Dust and heat hissed off Lanai’s north-facing cliffs, tumbling into the sea below, wind pushed white caps against the normally calm surface. You and I sailed from Maui, just for the afternoon, and although the conditions were poor, you convinced me the least we could do was to get in. Just for a quick dive.
I scuttled to the bow to release the anchor, and tossed it into the turquoise sand. We were here again at Shark Fin Rock. We’d come, as we often did, to visit our father’s grave. He had no remains, no actual burial plot, only a thick marble slate with Gary Shipp engraved on it. We had no flowers, no offerings for him, only rags with which to wipe the algae from his headstone.
You jumped in first: tossing all your gear ahead of you and somersaulting from the bow. I lingered for a moment longer on the sun-soaked deck, breathing in the lightly salted air, then meandered towards to edge. I sat down, pulled on my mask, slid on one fin, then the next, and hopped in after you. When the bubbles cleared and I could see underwater, I saw you at the bottom, looking up at me. I floated, limbs extended, looking like a starfish at the surface, illuminated by the dulled sun. I gasped one breath, then two, and dove down.
“My brother has gills,” I used to brag. When we were still children, when we still shared a bathtub, you frighten me with your breath holding. You’d designate me as lifeguard and timekeeper. I’d comply, but when one, then two minutes would pass and your face was still submerged, and I’d panic. “Hey, okay! Time’s up.” You’d roll over, frustrated with my interference, but never upset. “Okay,” you’d say, “start the timer again then.” And you’d roll over; face down in the bathwater.
There is only 30 feet between the surface and our father’s headstone. It took me four, five, six confident kicks to get there. At the bottom, I paused. I knew I had a full minute, at least, before that crippling panic would come and compress my body.
You were still down there, a minute, two minutes later, on the same breath you’d jumped in with. One hand buried in the sand, balancing your body, the other hand busy brushing layers of green slime from the marble slate. You didn’t look up when I arrived. You were concentrated on the task. Your mask was one of those fancy anti-glare ones, so I couldn’t see your eyes to see what they might tell me.
I joined you, busying myself with polishing the stone, erasing months of algae.
We were silent, as we would be if our father’s headstone were planted in the ground in an organized cemetery, one in a row of dozens, hundreds, thousands just like it. There, we’d be silenced by the obligation to respect the graveyard. Here, we were silenced by the weight of the water. I released a small ‘hum’ as a sound check. It was clouded, but audible. Your face flicked up in response; lips taught, nose motionless, blonde beard floating. You didn’t smile, and I couldn’t see behind your mask to what your eyes might tell me.
Everything weightless; everything deadweight.
I’ve come along with you when you’ve gone for proper free dives; seventy, eighty, ninety feet down. Here, your task is not grave cleaning, but fishing. You are the hunter, spear gun in hand, eyes wide and searching for that next big fish.
One day like this, some summer day when I was lucky enough to get to tag along all day with you, we took your jet ski three hours up along the raw north shore: nothing but lava fields covered in dense jungle green, waves continuously slaying the shore from the open ocean. And you and I, on a tiny jet ski, bobbing.
You know this landscape. You’ve memorized how every rock meets the sea, how the structures on the surface manipulate the seascape below. You know where it’s shallow enough to anchor the ski, where it’s protected enough to leave it alone. You know where the deepest holes are in the reef, the places where the biggest fish linger; the places where you drop down on them. You’ve mastered silent surprise. These fish have no chance with you as the hunter, spear gun in hand.
You’ve memorized the formation of tunnels and caves in the underwater lava and coral fields. You know, as intimately as a fish does, how to move underwater.
On this day, I say I’ll stay with the ski, so we don’t bother with the anchor. I slip on my mask and fins along side you anyway, so I can be ready if I’m needed. You smile, and drop down, sinking with ease as if you belong thirty, forty, fifty feet down. Sinking with a grace and confidence almost too humble to be human. This is your world, I understand that when I watch you dive.
From the surface, I’ve learned to count the minutes on my fingers. And I realize I’m still your lifeguard, still your designated timekeeper. I float like an inept lifesaver on the surface, gazing down through a hundred feet of water at the dark contour of you. I watch you slip into a cave. I float like an inert little sister at the surface. I couldn’t catch you, even if I needed to. When you come up for air, I tell you I want to keep up with you.
“Dive then,” you say, smiling in your quiet way and slip back under.
There is a point when free diving, that I have only reached with you as a guide. This is the point when I stop swimming, and start falling. I can only equate this to the feeling of flying – only more tangible, more human.
I’m only sometimes brave enough to let the negative buoyancy have me. Thirty, forty feet down, the feeling of weightlessness is intensified and I become a dust particle being pushed down in the flux of tide. This terrifies and exhilarates me: the feeling of falling, the feeling of drifting. As if humans were designed for flight after all. And if ever I get nervous, I simply look to you, soaring down next to me, and in these instances, we ourselves are sea-angels, illuminated by the dulled sun.
In six, seven, eight kicks, I could be back into positive buoyancy. In eight, nine, ten kicks I could be back at the surface again: a sea turtle arching its neck, head lolling back, snapping its beak for breath. Because I know that I can reverse the affect any moment I please, I stay down. I wait until that crippling panic grips my pinched sponge-lungs. I wait until I’m dizzy with the thought of ever returning myself to air. But I don’t belong here, not really. So, I’ll look to you, and flip my head towards the surface and point my finned feet to the ground, and I’ll ascend.
A shallow water black out is a fairly common occurrence among free divers. It is not a running out of oxygen, but a build up of carbon dioxide. Loosing consciousness is, understandably, rather lethal underwater. Especially when you’re alone. This is how our papa died, but you already know that. You’ve lived with this knowledge, as I have, your entire life.
You told me, confidentially, that you’ve blacked out twice when freediving. Once, in the safety of a swimming pool with a dive buddy, you said you just wanted to know what it felt like, to be prepared for if it happened in the ocean. Then again when you were diving a shipwreck off Maui: you were with a friend, thankfully, who from the surface saw you pause ten feet down, linger limply as if struck dead mid-dive. He towed you out and heaved you up onto the kayak.
You told me this, and said, “Never tell mom.” Were you afraid she’d never let you dive again? You told me this, and said you’ve never felt so close to our dad, even when he was alive. You did die, I suppose, for a minute, and you lived to tell me that when you died, you saw our dad, illuminated by the dulled sun, hovering like a sea-angel at your side, saying, “Go up! Get up, kiddo!” Do you push yourself like this to be nearer to him? To have another encounter with the sea-angels? To have another encounter with reverence? I understand if you do.
You told me, without words, that the ocean is where you belong; that the ocean is where you go to make sense of things. The ocean is home. I understand.
Like father, like son.
Polishing our fathers headstone, we were engrossed, and I was sure you’ve forgotten you were underwater. You are agile, serene, stilled, here. Your body extended out parallel to the sanded bottom, like you’re the strongest man alive, holding yourself like this for three, four minutes, with just one fist to balance your body. I realize it’s not an illusion of strengths as I’ve come to think you really might be that strong.
I pealed my eyes from you, and I turned my gaze upward through the 30 feet of water overhead and into the bent sunlight. Down here, we are so tiny. I often contemplate, when eyeing this mass of water weight on top of us, how it does not simply crush us. Instead, it embraces us, as if we belong here. I was ready to kick up and break through back into breathing and back to bobbing in the white caps. I was ready to pull myself back up onto the sun-heated deck and daydream idly about the world below.
But I stayed longer, cleaning every carved letter of our father’s name. I stayed until I forgot I was underwater; I stayed until I was there, just existing. I stayed until everything went weightless, until everything was deadweight. I stayed until calmness soaked into me, until my heartbeat pounded lighter, less frequently in my ears.
Then I looked to you, but I couldn’t see into your mask. Your lips were tight and tinted white, tried to smile. You signaled to me, then lifted off, kicking four, five, six times and reached the surface. I rubbed the rag once more across the headstone, and kicked up after you. At the surface, we didn’t peal back our masks. We just bobbed in the whitecaps, breathing.