An average size man. Thin. He walks with a limp. Holding an air tank years ago, he jumped in the water and the tank broke his knee he explains. He is married. When asked about children he says that they have tried but do not have any. I tell him our story. In his very broken English he explains that he would like to adopt but adoption takes money. I have no response.
He talks of the scuba gear he would like to buy, "When I can save the money enough," he explains. I take a deep breath. He has been a scuba instructor for twenty-five years, and he still does not have his own equipment. I think of playing basketball for my entire career in borrowed shoes.
Before the dive accident that would change all of our lives, I had asked him about his job. "Do you love it?" I had asked. "Oh most certainly," he had replied. "Don´t you get tired?" I followed thinking of leading two, four, six dives a day. "Oh most certainly," he echoed again.
His shoes are torn. He carries a simple dive bag. He has a mustache. A big smile. He is happy. As he gathers our group of seven around him on the boat for our first dive, he nods in Nelly´s direction. "My English . . . not so good," he says to the group. I tell him otherwise. I tell him he sounds very clear to me. "Oh, just you wait," he laughs. Then he turns to Nelly. "So Nelly," he begins, putting the emphasis more on the first part of her name instead of the last, "Nelly will be my translator if you cannot understand."
Nelly smiles. It´s an infectious smile. A smile that pulls you in immediately. She has curly brown hair and beautiful eyes. She explains that Spanish is her first language. She was originally from Puerto Rico. She learned English in her late teens. She now lives in Florida where she works as a pediatric emergency medicine doctor. She is a new diver as well. Only a few times in the water. She is still learning like us. But she is excited. She has a wet suit on that she obviously owned, not one she rented from the dive shop like all of us. She is holding her mask and snorkel and her fins are perched by her feet.
I have always been infatuated by people who can speak multiple languages. Jealous. Wishing I could do the same. I ask her about it during our ride out to our first dive site. She tells me that she dreams in both languages now. That they flow simultaneously. I watch as she and our dive instructor joke around with each other. She switches from Spanish to English as if unaware.
* * * * *
But now, those moments have passed. We are sitting in a room. The six of us that were in Nelly´s dive group. The six of us and Martin. The skinny dive instructor with the broken English. We sit in a circle. Instead of Nelly being there with us, her sister sits in her place. She is crying. Someone hands her a tissue. Then another. She tells us this has been the hardest two days of her life.
We tell her the same.
She is kind. She looks just like her older sister. That same cute smile. The same infectious grin. The same build. Obviously sisters. She tells us that she is here in an attempt to find closure and to bring that closure back to her family. We tell her we want to help her find that closure.
But the truth is, we are hoping to find our own closure in that room as well.
John begins. He recounts the story. She asks questions. She turns to me. She asks about the conversations her sister and I shared at the top of the water.
¨Was she talking?¨she asked. "Oh yes," I say. "When she emerged, she was having a full conversation with me," I explained. And I go into details of the time we shared waiting for the boat to arrive. I censor my words, trying to make them as encouraging as they possibly can be. But I tell her the truth. All of it. I tell her we were holding hands. That moments before she passed out she asked me to hold her hand again, our previous grip separated by the waves.
There is more truth that I shared with her. And someday I will write that truth here.
But not today.
We talk for some time. Alan, the emergency medicine doctor on board with us, continues John´s story at the point that John left it. When they loaded her onto the ambulance, the door shut with Alan on the inside and John on the outside. So Alan continued with a description of their trip to the hospital, how she became more pink and that things looked like they were improving, and ultimately how her heart finally gave up the battle.
The sister nods. She is not crying now. She is listening. Intently. As if these words will be something that she uses to comfort herself and her family for the rest of their life.
Because they will be.
Martin talks as well. He shares the story from his perspective. From Nelly´s dive instructor´s perspective. He tries to speak in English so we can all understand him, but the sister is from Peurto Rico as well so occasionally, when he cannot find the words, he slips into Spanish.
Even though I do not speak Spanish fluently, somehow, I seem to understand what he is saying during those moments.
The sister shares the coroner´s report. Nelly did not have a heart attack and she did not suffer a diving-related death. The coroner believed that basically, she drowned. That she was breathing in water and that she couldn´t get air. I asked John to explain on the way back to our room. He said he couldn´t. "It doesn´t make complete sense," he said. In the end, John explains, we won´t know exactly how she died. We will only know the reasons that she didn´t die.
We take a picture together. Our group. Our group and her sister. We promise to share the pictures. We offer our words to her family members if they need them. Any of her family including Nelly´s husband and children. Any of them can call us if they want to hear the story from our mouths. We will do whatever we can to help them process this grief.
I thank the sister as well. I tell her that Nelly´s life will forever transform mine. That I will remember her when the stresses of my life threaten to push me down. I will remember that a fight with a friend or a frustration with a coworker will pale in comparison to the greater picture of life that Nelly helped bring to me.
I also thanked her for coming. Seeing her sister, we were able to get a bigger and better picture of Nelly. We were able to see who she was aside from the few hours we spent with her. Her sister told us that Nelly loved adventure. That she died doing something she loved. That nothing could stop her when she wanted to do something. That her whole life she had wanted to be a doctor. That she was 44 years old when she died. That she had two sons. They had been adopted from Guatemala. They are young. The five year old does not quite understand. But his older brother is struggling. But they will help him get through it.
After the sister wandered bleary eyed back to her room, John and I ended up walking back to the lobby with Martin. His eyes were filled with tears. "I was thinking of opening my own dive shop soon," he said. "But now. I do not think I can. I think maybe this was a sign. I think I need to stop diving."
The grief is crawling over him. It is holding him. His shoulders slump. He is shifting from foot to foot. He does not know how to process what happened to him. "Never," he said. "Never anything like this ever happened to me. It is my job to take care of her diver," he said, his English becoming more broken as the grief became stronger. "How can I be diver again?"
John sat with him and explained the process of grief. That he should not make any decisions for weeks or months, until what had happened had time to work its way around in his brain better. "I will do as you say," Martin said. We talked for awhile longer. He hugged John. He hugged me. Dive instructor is in his blood. That became evident when he shifted back to trying to explain to me why I lost buoyancy control at the end. He said I should buy my own BC. He said that my skinny frame but long length made the one I was wearing not a good match. I started to explain to him that I didn´t think I would be diving enough to buy my own BC, but I didn´t.
"I will never forget you," he said as he made his way to his bicycle to pedal his way back to his small house in downtown Cozumel. He hugged John again.
John nodded. "Well tomorrow, I am going to dive with you again," he said. "You can´t get rid of me that easily."
While I type this, that is where John is. He is diving with Martin. Martin said he worried no one would ever dive with him again. They are out there with him now. John and the other four members of our original group. I wanted to go. But I can´t. Not right now. Yesterday, I did let John talk me into snorkeling. I didn´t want to. But I am glad I did. Getting in the water, the same water, was actually healing for me. I realized that during the twenty-four hours that had passed, I was becoming afraid not only of diving but of the ocean itself. The snorkel trip helped ease that. I dove down to the ocean floor with John, something I had never done while snorkeling before, always content to float on the surface.
I told John that scuba diving had freed me in the water, even if I never actually dove again. He wanted me to dive again while we were here. Told me he was afraid I would never do it again. I promised I would. That I understood this was not a common occurrence. When the circumstances are right and I am ready, I will go again. I won´t let fear dominate my life.
But for now, I will sit by the pool. In the days and weeks to come, I will write more. I will recount the entire story. Probably not at once. In pieces. I will be working through this for a long time to come. I will share more details. But for now, that is all I have.
I will say that despite this unimaginable tragedy, JB and I have had a wonderful week together. We have had the time together, just the two of us, that we needed. We have relaxed. And while sleep has been difficult (thank the Lord for Ambien), we feel that we will come back to the states with the rest and bonding that we so desired.
Tomorrow we leave. And at some point, I will share more.
But that is all for now.