In February, I spent a week in the seaside village of Troncones, which you’ve never heard of unless you’re a surfer. It’s north of Xtapa, Mexico, which is on that country’s west coast at roughly the same latitude as Mexico City. The occasion was the marriage of my eldest son, Jesse, to a young woman from Edmonton named Carla Malin, who works as a brand manager for the Unilever Corporation. No, I have no clear idea what brand managers do, but I very much like my new daughter-in-law, I’m pretty sure she’s good at what she does and that nobody has died because of her brand managing.
I hadn’t spent time on the Pacific Ocean in almost 20 years, and never on the tropical Pacific. Still, Troncones felt familiar enough. That's because while Jesse and his younger brother Max were boys, I took them to B.C.’s Gulf Islands for parts of every summer to get them away from television and some of the other less-than-sanguine comforts of city living. The Pacific is much colder up there than in Troncones, and much calmer because we were on the inside passage of Georgia Straight. But the aromas of the Troncones foreshore were identical, and so was the green water, so different from the blue Atlantic. The rest, except for the warmer water temperatures, would be the same too, right?
Before I arrived, I’d acquired something I’d long wanted but was never quite able to come to terms with the luxury of: a diving mask with prescription lenses. I’m a snorkeler, you see. Not a dedicated or adventurous one, but the sort that likes to lie in the water, face down, and get friendly with very small fish. Now that I think of it, my favourite way of snorkeling had been to lie in about a foot of water and parse the brilliantly alive micro-ecology of the Gulf Islands’ sheltered sandstone bays. To be truthful, I’ve never been a particularly strong swimmer, and on this trip I was 25 pounds overweight, out of shape and in trouble with my lungs, which have not responded to the increased fresh air after 35 years of smoking cigarettes.
Jesse is a surfer, and the wedding was being held, not very surprisingly given the passion of surfers for what they enjoy, on one of the best surfing beaches in Mexico. This should have been my first tip. It didn’t penetrate because Jesse, likely out of a well-intentioned wish to get everyone to his fairly out-of-the-way wedding spot, had talked up Troncones as a place where all things were safely possible: scuba diving, snorkeling, body and serious surfing. He’s not an irresponsible person, so he did caution me that I ought to watch out for the undertow, that the surfers sometimes rescued swimmers from it, and that a half-dozen fools drown there every year. Since I’m not normally a fool, I assumed he was talking about careless surfers, who have a noticeably higher-than-normal mortality rate because of the inherent hazards of the sport.
Going snorkeling wasn’t exactly my first priority at Troncones. I postponed it without much difficulty until I’d been there five days and had exhausted every other recreation. I might have put it off altogether except that I mentioned the mask to my nephew Jason, also there for the wedding, and he said he’d like to go out with me if I decided to go.
So it was on the day of the wedding, about three hours before the ceremony began, that the two of us finally strolled out to the south edge of Troncones Manzanillo Bay, put on our flippers and masks and backed out into the surf to go snorkeling. We’d agreed on a half-assed sort of plan: swim out along the rocky edge of the surfing spot, the shallows of which were said to be heavily populated with sea urchins, animals that are covered with vaguely poisonous spines Jesse cautioned us to steer clear of. But he said it was the best spot to snorkel because other marine species were abundant there.
I probably should have concocted a contingency plan or two, but a more immediate practicality supervened: My new mask flooded the moment I submerged. I sputtered up, resettled the mask to improve the seal, and pushed out again. The seal was better but not perfect. It still leaked enough that every 20 or 30 metres I had to stop to clear it. In a surprisingly short time, we were 200 metres from the beach if not very far from the rocky surfing shoreline, in what I judged to be ten or twelve feet of unpleasantly turbid sea water. Below me—nervously hugging the bottom—I could see the colourful foreshore fauna I was there to mingle with.
These fish didn’t seem very interested in mingling, probably because they were trying to keep themselves from being bashed against the rocks by the surf or being picked off by the pelicans if they were to stray anywhere near the surface. I wanted to see these fish, as I was used to, dallying a few inches from my mask, and the only way I could do that was to dive down to their level. That’s what I did, despite the leaking mask, which still would not seal and had to be cleared and resettled each time I surfaced.
After three or four of these investigative dives, I begin to perceive, dimly, that this wasn’t at all the snorkeling I was used to, and I'd been missing it because the corrective lenses were allowing me to see so much better. Now I began to recognize that there were vigorous currents in the water, that the fish spooked easily, that the water was uniformly turbid and filled with debris, and—this was the really important datum—that I was beginning to tire.
I was, actually, doing everything I could have done to starve my body for oxygen: diving in the rough water and holding my breath too long; then having to clear my mask and snorkel when I surfaced. I was also getting irritable with the murky water and slightly anxious about how rough it was. But I was sensible enough to notice these things, and to signal to Jason, who was further out and in no trouble, that I wanted—needed?—to go in.
And this, of course, is where the serious stuff started. Going out had been relatively easy, despite the mask problems. Going in wasn’t easy at all. I swam toward shore for several minutes before I realized that I was getting nowhere. Uh-oh, I thought to myself. This is undertow. I turned around, spotted Jason—and as I did so, immersed the snorkel tip and sucked in a large mouthful of salty water I wasn’t expecting. I blew as much of it as I could from my lungs–not all of it, either–cleared the snorkel, then lifted the mask from its seal to release the accumulated water, turned back onto my stomach and began to chug my way toward the shore.
When I looked up a couple of minutes later, I’d made no detectable progress—except maybe to distance myself further from the rocky surfing shoreline with its poison-spined sea urchins. And something utterly unexpected was now happening: buoyancy was becoming a difficulty. I was being pulled out to sea, that I understood. But I was also being pulled down. For a few seconds, my brain couldn’t take it in: it knew I’d always been able to float if I needed to, and wasn’t I wearing flippers, which had, up to this moment in my life… and off I went on that: my life, which might be just a few moments from its ending, because I was now sucking for air, my lungs labouring to make up the oxygen already lost, my lungs which, ahah! weren’t working as efficiently as they once did and which inefficiency, I, jackass that I am, hadn’t calculated, and my arms and my suddenly sinking legs, leaden with lactic acid, no help, and wait a minute, where the fuck is Jason? And why can’t this mask stop filling with water? and what should I do now? turn over on my back and swim that way? but no, if I do that the snorkel tip goes into the water, okay, but should I dump it and the mask?—and with it the $300 corrective lenses I just bought? Oh right, save the $300 and lose your life, idiot, and wait! you know what this is, this is panic, and that’s the one thing you can’t do here, because panic is what drowns people, so get on top of it and tell Jason what it is you’ve figured out: I’m in trouble.
Some decisions only take a split second when all you have is a split second. This one is simple: your ego or your life. But while the right decision is getting made I have the strangest thought: Why not let go? Why not drown? Who the hell cares, really? It’s just you, not all the rest of the world, and the world will get over you soon enough.
Before I can process this absolutely-in-my-entire-life-unprecedented philosophical proposition, I feel Jason’s hand on my shoulder, and he’s asking if I’m okay, and I say, no, I admit that I’m in trouble, and (now I’m thinking straight again) can you wave at the surfers, they’ll come over, recalling Jesse’s remark, now heard accurately, that they rescue idiots like me all the time, and will know what to do.
Jason lets go of me to signal to a group of surfers a hundred metres off—I consider whether he might be in trouble, too. But no, he’s just anxious, about which he tells me, later in the day, that at the moment of crisis he’d noticed how much I resemble his grandfather/my father, deceased now slightly more than a month. He was remembering a moment from his late childhood where he’d been in a swimming pool with him and now saw him as me, or me as him.
My father had been even less of a swimmer than I am, not that it stopped him, when I was five years old, from throwing me out of a rowboat on the theory that necessity would be my swimming teacher. I didn’t sink quite like a stone. I thrashed around silently, not so differently from the way I was swimming at this moment, and I was on my way to the bottom when my hand caught the gunnel of the boat and he was able, sheepishly, to drag me back in. Unlike Jason, I never once saw him swim in water that was over his head.
But in real time, just as I dismiss the question of how Jason is doing, the answer to my “why not just drown” question arrives: No, you nitwit, you can’t drown today because it’s your son’s wedding day, and if you die, he can’t have the wedding, and how will that make you feel, you selfish numbskull? You shouldn’t have been taking this sort of risk in the first place!!
So I struggle harder, first through the sharp pang of guilt at my idiocy, and then through the giggle-making thought that I won’t feel anything if I do drown and thus the question of how I'll feel is absurd. I can hear the wheeze in my lungs become thick rasp; and my legs start to feel less like concrete and more the weight of lead, a part of me thinking aloud, Oh for Christ sake, how could you have gotten into a mess like this on this particular day, and then Jason’s voice breaks in with the news that he’s gotten the attention of a surfer, and that he’s on his way.
It occurred to me later that, along with my nephew, it was shame that saved my life, along with that stinging barb of contempt when I was reciting my idiocy. That’s interesting in a counter-Ayn Rand sort of way, I suppose. There was no steely will involved, no particular resolve. My life had been up for grabs for a couple of minutes, and I was lucky it had gone the way it did because there were literally dozens of other darker scenarios this could have followed.
But in the practical world, the point was that I didn’t drown, and not only did I not drown, I didn’t have to bear the total humiliation of being resuscitated on the beach. The surfer who came to rescue me lifted me onto his board as if I was a nine-year old, and paddled both Jason and I to shore while I concentrated on exactly how harsh the rasp of my breathing was and how impossible it was to get it under control: I'd never heard a sound like that come from my body before. But when we got to shore I was able to walk out of the water unassisted, and I had enough presence of mind to thank the surfer profusely. I did sit down on the sand for several minutes, but I didn’t kiss the sand or otherwise behave like a drama queen.
I wanted to go over that “Why not let go?” moment while it was still fresh. I understood that it was a unique moment in my life. I wasn’t quite so sure it was one of the big, profound ones. It puzzled me at least as much as it frightened me.
After a few minutes Jason and I picked up our gear and walked back to the beach-house, where my wife, Leanna, innocently asked how the snorkeling had gone. I explained, in completely matter-of-fact tones, what had happened: I had almost drowned, but I didn’t, so we’d better get dressed for the wedding.
By the time of the wedding ceremony not quite two hours later, everyone there knew about my misadventure. Since I was there and not in some hotel refrigerator, I put up with the “how do you feel?”s and the implied “how could you have been so stupid on this of all days?” as politely as I could, even though it felt vaguely inappropriate to be talking about death and mortality. It was my son’s and new daughter-in-law’s wedding, after all, not my almost drowning that was being celebrated. They were beautiful and young and for at least one day in their lives, ought to be beyond the grasp of mortality.
But here’s the thing I came to understand over the next few hours: Almost drowning made me understand that I have just this one life, and that I’m not immortal. This was something that the death of my father had begun to bring home anyway. I’d grown up believing that he was immortal. I think he kind of believed it himself, too. It helped him to live more than a century with the daily expectation of progress, fiscal and otherwise—and then toward the end, it convinced him that he had the right to sit in the sun for a few hours each day.
On the other side, almost drowning and the sober thoughts it brought along didn’t keep me from drinking wine, eating or having fun at my son’s wedding. It didn’t even scare me out of the water, and it won’t keep me from snorkeling in calmer waters when I next get the chance. I do have that mask, after all, and the damned thing cost $300. I am, to that degree, my father’s son. I’m not sure almost drowning will convince me, as my father was convinced, that sitting in the sunlight is life’s only truly relevant pleasure. If that’s true, it’s the kind of truth that arrives in very old age, and that’s a few decades off even if I now accept that it’s on its way.
About the only thing almost drowning scared me into was going back to my gym in Toronto, where I’ve pumped iron and run the stationary bike every morning since I returned, and with a fervour that occasionally alarms me. I’m now only 20 pounds overweight, and in a few months, it’ll likely go to fifteen, then ten, five, and finally, I’ll just be an older guy with a moderate middle-aged spread able to whip your butt at tennis. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever again be an older guy obliviously willing to snorkel where the only sensible people are the surfers. I’m not immortal, you know.
1900 words. Toronto, March 29, 2008