It’s been a long time since I’ve written about cancer. It’s not that the tumours magically disappeared following four months of palliative radiotherapy after a prognosis of terminal recurrent endometrial cancer in 2014. It’s just that I no longer choose to occupy that ‘Walking Dead’ headspace that caused the vultures to unfurl their monstrous wings, haunting each waking moment and circling ever closer. Now the vultures are banished and my mind is fully alive elsewhere, almost completely underwater. Yes I need to surface occasionally to eat, sleep, refill my tanks and edit my photos, but honestly I have found that fully embracing the Mermaid Moments that are mine leaves little to no space in my thoughts for morbidity or the reality of mortality that one day will face us all. When I was first diagnosed as ‘incurable’, my friend Linda promised that I would live long enough to celebrate 365 dives – one for each day of the year. At the time, that was a lofty goal and seemed far beyond my mortal reach.
This week I celebrated Dive 723 with my good friend Luke, and after an hour or so of seahorses, rays and octopuses we had just turned around to make our way back into shore. Passing a pylon, a pretty pufferfish (more correctly, a globefish) caught my eye, her long golden braid streaming behind her. She approached me and, enchanted, I received her sweet greeting and obliged her delightful request to pose for photos and video selfies.
Many globefish are shy of divers and will hide themselves away when approached. Others seem to initiate interaction. In the past, I’ve had globefish spy me long before I spotted them, swimming directly up to my mask from more than 10 metres away to gaze into my eyes intently before darting just as quickly away. But my new friend Rapunzel was in no hurry to end our time together, and for the next ten minutes I was privileged to be in the company of such a lovely animal that seemed to think of me as a good fish to swim with.
Posting our selfie video onto the Pink Tank Scuba Facebook page led to over 10,000 views in less than a weekend, and it made me smile to read a few people describe me as ‘The Snow White of the Ocean’! Yet other comments revealed the tragic truth. Rapunzel was not a fair haired maidenfish, but a poor fishy soul suffering from an advanced parasitic worm infection deep beneath her skin. (Can you see the wiggly worm lines around and beneath her mouth, underlying the beautiful golden ribbon trailing above her head, more deadly than Snow White’s poisoned apple?)
There is much in life that lies insidiously beneath the surface, and like the silent tumours now hidden deep inside my body but rarely penetrating my thoughts, Rapunzel hid a life threatening condition beneath her sweetheart smile. Perhaps she was just a sociable little soul, or maybe she had approached me in the express hope of help? Several who commented on my Facebook post suggested she should somehow be treated with medicine or have the externally protruding parasite cut or pulled off. However as I am merely an underwater photographer who only performs marine animal rescues when both the problem and solution can clearly be determined without causing more harm than good to the animal, I had no frame of reference for what help – if any? – I might have been able to render to my new little friend.
My scuba friend Alan who works at a local marine discovery centre advised me: ‘We have noticed a lot of Globefish in poor condition lately, but Rapunzel is suffering from a fairly advanced sub dermal parasitic worm infection. If there is lots of food around they seem to tolerate this until the worms reach critical organs, like eyes. I’m guessing it would be treatable with a worming medicine, but generally wild animals should be left to their own as it is all a part of nature. Generally it’s ok to do whatever makes a fish more comfortable, but infections and diseases are a way to remove weak fish from the gene pool. So it can be counter productive to treat them and let them breed.’ When it comes to marine animal welfare, Alan is the most compassionate and least heartless person I know. He is a primary caretaker for a much loved blind globefish called Miss Piggy. Only two days before I had met Rapunzel, he and his wife Mary with others had cared long hours for an abandoned baby dolphin and were deeply saddened by the poor animal’s outcome.
I have often said that despite Alan’s claims to be nothing more than ‘a humble tank cleaner who has been immersed in marine critters for over 40 years, and no smarter than the books / web I consult’, in my view his hands-on commitment to marine life has given him greater knowledge, understanding and insight than many marine biologists, scientists and the whole of Google combined. Normally, I defer to him on all matters related to marine life. And while I fully understand his logic and respect his view, acknowledging that he may well be entirely right on this, in some ways Rapunzel and I are one and the same. Infections and disease threaten to remove us as ‘weak fish’ from the gene pool. But something in me says that while the body is often weak, its frailties can often be transcended by strength of spirit.
Perhaps when my new fishy friend looked me so intently in the eyes, she was purely determined to turn a random scuba mermaid into her new best friend. Or maybe she sensed in me a kindred spirit with a will to live despite the diseases both of our bodies carried. ‘You have found the way to outlive your prognosis,’ she might have whispered. ‘Can you please help me too?’ I do not know whether I can ever find a way to truly help wild globefish suffering from sub dermal parasites. But Rapunzel has now planted this question deeply into my heart and mind, and problems are only ever solved by those who care enough about finding solutions.
I returned beneath the pier the following day. While I could not locate Rapunzel, I found the saddest fuzzy Moppit of a globefish lying almost dead on the sandy floor, utterly covered in weed-like parasites, its left eye all but destroyed. I took some photos and the light flashing from my strobe seemed to revive the pathetic animal. It floated up off the sand, presenting itself to me, clearly desperate for help. Unlike Rapunzel’s friendly greeting, there was no ambiguity about what this fish wanted or needed from me. Feeling utterly helpless, I lifted some of the infectious weed away from its grotesquely detaching eye and back onto its head – a most futile act of compassion. There was nothing I could do to save the animal and I was completely incapable of ending its suffering in any other way. Its time would come soon enough. That time will come for us all.
I am writing this blog post on Sunday instead of diving as I have done with my best buddy every Sunday morning for the past six or so years. Without wanting to invade his privacy, he is facing a difficult time of seeing a loved one edge closer to the end. Here is a poem he wrote the night before last as he grappled with the tragedy of inevitability – the most powerful piece I believe he has ever written:
Life and death so intertwined
In an awkward long embrace.
Always walking close behind,
In a never ending chase.
Ever just a step behind,
Awaiting our mistakes.
One slip to fall and they will meet,
That is all it takes.
The wonder of what lies beyond,
On past the darkened veil.
As we grow tired and weary,
As we grow old and frail.
We gather strength just one more time,
To say our last goodbyes.
Yet I believe we’ll meet again
Within another life.
Remember all the love you gave,
And all that I received.
Remember this when time has come,
And I must watch you leave.
You will not be forgotten,
There’s a part of you in me.
You made me all that I’ve become,
All that I can be.
Another friend within my scuba circle is also grieving the imminent loss of a loved one as her frail life hangs in the most delicate balance. Perhaps it is true that Rapunzel, Snow White and the rest of humanity only live ‘happily ever after’ in fairytales. But it is those bonds of deep, wondrous connection we are privileged to make with others – even when life’s end transforms irrevocable minutes into cherished memories – that are life’s most precious gifts, validating and illuminating the days that are ours yet to live. Thank you Sweet Rapunzel for all the lives you have illuminated with your precious smile and video selfies with me this week. You have reminded me of some of the most important truths in life. Your new friend, Snow White.
Love and bubbles,