How could the magical woman who accompanied me through hundreds of dives, from Galapagos to Haymarket, VA and Panama to Bonaire, be stricken with a disease that will progressively encase her more deeply than any ocean? The first word in ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — is Greek: translation, no muscle nourishment. The Gods don’t know what enchantments Meg has wrought in Neptune’s kingdom. They don’t know that she can twirl at 30 feet below the surface, the sunlight combing through her flowing hair, with fish of many colors swirling around her like faithful subjects. How can sclerosis laterally rob her of those powers?
For me, this is the dark side of leaving Washington for Maine. I haven’t dived with Meg in six years, not since I transitioned north and largely let kayaks replace dive tanks. I hadn’t even seen Meg since right before I packed up and left.
My visits south have become increasingly less frequent, and shorter. But for this trip I tagged on an extra day with the purpose of visiting Meg.
“We’ll swap dive stories and tell lies,” I’d written to her in my e-mail. Because divers are notorious liars; it comes with the sport. Like one friend we know who photo-shopped six speckled gray whale sharks in the backdrop of her underwater gliding.
But Meg and I really did see amazing whale sharks circling one of the Galapagos islands as we hung onto underwater ledges to watch. We were the lucky ones. Many other divers missed them.
We sat around a take-out deli lunch in her home, with seven cats and her husband Sandy, also a diver but not one to venture deep and wide in the ways that Meg and I once did. Meg’s long flowing hair is cut close to her slender face, but her smile is still, well, magic. Two other diver friends were with us, one — my dear friend Al — kind enough to drive me to see Meg. Health care workers came and went.
But I’d been Meg’s dive buddy, and I wouldn’t let anyone else position her napkin as she wanted it, put dressing on her salad, and hold her thin shoulders in my hands. I had no problem understanding what she said, though her words are low now and garbled.
We dived together so many times, when I could communicate with her in the darkest of waters, sharing looks and hand motions as others do words.
We had this wonderful ‘happy dance’ that we performed after spotting something rare like a tiny seahorse in soft coral or an octopus outside its den after dark. We swiveled our torsos inside our buoyancy vests and wriggled our hands high above our heads.
What a dance we did after seeing those whale sharks. Meg recalled how she noticed the hammerhead sharks getting agitated. She knew.
So much joy. For years, we camped on the rim of the Haymarket quarry, especially during full moons. At midnight, only women swam.
“Nude,” Meg reminded us. “We always did it nude.” A bevy of us would howl at the moon.
Sandy would sit by the tremendous bonfire with the other guys, those not peeking. “Good times,” he said.
Yes, they were.
Right about now, Meg would be sketching for the underwater pumpkin-carving contest. She’d plan for this weeks in advance. Then, on the Sunday before Halloween, we’d put on our heaviest wet suits and take the seeded pumpkin down to a platform 15-feet deep in the quarry. I would mostly just hold the soon-to-be contest winner as she worked all her magic on carving crowned frogs and other exotics from the orange squash.
The quarry is closed now; as is our dive shop.
But Meg is still very much Meg. Leaving, I promised to send her elaborate tales as often as I could, for her to determine their veracity.
“I can barely type now,” she told me. Her fingers have gotten so thin.
But we can always communicate, as deeply encased — or distant — as we become. That’s the meaning of dive buddy.