Clinging to the side of the life raft, the two of us bob like a cork surrounded by the teal, Caribbean water. We are both breathing heavy as we contend with the tangles of tubes that seem attracted like magnets to our flippers. A matching grimace crossing our faces as another wave comes crashing across our little vessel, and even though we squint to protect our eyes from the salty spray, we keep our eye contact steadily fixed. It is a game of chicken that I am determined to win.
Just moments before, we had all happily suited up for our first family attempt at Snuba. Snuba is a hybrid version of water sport that requires no certification, but allows participants to dive down to a depth of 10-15 feet. Unlike its big brother Scuba, the tanks used during Snuba are housed on a raft that floats at the surface and are attached to the diver by a long tube. Because the depth is shallow and the equipment is contained, children as a young as 8 can get a taste of the freedom of underwater diving.
As certified scuba divers, the Mister and I have been excited waiting to share this passion with our children. The year before, we spent a blissful day at Chankanaab in Cozumel introducing the boys to snorkeling, a sport that the embraced like fish to water. When we learned that we would be returning to the port of Cozumel while onboard the Disney Magic, it seemed the perfect time to take their love of underwater exploration to the next level.
Everyone was excitedly twittering as we awkwardly shuffled five pairs of brightly colored flippers to the edge of the dock. My twelve year old son volunteered to be the first in the water. With a bit of fumbling he scooped his regulator into his mouth, took a giant stride towards the water, and disappeared with a splash. Five seconds passed. Rapidly, the calm surface of the water was disrupted with a frenzied splash again, this time accompanied by panicked breathing and pleas for help.
Like an animal, he clawed at the wooden dock, desperate to erase the past five seconds and get back onto solid ground. As he desperately tried to heave his weighted body back onto the dock, I was stymied as to why he had so quickly changed from gung-ho excitement to pure panic. Through labored breathes that were punctuated with the rise and fall of the waves, he explained that the miscalculated number of weights in his belt had caused him to sink too fast with his first plunge. Inability to resurface and unfamiliarity with the breathing apparatus confined him a watery world where he could not escape and could not find air.
Faced with that reality, primal panic gripped my son, forcefully usurping any reason with a commanding desire to flee. I tried to offer words of calm and encouragement, but my words were not enough. As he became wild eyed, I acted upon my primal need to protect my offspring and clumsily splashed into the water. My own gear was haphazardly hanging from my body and not yet in place, but I hoped that my presence in the water would offer a show of solidarity and support.
For another five seconds, we hung side by side on the dock as I scanned my brain for what to do. My instinct told me that if he were to get out of the water, he would remember this experience only as a failure, and maybe never want to try again. It was a critical moment that hinged on my next move. I rolled my eyes upwards, in hopes that I could actually scan my brain to find the answer in some back corridor. Deep breath.
~Dad and sons, blissfully enjoying the underwater experience~
It wasn’t as if I lacked experience dealing with fear in children. I had successfully walked through all kinds of childhood fears with my boys. We had navigated the fear of thunderstorms, fireworks, and giant costumed characters. I had already earned my honorary psychology degree dispelling unreasonable fears. But this time, it was different.
I intimately related to the fear my son was feeling, because I was feeling it too.
Without consent, my past diving experiences replay in my head. As a somewhat weak swimming claustrophobic, diving has always bordered on the frightening. Adding to that a series of unfortunate underwater experiences just reinforced the fear in my mind. The replaying memories flushed the blood from my brain. The logical next move seems to be to get us out of the water as fast as possible, simplistically releasing us both from the gripping fear.
I look back at my son, and like a scratching record, my mind immediately switches gears. Instead of diving, I am the delivery room, minutes away from becoming a mother for the first time. Throughout the entire 24 hour labor, I had been a trooper. Through the early labor, the pitocin, the epidural, I had displayed a confidence that belied my inexperience. When it came time to push, I was paralyzed. I bored my gaze into the eyes of the kindly nurse, and visually implored her to help. With quiet poise, she reminded me that the only way out of this was to literally push through it, and she gently gave me the steps that propelled me into motherhood.
~The first three breaths~
That flash of memory brought me back to my present wet and bobbing state, but now I had a plan. I locked eyes with my panicked son. “I know you are scared. This is scary. But, I am not going to let you give up until you try. I want you to put your regulator in your mouth and put your head in the water and take three breathes.”
Even though I had used my most authoritative tone, he visibly bristled. Not wanting to lose ground, I trumped my previous commands and said “The only way out of this water is to take three breaths.”
A mix of anger and determination crossed his face as he popped the regulator in his mouth, lowered his head and took the three fastest breaths ever drawn. He raised his head and locked eyes with me again with all the bravado of throwing down a gauntlet. I volleyed back quickly.
“Great! Now take 10 breaths,” I challenged.
“Seven,” he retorted.
“Fine,” I blustered back.
Seven slow breathes were drawn and then he popped his head up again. “How about ten this time,” I suggested coyly. He eyed me sideways and then quickly put the regulator in his mouth to hide the smile that was kicking at the corners of his mouth.
~The initial decent~
With ten seconds occupied, I finally got my gear fitted and situated. As I reached to secure my goggles, I realized he wasn’t resurfacing. I forcefully plunged my head into the water and scanned frantically from side to side. Before a new wave of panic set in, I saw pointing from one of the other boys who was diving several feet below. I looked in the direction of the gesture and saw my panic partner slowly and confidently descending to join his brothers and dad.
~A wave of confidence~
I completely disregarded the consequences of smiling underwater, and allowed my face to erupt into a huge smile, letting ocean water seep into the cracks around my mask. The saline liquid mixed with the already salty tears that leaped from my eyes as a companion to the wide smile.
Any residual alarm melted away into an ocean that grew increasingly deeper and bluer. Never once did he look back, though I trailed at safe distance should fear once again sneak in through the stillness. A new found freedom was his.
~The after-snuba glow~
Back on the surface, the atmosphere was once again smiles and giggles, with not a mention of the 10 minutes of torture we had spent before the dive. As my sons swapped snuba stories, I noticed that my 12 year old was standing a little taller, possessing a confidence that only comes by facing a fear. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, thankful that I had faked my way through another parenting dilemma and imparted some sort of wisdom that would propel him on the path to adulthood. That’s when I was struck by a deeper fear, one that put the fears we left in the water to shame. Every step he takes towards to adulthood takes him one step closer to the bittersweet day when he will no longer need me. When that day comes, I hope there is a step by step program to help me have the courage to let go.