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You Still Have to Go Under

In October 2012, six months before we would decide to place our daughter in a therapeutic boarding school, my husband and I took both kids to Oman. Make sure you go diving, my sister had urged; the dive sites in Oman are world-class.

My fear of the ocean, I’d told her, is world-class.

It wasn’t our first conversation about it.  My husband is certified, and while our children have not learned to dive, they are practically fish.  They’ve been swimming regularly since way before us, back in foster care. My sister, a fellow artist who well knows my love of colour and form and quiet beauty, insists that if I could just learn to be okay with breathing from a tube and having 40 lbs of aluminum and nitrous-oxygen on my back, I’d love the world she’s discovered underwater.  Even if you don’t dive, she’d said when I tell her about Oman, you still have to go under.

I had booked an afternoon of “snorkeling and guided dolphin-watching,” to take place in a big, gently sculpted bay south of Muscat.  I pictured myself snapping shots from the boat.  I’d capture dolphins leaping. A grinning, dripping husband waving at the camera. Happy kids, discovering this underwater world for themselves.  Sure, they would laugh at me, try to coax me in.  I’d just smile and take more photos.

When the afternoon came, we speed-boated out to the bay with a half dozen other tourists, most of them chatty and excited. By the time we got to the site and the driver killed the engine, I could tell my daughter—the one who’d most wanted to try snorkeling—was drawing back from the idea. Ever watchful, ever aware, she’d overhead an Australian teenager boasting to his friend about some giant jellyfish he’d narrowly escaped in Brisbane. Now we were above blue-green waters so clear that she could see, twenty metres away, the darker shadow of the reef beneath the barely rippling surface. One look at her face—and at the face of her younger brother, the eight year-old who also missed nothing and whose eyes were now trained on her face—and I could see where this was going.

But my son leaped in.  Hesitantly, a minute or two after his father. He dog-paddled for a moment, adjusting his mask and sputtering, spitting air and saliva back up through the tube. His father smiled and motioned him on, but my son turned his freckled little nut-brown face up at me. It looked tiny and uncertain down there, bobbing in the water, waiting. His sister leaned over the railing and cupped her hands around her mouth, to make sure he heard:

“There’s jellyfish in there, you know. You’re going to get stung.”

Maybe she said it out of genuine sisterly concern. It’s possible. More likely, jealousy of her brother’s bravery had gotten the best of her. Or maybe jealousy of the way he looked up at me, instead of her, the sister who protected him when there was no one else around to do it. Maybe she couldn’t stand the way his face was so open, his eyes locked on mine. Ready to trust whatever my eyes would tell him, right then, to believe about himself.

Five years home with us, and she still fought that kind of trust, fought it almost tooth-and-nail. Saw it, craved it, loathed it, feared it.

I stepped between her and the railing, shot her a don’t-you-dare look before turning back to him. “You’re fine, honey, you’re good. Look below you! Super cool, right? Your Dad’s waiting over there for you.”

“Can you come in? Please?” he said, paddling back toward the boat even as he said it, careful not to look down at the potentially jellyfish-infested waters. “Please, Mommy?”

“Your sister’s coming, bud. She’s right behind you.” I kept my voice bright, then whirled on her. “You… are… going… IN!” I practically hissed each word, trying to keep my voice low.  “You begged for this!”

She leaped.  Skinny arms and legs flailing, the orange life jacket almost as big as her.

She screamed the minute she hit the water, this mermaid of a girl.  She screeched and cried and smacked at the water as if Jaws had her by the ankle.

Her brother stared at her, on the edge of panic.

Everyone still on the boat leaned over the railing and gaped down at her, and then at me, and then back at her. As if I’d thrown her over, like so much bait. I tossed a desperate look at the boat’s driver, who’d seen it all and rolled his eyes sympathetically. “She can stay with me,” he sighed. “You go on.”

I’d taken one of the masks and mouthtube thingies they were handing out to everyone before we set out. I’d listened the safety lecture with mock attention, never planning on using the info.

Now I gritted my teeth and willed my heart to stop racing.  Forced my expression to stay neutral.  I looked over at my daughter, happy as a clam in the captain’s seat of the boat, the driver pointing out the different controls.

I untied my gauzy swimsuit cover-up, pushed the mask into my cheekbones for maximum suction, and gingerly lowered myself down the little silver ladder.  I’m sure I looked like a prissy princess, but my teeth were clamped down on the mouthpiece as if my jaw had been wired shut. The moment I let go of the ladder and pushed off toward my son on my back, the mask fogged with condensation and fear.

It’s not water I’m afraid of. Water is lovely, cool-green buoyancy, all curvy smoothness and soft, reassuring resistance. I like the water. It’s not about drowning, or even about what lies beneath the surface, per se. It’s about the sheer power of the ocean.  Its seeming heedlessness of human life, of any life other than its own.

The ocean is like the deep need of a traumatized child: bottomless and unanswerable.  Capable of swallowing you up whole, not one bone of you left behind, erasing all evidence that you ever existed. The ocean feels, to me, like something hungy and relentless; both ravenous and with the power to do something about it. Terrifying.

But there he was: my son, now bobbing next to me in the water. His body compact and muscled, a sturdy little block of hope. I forced the panic down, choking salt back up the tube and hacking like an old smoker. He reached for my hand.

I can still feel our fingers laced together, still see him there, on my right, out of the corner of my eye.

We are halves of one whole for the next hour, sluicing along together just beneath the surface, like the two long, parallel feet of a seaplane. It’s so quiet and clear; the green-blue sunlight is strong enough to coax a dull glow from the pale sand six or seven feet under us.   We ripple along like a two-bodied manta ray for a long time.  I remember him pointing out the schools of Nemos and Dory-fish darting in and out of the coral.

I remember our momentary shock—fingers squeezing, slowly relaxing—to see an eel the length of my son’s body snake along the sea bed right below us. He motored ahead, too focused to even acknowledge our presence. As if we’d merely taken up one of the vertically stacked lane of his own personal highway, and were traveling too slowly for his liking.

I remember our shared look and murmur of surprise and delight when a sea turtle rowed his slow way across our path. The geometric patterns on his shell striking me as something solid and ageless: the hieroglyphics of God. His etched signature on a cave well, one that will live and breathe and move through dark waters for a hundred years.  Nothing is so deep or wide or dark that I am not there.

I remember a moment of hoping this was the kind of memory my son would pluck up out of his childhood and carry forward. Knowing some day I would tell him—tell them both—how terrified this mother had been the whole time.