by Yan Sham-Shackleton
The night I first told my son the story of how Karl saved my life, he had asked me if I had any stories about sharks. I did. On my very first night dive; I pointed my flashlight towards a patch of silver in the darkness, where I could see a gill. Excitedly, I moved my light, only to have the dive instructor swim in front of me to block it. It turned out I was antagonizing a shark. My son loved the story.
Of all my dive stories, however, his favorite is the one where Karl saved my life or at least saved me from the possibility of anaphylactic shock, which would cause my airways to constrict until my body suffocated itself. It’s possible I wouldn’t have reacted that way to the venom, but thanks to Karl, I didn’t have to find out, especially since there was no hospital on the Honduran island we lived, only a clinic with the most basic of supplies.
We were 60 feet underwater at McKinsey Point. It was our last week as dive masters with the Underwater Vision Dive Center. McKinsey Point was a horizontal dive site. The light blue tube corals resembled folded material, growing next to giant brain corals with translucent anemones nearby on the sand, like a garden. The reefs grew in sections, like a waist-high maze. As Karl and I watched our divers, I spotted a coral tree, a giant red skeletal leaf moving with the water. Surrounding it were clusters of yellow fish, swimming fast and shooting out what looked like sand.
I approached Karl, floating above a section of the reef. I swept my hands towards my discovery, and suddenly he grabbed my wrists and held it steady. When I tried to pull away, he tightened his grip. He pointed his index and third finger at the mask, a signal for “look,” and pointed at a rock with some seaweed growing out of it. I saw nothing. I kept refocusing on different colors and shapes until a pair of eyes appeared, surrounded by white stripes, alternating with transparent burgundy. A beautiful lionfish undulated with the current. Its sharp fins would have sliced through my skin and deposited venom that, as a fellow divemaster Mike Ryans famously quipped in National Geographic, “…won’t kill you, but will make you wish you were dead.”
At this point in the story, my son would want me to act out Karl, grabbing my arm. Did he grab it here or here? How hard was it? Did you move back and forth? How close were you to the fish?
Karl and I moved away. We had another 35 minutes of muteness; with only the sound of breathing into a regulator and the chipping sounds of parrotfishes eating at the coral. When we surfaced the water, I pulled the regulator out of my mouth and shouted, “You saved my life, Karl! You saved my life!” I told the story to my dive group. I told that story many times: on the boat, at the dive shop, after work at the bar. Karl, a handsome Belgian with brown hair and blue eyes, tanned and chiseled from diving every day, just smiled in his humble way and laughed it off. The truth was I repeated the story not because I was deeply grateful, but because it made me seem more exciting. I didn’t feel gratitude because, deep down, I didn’t think I could die.
That, of course, changed in the intermittent years; I’ve had to face a number of deaths, many of whom were my classmates around my age, the most recent, less than a week ago, I think from a suicide. Since then, I wrote a will specifying what to do with my body, which piece of family jewelry my sister or cousins will inherit, and who would look after my son.
Sometimes I think this change is what fascinates him. Yes, of course, there is an excitement where his mother was saved from a terrible accident, but he loves the story because his mother was in a precarious situation in the first place. After all, I’m his mother. The woman who makes him connect his face mask onto his expanders even when it hurts, asks him to wear his seat belt, sunscreen, and backpack in the proper way, and most of all, the woman who is so uptight we bring our own glass straws and cups to the local boba place, much to his embarrassment, because we’ve gone zero waste. How can Mom get there?
It’s curious to contemplate such nonchalance in the face of harm. I had no one to look after, nothing to pass down. My college degree was still in an envelope in a pile of unopened mail. My death would be one unhindered by a mountain of paperwork. A death without paperwork? How can that be?
About Yan Sham-Shackleton
Yan Sham-Shackleton is from Hong Kong and currently lives in Los Angeles. Her work has been or will be featured in Litro Magazine, Great Weather for Media, Ordinary Madness, Wanderlust, South China Morning Post, Popmatters, Xlr8r, hongkong.com and others. Some of her writing and other creative works are archived in NYU Library’s Riot Grrrls Collection and Glasgow Women’s Library. Her previous blog, Glutter, was nominated for a free speech award by Reporters Without Borders. She is nearly finished with her novel set during the 1997 handover of Hong Kong.