I think scuba is a metaphor for life.
Also, I think scuba doesn’t really exist. Like the idea that humanity is just a simulation, so too, I feel, is scuba.
See, every lesson in scuba settles on one edict — slow, focused breathing powers your dive.
Focused breathing keeps divers neutrally buoyant — the desired position in scuba. Neutrally buoyant divers neither rise nor sink. Neutral buoyancy is part weight system, part inflatable vest, and — like the ratio of inspiration to perspiration — 99 percent breathing.
Focused breathing keeps divers from panicking if something goes wrong. And many, many things can go wrong at 20, 30, 60 feet beneath the surface.
Entanglement. Lost regulators. Masks full of water.
Empty air tanks.
Are you freaking out thinking of those things? I know. Me too. It wakes me up at night. Recovering from these hazards are skills every diver must demonstrate to be certified.
I couldn’t even do them in the pool without surfacing in a chlorinated sputter of panic.
So as I lay in my bed at night, contemplating the third and final phase of scuba certification — diving 60 feet down into a quarry, intentionally losing my regulator so I could demonstrate my proficiency in recovering it — well.
That’s what fear feels like.
It was April when I returned to our dive shop to schedule that 60-foot quarry dive.
As I waited, I eyed a poster of the quarry. It mapped the truck, helicopter, even airplane sunken in the water’s depths.
Not only would I have to intentionally lose my regulator, I’d have to do it as I drifted above a sunken airplane.
Nope, nope, nope. No way. The airplane. The lost regulator. The depth. Remember when the instructors turned off my air tank in the pool?
I couldn’t do it.
And I was right — the dive shop explained they weren’t holding open water testing this summer.
An opportunity to quit, presented for my approval.
But sometimes the thing you don’t want becomes the thing you pursue the hardest.
I found another dive shop.
I asked after the conditions of this dive shop’s open water dive, because knowledge is power.
“Or your best effort at controlling the situation,” my husband commented as I Google Earthed the river where we’d dive.
The dive shop explained the water was only twenty feet deep, my daughter and I were the only people scheduled for the dive, and nobody would turn off my air.
Still, we decided I’d do another pool session.
Which turned into two pool sessions.
I hit the dive shop for supplies — tanks and wetsuits and inflatable vests. As the dive shop staff helped load the gear into the back of my SUV, I cringed.
My husband’s outdoor gear sat in full view of the dive shop staff.
You know, some days I wish — wish hard — that outdoor gear didn’t look so much like ax murderer gear.
Surgical gloves. Duct tape. A hatchet. That — no. Why? Why do they just have to be out in the open like that?
I suggested to my husband that maybe the hatchet and gloves should get tucked away when strangers are, you know, loading scuba gear into our car.
“Hey,” he said. “Did you know over 20 alligators have been found in the wild in Pennsylvania since 2000?”
“Why would you say that to me when I’m days away from diving in a river?” I asked. At that moment, the three tabs open on my phone linked to articles about scuba diver deaths, divers currently missing in the Atlantic, and hikers perishing on a mountain eight minutes from our Scotland hotel.
“Those tabs,” my husband said, “They pretty much sum you up.”
I headed to the pool, alligators and scuba diver deaths on my mind.
The dive instructor at the pool was kind, supportive.
Probably because the dive shop staff told him I was married to a hatchet-wielding outdoorsman with a penchant for poorly timed dissemination of alligator facts.
“Listen,” I told the instructor. “We’re going to the bottom of that pool and we’re losing my regulator, like, four hundred times.”
He agreed, and we descended.
Over two days that week, I took out the regulator. Again and again. I threw it as far over my shoulder as I could, so I really had to look for it.
“You know,” my instructor said, “a true test would be taking out and recovering your regulator while your mask is off. Anyone who can do that and refrain from panicking can scuba dive safely.”
I asked that he suggest that test only after I passed my certification.
As we practiced in the pool, I invoked scuba’s core lesson. I breathed. Floating to the top? Breathe. Can’t find your regulator? Slow your exhale. Mask off? Focus on breathing from your mouth.
And I thought about life. About Willie and college-bound kids and hatchets in my car. If focused breathing makes scuba possible, if focused breathing wards off panic underwater, it probably can do the same thing when Willie, say, loses a $2,000 check.
That was when I decided that scuba maybe wasn’t real. Or all of life is scuba and life isn’t real. And that four months of sleep lost to scuba fears brings a heretofore unrecognized clarity of thinking.
The morning of our open water test began under brilliant pink clouds. I donned my gear. I slipped into the river.
I didn’t think about alligators.
And I thought that if scuba isn’t real, then losing my regulator really doesn’t affect anything. That I’m somewhere in the world, on land, breathing away just fine.
And do you know what?
I am a certified open water scuba diver.
Afterward, I hugged my daughter. Because nothing gets more real than that kid.
Except now we have to, you know, actually scuba dive.
So maybe this isn’t the conclusion after all.