Milky Way through the skylight over our bed.

There is no such thing as marriage-lite in such circumstances. Gordon and I were each other’s everything. Alone together amid the tree ferns and the pohutukawa trees, our connection to each other, our trust and joy in each other, deepened and deepened. We thrived on the mutual devotion.

In early February, 2015, my beloved DGP was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. It was an unutterable irony that so brilliant a neuroscientist would be stricken with so cruel a neurological disease.

Praise heaven that we had shared so rich and gratifying a life together for so long. Those memories didn’t erase the pain but they did stand us in good stead as he was whirled further and further into the mists.

Gordon died March 6. May flights of angels sing him to his rest and may his kind, wise and gentle soul dwell in the glorious beauty of his native New Zealand forever and ever.