'The Last Dive'

The dive boat Carpe Nocten sped southwest across the cobalt blue of the Gulf of Mexico. With Destin Harbor four hours astern and the sun just now cresting toward noon, the steady drone of the twin diesel engines began to slowly decrease. Roland, down below enjoying a turkey sandwich, welcomed the tell-tale sign that the dive site was close at hand. In four-foot seas, the forty-plus mile run from Destin into the deep water of the gulf had been pretty rough and had taken a toll on the dozen divers aboard the vessel. Despite the doses of Dramamine passed around earlier, all but two dive teams had succumbed to sea sickness and were currently passed out in various nooks and crannies of the ship. The two teams that weren't sick hadn't bothered to secure their dive gear very well, and were hurriedly retrieving snorkels, masks, and other equipment that had been scattered by the rough ride out. My dive partner, Dan, and I were prepared, organized, and ready to get away from the tourists and see what we came here to see - a sunken aircraft carrier, the USS Oriskany.

It had been Dan's idea to come down to Destin and make this dive, but Roland had jumped at the chance. As he and Dan began suiting up, it was obvious they were both excited at the opportunity. A carrier sunk in water shallow enough that many parts could be reached without breaching recreational diving limits was a rare thing. To see one after it had only been in the water a little over a year was the chance of a lifetime. As if emphasizing the importance of making the dives count, it was obvious that each had brought enough gear to have backups of backups for everything.

"You diving your Scuba Pro or Aqua Lung rig?", Dan asked Roland. Roland had bought the Aqua Lung regulator used from a friend and was very fond of it. It was 15 years old, but still one of the best regulators available. "The lung", Roland replied, "the backup is yellow and on my right side if you need it."

As was typical, that was practically the extent of Dan and Roland's pre-dive discussions. They had their usual talks about safety, signals, and went over the dive plan, but they had dove together so much that little really needed saying. All the extra talk really centered on sharks, of all things. Recently, marine biologists had been studying the apparent congregation of large, ocean roaming sharks in these waters. The reigning hypothesis was that they were attracted to shipping lanes where large ocean cruisers routinely traveled, and as routinely, dumped food waste overboard. Both Dan and Roland had dove with sharks before, and laid out a plan that would ensure each was watching the blind spots of the other as they descended.

As Roland refocused on suiting his own gear, he paused for an instant to notice, for the umpteenth time, the red welt over his right pectoral muscle as he zipped up his wet suit. As often occurred, eight months worth of thoughts careened through his mind in that instant.

It was a Monday morning and he was getting ready for work. He coughed, wiped his mouth with a Kleenex, and noticed a small red blotch of blood as he went to throw it away. An x-ray, cat-scan, and biopsy later, it was confirmed: lung cancer. His father had died of lung cancer, and being a non-smoker, it was his oncologist's theory that his genes had simply caught up with him. One day he was stumbling through life as any other middle aged guy would, and the next he had six months, maybe nine, to live. Bam, just like that. The chemotherapy had shrunk the tumor to almost nothing, and the radiation treatments that were leaving the little red welts on his chest were keeping it beat down, but Roland knew the clock was running faster. He didn't need a doctor to tell him, he could feel it.

Two short blasts on the vessel's horn, signaling that the captain was about to lower the anchor, jarred Roland from his day dream. It was time to dive! The three teams who were green around the gills lumbered one by one to the rear of the 54' Sea Ray. Dan and Roland had positioned themselves to enter the water last, as usual, to keep any knucklehead wanna-bees from giant-striding right on top of them in their excitement. Dan entered first, and after giving the "ok" sign to Roland, cleared the entry spot for Roland. Roland grabbed his spare regulator in one hand, held his mask snug with the other, and stepped into the wonderful underwater world he had always loved.

The peace was immediate. Every time Roland entered the water, he thought back to something Dan had said to him years earlier when Roland was about to get certified. "If you love it, you'll dive just for the feeling. It won't matter if you can see or if there is anything to see. It won't matter if you are in a quarry, lake, river, or ocean. You will do it just because it will be the most peaceful thing you know." And as Roland smiled around his regulator and gave Dan the "let's descend" sign, he thought about how right Dan had been. Out of the water, a fully suited diver is about the most awkward thing on the planet, but the weightlessness of being underwater melts all that discomfort away. The transition from the noisy chaos of the dive boat to the silence of the water where the only sound is your own breathing is almost startling. Roland welcomed it, knowing that by focusing on his own respiration he would soon feel that easy, lumbering, relaxation that he could only achieve beneath the waves.

This peace always gave him the opportunity to reflect and be introspective without all the distractions that abounded above the surface. This dive was no different, and his thoughts began to drift as he followed Dan down the anchor line into the growing darkness. His first thought was of the sharks. He wouldn't relax so much that he forgot to watch Dan's back. Diving requires wearing a mask which effectively limits field of vision like a horse wearing blinders. Every diver has had to acclimate themselves to this, but it is still unsettling, especially given the recent shark sightings. Dan and Roland had agreed on many occasions that death by shark attack had to be one of the worst ways to die. The suddenness and duration of it were only two of the reasons. There were many others, not the least of which was the sheer thought of being eaten alive by something.

Roland's second thoughts were of his family, and he stopped to marvel once again at his kids. It is true that people seem to mark their lives with major events, and the last major event Roland had endured had been the realization that he was fighting cancer and that he had to say something to his kids. They had balled and asked 1,000 questions he couldn't answer, but had finally got to a place where it was somehow as ok as it could be. They would pray, have faith, and live each day as if the thing throbbing in Roland's chest was beaten. And for 7 months, that is exactly what they had done. Roland had reflected many times how different you become when you are living like you are dying. He had not said "no" to a friend, and had not muttered a harsh word to his kids, or anyone, since the journey began. He was determined to just be better. Maybe he hoped that when he was gone, people would remember the man he had recently been instead of the jerk he had spent decades becoming. It was a long shot, he knew and acknowledged with an internal smile, but what did he have to lose?

And whenever he thought of his kids, he also couldn't help thinking about his own father's death. It had been an ugly time. Once strong, independent, full of pride, and self-sufficient, Roland's dad had ended up needing two people's help to even go the bathroom. It was disgraceful to him, and whether anyone would admit it or not, a burden to the family. Now, staring down the barrel of the same disease, Roland wanted better for his family. He didn't want to be a burden to them. He didn't want them to have to continue wondering every morning if that was going to be the day he took the final turn for the worse. But mostly, he wanted them to remember him like he was right now - full of life, vigor, love, and fight.

Just below him, Dan had practically stopped descending as the control tower of the carrier emerged from the green gloom of the depths. Roland glanced down at his gauge cluster and noted with satisfaction that they were only at ninety feet, a full hundred feet or more from the bottom. They would have about 20 minutes at this depth before the need to return to the surface would become an imperative. Dan gave Roland the "ok" sign, which Roland returned, and they began swimming the length of the vessel along the flight deck. It was a beautiful ship, and since she had been on bottom only a few months, still looked almost pristine in condition. In fact, it was eerie and Roland almost expected servicemen to appear in doorways or emerge from stair wells. But Dan and Roland were alone. The other divers were approaching the vessel from the other side and would not be seen again until the end of the dive. Dan meandered over to a storage entrance that appeared ajar. Opening the door slowly and shining a flashlight, both were offered a glimpse of one of the most important areas of the ship - a twelve by fifteen foot room, not much larger than a closet, with equipment everywhere - the radio room. Roland and Dan backed away from the entrance, and continued swimming aft along the flight deck rail. Suddenly, the deck ran out beneath them and they were once again over open water. The massive stern area of the ship was barely visible in the gloom below. Dan and Roland had desired to travel down to the steerage of the ship for a look at the ship's rudder and propellers, but it was simply too deep. Dan turned toward Roland and both exchanged air-remaining information. If they began swimming now, and stayed close to the vessels port side to minimize the effect of the current, they could get back to the anchor line and begin ascending with enough air to perform their usual safety stop at thirty feet. It seemed as if the dive had lasted only a few seconds! To Roland, time always flew when he was underwater, but this dive had seemed shorter than most.

In no time, Dan and Roland were back at the anchor line and ready to ascend back to the boat. Dan, no doubt, was already looking forward to having a sandwich on the boat and planning what he wanted to see on his next trip down to the ship, as they waited out the required surface interval on the boat before the next dive. He turned to Roland and gave him the universal ascension sign, two upward thrusts toward the surface with his hand made into a "thumbs up" gesture - and smiled. Roland did nothing. Dan's look became more inquisitive as he repeated the gesture, and this time Roland simply shook his head left and right - "No".

Since learning of Roland's sickness, he and Dan had discussed possible outcomes many times. Roland had shared with Dan two things he had not shared with anyone else, not even his wife: that the doctors had told him two weeks ago that the tumor had grown an amazing amount, giving him only weeks to live and that Roland had no intention of going out like his father. Roland had explained that he would handle it on his own terms, and Dan had agreed that he could understand. Every time they parted ways since, Dan wondered if he would see Roland again. Today was the last time he would wonder.

Roland shook his head left and right once more, patted his wetsuit above the tell-tale red mark on the skin beneath, and simply pointed down toward the bottom below. For a long moment, Dan did nothing. Then, as realization dawned, he slowly shook his head up and down - "Ok" - and took Roland's hand and shook it one last time. As he let go, Dan hit the inflator button on his buoyancy compensator one quick time and begin ascending up the anchor line toward the surface. Roland remained, watching him change into a silhouette against the surface light, then disappear altogether.

So, the decision was made. Roland had manipulated and removed his gear dozens of times underwater to free himself from entanglements of various kinds, and the irony that he was removing it this time to free himself of one last entanglement was not lost on him. He slowly unbuckled his buoyancy compensator, and with one last hit on the power inflator to ensure that it would ascend to the surface on its own, he let his arms slip out of the harness. With the only buoyancy remaining built into his wet suit, the weights around his belt began to easily pull him toward the ocean floor. The last breath he had pulled from his regulator rested comfortably in his chest, a feeling he knew would soon change. While he still could, he prayed fearfully that God would forgive him and understand why he was doing what he was doing. His family, especially his kids, had mourned and cried enough. They had already begun the natural process of dealing with his loss - began the minute they had learned of his disease. He wouldn't blame them for that. It was a natural defense mechanism. At least they would not have to keep waiting to grieve. He knew after his most recent visit to the doctor that he would never be able to stop them from having to stand over his grave, but he took solace in knowing that he was exerting some control over what they would have to endure until that time.

Without his gauge cluster, which was still attached to his ditched gear, Roland guessed by the encroaching gloom that he was getting close to the bottom. His descent was accelerating and the last breath that had been comfortable to hold before was now burning in his lungs. Within seconds, and now in almost total darkness, Roland's flippers touched down on the gulf's silty bottom. Turning, he could just make out the massive bow of the cruise ship hulking upward from the bottom a few feet away. 200 feet above him, Dan would be making up some "lost diver" story for the dive boat's captain. Roland knew that nobody would risk their life to come after him - it was too deep, the reason Roland had chosen this spot when Dan had asked him to go on this diving trip several weeks earlier. Dropping to his knees, Roland steeled himself against the inferno raging in his lungs. In moments, his mammalian reflex would take over and he would involuntarily attempt to breathe. What happened after that was anyone's guess. The mammalian reflex (the instinctual need for air) was so strong in about 20% of humans that the esophagus would actually spasm shut in response to water exposure. It is for this reason that the same proportion of drowning victims are found with little or now water in the lungs - they actually suffocate themselves to death. And it surprised him when it happened. As if someone else had taken over his body, his chest convulsed and his mouth opened, searching for air. The water rushed down his throat and he learned that he was among the majority as the water rushed into his lungs. Spots filled his eyes as an unimaginable pressure built in his chest. Falling to his side, the gloom over took him as he lost his vision and teetered on the edge of consciousness. He felt the water in his mouth, the gulf's bottom under his cheek, and had time for one last thought for his kids. He loved them so much that he would die for them..

Six hours later, after countless discussions with the authorities and a gluttony of White Russian confidence builders, Dan removed his cell phone from his pocket and slowly dialed Roland's home number...