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Why I Refuse to Scuba Dive
on trying to keep my head above water
This short memoir is a contribution to the Soaring Twenties Social Club Symposium, a monthly set-theme collaboration between STSC writers. The topic for this upcoming issue is the beach.
Apologies for the late send this week—this was a difficult piece to write. The events in it are all true, but some have been condensed to better serve the narrative arc.
A scuba diver must be two things above all else: calm in the face of disaster and willing to be alone with her thoughts in the open ocean. On the day of my first diving trip—to an easy, shallow reef in the warm waters of the Red Sea, just off the coast of Hurghada—I was neither. I was stupid to attempt it.
I had just spent months watching as a vicious tumor ravaged my father’s brilliant, beautiful brain and slowly shut his body down. I was trying to forget what I had seen and heard. There was the gurgle of mucus that filled his mouth and throat as he gasped for his last breaths, a sound like coffee percolating that had nearly driven me to insanity. There were the countless days of nursing him in a squalid hospital bed in our living room, of calling the fire department to pick him up when he fell, of wiping piss and shit off the floor, of using every ounce of strength I had to hide my agony. Then I finally fed him drops of blue morphine from a syringe until he died. I watched his eyes close and his limbs stiffen and I kissed his cold forehead and looked on as strangers zipped him into a body bag and rolled him out of my childhood home on a gurney, leaving me behind to stare at the fallen hairs on his pillow and wonder absurdly if I should save them, because they were all that was left. I had never felt more mortal, more fragile, more lost.
I was not ready to sink into the sea, where sunlight dissipates into a terrifying, limitless blue unknown. But my father had been fearless, and I wanted so badly to remind myself that I would always be my father’s daughter, even in his absence. So I swallowed my dread and sank 13 meters into the sea, unhinging my jaw as I descended to keep the water pressure from popping my ear drums.
In the underwater quiet, I heard a rasp from my oxygen tank each time I drew breath. A mild panic gripped me. It was a familiar noise, like percolating coffee—the sound of a death rattle.
I had to make it stop. Perhaps my regulator was faulty, I thought, so I spat it out, grabbed my backup, and inhaled deeply, expecting a gust of stale, compressed air. Instead, sea water flooded my throat. Adrenaline rushed into my chest with painful force. In my distress, I had forgotten to purge the backup regulator of water before breathing. The image of my father’s slack-jawed, lightless face flooded my mind, and I was certain I would drown.
I was flailing and thrashing and trying futilely to scream when, in a stroke of luck, the dive guide turned around and saw me. He stuck my main regulator back in my mouth, locked his eyes on mine, and waited until my panicked breathing slowed.
Then we swam on. I set my eyes on the reef, and tried to replace the image of the corpse that was my father—the man who had mowed the lawn with me in a baby carrier on his back, who revved his ’69 Mustang as we cruised the neighborhood and laughed when it set off car alarms, who looked at me like I was the most dazzling, perfect thing he had ever seen—with images of bright orange corals and iridescent fish.
After the disaster in Hurghada, I was determined to redeem myself. I wanted to be brave, and I thought perhaps if I could complete a dive without conjuring up the stony form of my father’s dead body, I could leave my anguish behind. I got my chance two months later, in the Maldives’ Baa Atoll.
I’d traveled there with my husband ostensibly to swim with manta rays and whale sharks. In truth, I was there to put as much space as possible between myself and the room where one of my favorite people on this earth left it. Our resort was perfect for that—a glorified sandbar in the Laccadive Sea, it was so remote that my iPhone geolocated it simply as “Indian Ocean.” I was precisely nowhere. For nearly a week, I luxuriated in plush lounge chairs set on white sand, sipped cucumber water, and ignored reality altogether.
But then it came time to plan our scuba excursion. We made our way to the resort’s dive center, a bungalow on stilts over bright turquoise water. I tried to hide my nervous fidgeting as we spoke to the staff—Martina, a petite Swiss, and Thiago, a lanky, ambiguous European—about depths, tides, and wind speeds. I felt compelled to tell them what a hysterical mess I’d been in Hurghada, so they’d understand I needed to be watched closely. On the other hand, if I divulged that the sound of my breathing underwater gave me visions of cadavers, I would appear mentally unstable. I settled on telling them what had happened, but not why.
“I swallowed a mouthful of saltwater, felt like I was drowning, and panicked. Rookie mistake,” I said. Then I quickly added, “but our guide calmed me down and I finished the dive.”
Martina looked at me sympathetically and said, “I find it’s always best to get back in the water after something like that.”
As soon as she said it, I realized part of me had wanted her to declare I shouldn’t dive again. I was no longer sure I had any desire to get back in the water, where death and calamity and heartbreak lurked. I was searching for an out—a way to back down without looking like a coward—but Martina hadn’t offered one. Thiago wouldn’t, either.
“You have to try again, or you’ll never get over what happened in Hurghada,” he said. So I agreed to dive in three days’ time.
I was jumpy as my husband and I walked up the jetty on the day of our dive. I had tried to calm myself by meditating before we left the room, but attempting to empty my mind only brought focus to what I was trying to empty it of. I told myself all would be well if I focused on the motions of prepping my gear, but I forgot to fully attach my oxygen tank to my vest and the guide had to fix it. The neck of my wetsuit was so tight it strangled me. The lead slides on my weight belt bore into my hips.
I pulled on my flippers and waddled toward the shallows with my husband and our guide. As I descended, I bobbed awkwardly with the current, but managed to get my feet under me and planted myself on the soft sea bed in a little circle with my two companions.
I was still for a moment. The gurgling of my breath through the regulator besieged my ears, and yanked me back to the living room with my dying father’s labored gasps. I started to pant, and fought the instinct to shoot to the surface, to get as far away from that room as possible.
Then the guide pointed at me. He was signaling me to demonstrate that I could clear my mask—a basic safety skill—by letting water flow into it, then expelling the water with a sharp exhale through the nose. I knew I was too shaky to effectively waterboard myself, but I was already suited up and in the water, and I couldn’t refuse to do it without giving a reason. So I peeled my mask’s airtight seal from my forehead.
Saltwater covered my eyes and nose, making me forget that I had a full oxygen tank. I froze in terror. As I held my breath and tried not to drown myself, the sound of the death rattle dissipated, just as it had the moment my father stopping breathing. Then I was standing over him, once again witnessing the light leave his eyes and his jaw slacken, and wailing at the grotesque object that just seconds prior had been someone I loved.
I was desperate for clean, breathable atmosphere. I kicked the sand sharply and shot upward, ripping off my mask as I gulped at the sky.
“I’m not going to go,” I announced flatly to my husband and the guide, who had followed me to the surface. Diving was suffocating me, engulfing me in my own despair, and I was sick of pretending otherwise. “You two should still go out, but I’m not coming.”
I fought through the waves to the wooden staircase that led back to the dive center, stumbling as I tore off my flippers. I peeled off my wet suit and dumped it in a tub, pulled my sundress over my sopping bathing suit, and wiped the tears from my chin.
Yet as I sped back to the safety of our room, I felt lighter than I had all week. Diving was over for me. I was resolved never to subject myself to its horrors again.
We spent the next morning lounging on the beach, where I had nothing to do but think of my failed dive. I felt a twinge of shame at having given up, but took solace in the fact that I had finally accepted the limitations of my grief. I doubted I would ever be at peace with how my father died—he was young and he suffered terribly—but diving would not change that, and it made little sense to descend into the depths, immersing myself in moments I wished to forget. My father’s death had been a brief flash of ugliness in an otherwise full and gorgeous life; by staying on dry land, I could choose to bring better memories of him to the surface.
As I worked to untangle this mess of thoughts, I wondered at the island around me. It was resplendent in the glittering sunshine, perfectly quiet but for the rustle of a mild breeze. This would have been my father’s favorite sort of place. Then I noticed the sea planes taking off and landing on the horizon. I watched each one intently—he would have loved the sea planes.
I imagined my father seated beside me, cheerful and vivacious. He would be telling me more than I ever cared to know about the sea planes’ engines, about how the twin floats achieved enough buoyancy to keep the fuselage above water, about how the body of the aircraft minimized friction to aid takeoff. He would tell me he was finally going to get his pilot’s license. He would say something about how decadent this was, how it couldn’t get any better than this.
Now, when I think of the Maldives, I don’t think of diving or death rattles, or the human husk from which the soul I love was shucked. Instead, I think of the sea planes, and I pretend my father was there, watching them with me.
Thank you to Elizabeth Grimm for commenting on an early version of this piece, and to my husband, Nick, for reading it about twenty times. You can read more about our trip to the Maldives here.