Waiting in the Deep
By Catherine Fairfield
The Greenland shark is a master of waiting. Somniosus microcephalus, in Latin. The longest-living vertebrate in the world, Greenland sharks inhabit North Atlantic and Arctic oceans for a lifespan of around 500 years. Imagine that you can witness 500 years of Earth. What are you waiting for in those waters?
Known for their slow lifestyle, Greenland sharks belong to the Somniosidae family of sleeper sharks. The sleepy shark is a tortoise in the evolutionary race. A slow burner. They take their time, usually swimming at less than one mile per hour. International Union for Conservation of Nature labels them as a near-threatened species. The precise level and causes of threat are unknown because Greenland sharks are faraway, deep sea creatures whose staying power far exceeds that of human scientists. The IUCN cites fishing industries as a likely threat to this “extremely long-lived and slow-growing elasmobranch with limited reproductive capacity”. The pollution of the ocean through chemicals and plastic particles is not mentioned as a threat. Laying in wait for pain to subside as I experience the drag of sleepiness without restoration of sleep, I tell myself that maybe the sharks are far enough and deep enough not to be touched by our violences.
Having a chronic illness is all about waiting. Much to the dismay of the people in my life who care so much about my well being and have not experienced such sickness themselves, there is no bookend to my experience. There is not an appointment somewhere on the horizon that has any of the following:
Think of a time in your life when you felt like you were treading water, waiting for a significant change (a move, a birth, the end of a season). Now think of treading underwater while waiting for a shift. Like most things experienced through the veil of chronic illness, there is an element of drowning. Or, in this case, waiting to drown. You begin to wonder if you were ever above the surface at all. Perhaps you were born underwater – some kind of mer-person who has fallen ill and does not fit above or below water. Are gills a symptom of endometriosis? (Alexa, remind me to Google that at 2 a.m.)
At this moment, I am waiting for an appointment with a specialist. This is the last 72 hours of a three-month wait. These last few hours don’t go by quickly; they are stagnant and cloying. I feel a little lonely without having to call the receptionists this week to check for cancellations. Those women know my birthday and home address, and I only know their apologetic voices.
The sharks aren’t as alone as they seem. The Ommatokoita elongate crustacean is their close companion, a parasite that attaches to the sharks’ eyes causing them to experience the world through varying levels of blindness. They rely on other senses to find food and to go about their business. The subtleties of their ability to know the ancient world through their bodies astounds me. It stirs up an energy inside of me. Slow, sleepy, and disabled. What are you waiting for, shark?
I am glad that they are not alone.
As I lie in my bathtub, waiting for the water to go cold around my thrumming muscles, I imagine with closed eyes the slow movement of the Greenland shark through its own temperature-changing waters. I create waves with the undulations of my body.
Do they know what they’re waiting for?
In chronicity, those with chronic illness learn the art of waiting for pain to subside. Waiting for pain to begin again. For medical discoveries (don’t hold out for this, love). For the doctor to see me. For the nurse to call back. For the prescription to be filled. For energy to return. For my body to wake up. For my brain fog to lift. For a positive or a negative. For a centimeter of growth. For a rupture. For someone to call. For something to shift. I think that chronic illness is a deep process of waiting for change. Something to break up the monotony of pain, fatigue, and flare.
Change reminds me that I am alive, that I am still in the water. I can’t give an end to this to my loved ones. I seldom even let my own mind drift in that direction. The trick is to sense the subtler milestones and flickers of development amidst the waiting. Remember that something always changes. Witnessing 500 years of change, the slow-moving, limited-reproducing shark knows most of all that nothing is permanent. Eventually, a ripple in the water will reach our tired limbs, no matter how deep we find ourselves.
Kyne, P.M., S.A. Sherrill-Mix & G.H Burgess. 2006. “Somniosus microcephalus.” The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2006: e.T60213A12321694. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2006.RLTS.T60213A12321694.en. Accessed 12 July 2019.
Rafferty, John P. “Greenland Shark.” Encylopaedia Britannica, Encylopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2018. https://www.britannica.com/animal/Greenland-shark. Accessed July 12, 2019.
About Catherine Fairfield
Catherine Fairfield is a women’s studies scholar and a freelance writer. She lives with endometriosis, chronic pain, and her dog, Gracie. Her writing explores what it means to be wild and lively in ever-changing and precarious environments. In her free time, she sketches trees and reads thriller novels.