All I had to do was lower myself into the choppy water with a 16-pound weight belt around my waist. And a snorkel and mask on. At which point my instructor would help me put on my Buoyancy Control Device and tank of air. A plan designed to make this first scuba experience easier for me, so I wouldn’t freak out.
I jumped in. The first thing that happened was the little ring that attaches the snorkel to the mask broke and I lost my snorkel. The second thing was that my weight belt slipped off. The third thing was that I felt claustrophobic. And the last thing was that I decided I didn’t want to get certified in scuba diving anyway. All this before I had even put my head underwater!
We had come up with the idea of getting scuba certified a few months back — me, my husband, and my three almost-adult sons. We were looking for an adventure we could have together in warm weather. I loved the warm weather and the being together part, but I was nervous about the scuba diving part. So much to learn and so much to put on your back. But I assumed my role as chief organizer and found a funky dive shack and guest house in Cozumel that would get us through the certification process.
The first step was 12 hours of online instruction. This consisted of a lot of boring lessons on subjects like whether you should use a yoke or a DIN connector to attach your tank to your regulator, alternating with terrifying lessons on different ways you could die while diving, like having your lungs explode like the balloon that kept bursting as it rose to the top of my screen, or filling your body with nitrogen bubbles like the really sad and out-of-it looking guy in the boat in lesson 20.
There were constant quizzes, and then a final exam which I barely passed, mostly because of the questions that required using an arcane dive chart in a somewhat gymnastic way — starting at this point, leaping over to this point, and then turning in mid-air to look on the back of the chart. Just like with the yoke and DIN connector, I hoped that my life did not depend on knowing this stuff.
I tried, unsuccessfully, not to feel embarrassed about my final score of 77 while my sons and husband were boasting of their scores in the high 90s. This was my first hint that my experience of this adventure would be somewhat different from their experience. It was a discrepancy I should have been used to. My sons and my husband are athletic and strong. They are all about a foot taller and 70 pounds heavier than me.
After years of pining for the daughter I never had, I had made my peace with my all-male family; now, my goal was to be with them as much as possible and to keep up with them. In previous years, this meant five days of backcountry camping in the Tetons, and a 100 mile hike around Mount Blanc. This year, it was scuba.
Having passed the online course, we now had open water instruction. The first challenge was the wetsuit. Being without hips or butts to speak of, my sons and husband were ready long before me. I had rubbed my upper knuckles raw from the tugging and peeling before I was suited up.
Which brings us back to my first entry into the water – the claustrophobia, the feeling of complete incompetence, and the first of many moments when I almost quit. Our instructor Luis retrieved my weights and my snorkel, and somehow managed to get my Buoyancy Control Device or BCD on my back. I knew I had to calm down and to breathe, like the prescribed response to any stressful situation . But this time I had to do it 15 feet below the surface of the water through the regulator my mouth was clamped on to. And breathe I did. In, out, in, out. OK, maybe I could do this.
Over the next two days of instruction, I struggled with a lot of exercises that my sons and husband seemed to master easily. I never really achieved neutral buoyancy, that elusive state where you remained at a constant depth. My kids later told me that they’d think, “oh there goes Mom again” as I rose and fell, rose and fell, overworking the magic button on my BCD. I never was able to put the tank on by myself, it was way too heavy. And I failed most spectacularly at the exercise that Luis called “save yourself” where I had to breathe into my BCD at the surface, no magic button this time. Flailing and gasping, I had my second freak-out. Really, if I couldn’t save myself, should I be doing scuba at all?
At the guest house, I was lamenting my scuba troubles to two other guests. They were sympathetic. “It must be even harder for you because you have to worry about not just yourself but also your sons.” And that’s when it hit me: I wasn’t looking out for my sons during this adventure, they were looking out for me.
For so many years I was the one providing words of encouragement, cajoling them to hike just a bit further, ski just a bit faster, swim just a bit longer. I was the one trying to keep them safe while they stretched and grew and confronted their fears. But I saw now, with a mix of pride and humility, that our roles were reversed. They carried my gear, they helped me on with my tank, they talked me down from my panic: “You got this Mom.”
Maybe I did. Scuba diving presented one problem after another, but maybe these were problems that could be solved. Like the wetsuit. Luis taught me to put plastic bags on my arms and legs and the wetsuit would glide right on. It worked. And the challenge of neutral buoyancy: I learned to control my breathing and use the buoyancy button less; eventually I could stay at roughly one depth when I wanted to. I never did master “save yourself:” every time I tried to blow air into my BCD at the surface, I would slowly sink, and then one of my sons would help me back to the surface where I would try again. OK, maybe I didn’t have to save myself; my husband and my sons had that covered. It was going to take a village to get me scuba diving and how lucky I was that I had that village.
Luis was generous, or maybe he just couldn’t face another day of instruction with me – I got my certification. And once the exercises stopped, the diving was glorious. I drifted with the current, and watched the abundant life on display. A spotted eagle ray flew just below me. A moray eel darted out of a cave like a sea monster in a cartoon. Candy-colored fish fed on mountains of coral. And my sons glided by, strong and beautiful. I tried to stay calm, breathing slowly to conserve air, but I felt my heart pounding. Not with claustrophobia this time, but with its opposite – the excitement and expansiveness of a brand new watery world opening itself up to me.
Jill Singer is a filmmaker in the Boston area, specializing in producing films for museums. She is also the mother of three sons, ages 19, 22, and 25.