In the Pink
The biggest most radiant smile I had ever seen walked into the dive shop. It’s Long Island, New York, 1994? 1995? And she wants to learn to dive. Changes in her life, owes it to herself, an adventure, she’s got plans. It’s hard enough to sell mask, fins, snorkel and gloves to a new student, she already knows she wants everything and it’s gotta be pink. And can we have it all for the first class?
This is Toni. She would become a dear friend and model of the best kind of dive student. (Eager, enthusiastic, responsive and willing to spend just enough money to do it correctly from the start.) The only woman in a class full of maybe ten or so guys.
Fast forward a bunch of weeks past the classroom and pool training and it’s time for the “open water experiences” or check out dives. Five dives over two days reviewing all the skills, not in the safety and confines of a swimming pool. We used self-titled “Paradise Cove” (a boat channel / canal at the end of the road.) Moving water, salt water, cold(er) water, 15-20 feet deep, dirty, mucky. Saturday everyone shows up and we have a mostly long, tiring and normal day one.
Early Sunday morning I wake up to pouring rain. I am always tired on day two, can I just sleep in? Are they expecting to dive anyway? So I reluctantly agree to be the one to go down there and see if anyone shows up at the shop.
Toni does. We wait. Us two. I have a spark of an idea - you’re gonna be wet and underwater anyway. How about one-on-one training? That big smile.
We have an absolute ball that day. We get rained on. Go through the dive skills and Toni is awarded her certification. Then we, you know, go diving. (Yeah, weeks later the guys catch up and eventually get certified too…this isn’t about them.)
You try and sign up your newbies for dive outings and get them interested in an advanced or specialty class. I think Toni came out a few times and then she wouldn’t answer our phone calls and we lost touch.
That radiant smile walks back into the dive shop about a year later. Toni had been diagnosed with progressive transverse myelitis and was fighting with it all that time. She declares she will dive again though with all that she’s facing, not right now.
We kept in touch. Then I moved to SoFla. When I’d visit up north, I’d see her if I could. Her pink dive gear prominently, proudly on display in her living room. Hopes, dreams, not quite plans yet….
Over time, Toni has had other, more severe (!?) health issues which are neither my business nor yours. She has endured all of it with a positive attitude. I am sure I hear that smile on the phone and in her emails.
Obviously Toni needed a new hobby, even “temporarily”. If your nerves don’t fire right, that can be an advantage in collecting tattoos. Zeus was her big mush of a boxer dog. His head is emblazoned on her somewhere. As are all manner of sleeves, vines and other things I know nothing about. Charlie the wonder dog took over after Zeus. He’s much smaller and has been great company (and easier to manage).Charlie the Wonder Dog
Toni was one of the main reasons I moved to Florida - to pursue that spark of an idea she gave me: making one diver at a time, fully equipped, working off a sugary, sandy ocean beach. My thought was nothing brilliant: if I could do it up north in relatively difficult conditions - 6mm wetsuits, hoods, gloves, long boat rides, Florida climate and conditions could be a breeze.
Walt Stack, a runner, does inspire my running. I’m not an active instructor any more. I don’t need inspiration to go diving without students.
Toni inspires me to never give up and watch my moaning. When I think of her I cannot complain about anything - not to anyone, certainly not to her. I don’t know if she howls at the moon or screams into her pillow. To me she is a towering, unwavering spirit who faces chronic, acute pain and miserable circumstances with grace and aplomb. My woes - physical and otherwise don’t even goose the needle.
Whether the dive gear is still a front and center living room attraction these days, through email, we still both remember every year to celebrate her dive certification anniversary, September 17th.
While my family was recently outsmarting (fleeing) Irma, and I’m zapping emails to everyone, Toni didn’t tell me she was in the hospital having super-major surgery. Not until we were back home and “safe”.
I have never heard a negative peep out of her until now. Toni is in a serious health crisis. And even so, not whining. And I still hear the smile behind the email.
While I’m in this post-Irma writing mood, I asked her whether I could tell our story - her story, and use our names. She wrote:
Nothing would give me more joy than to have you write about our friendship. It would be a great honor, and by all means use our names. I cannot even begin to tell you how you have touched my heart by this. The depth of our friendship has always been immeasurable but this….
From a hospital bed. This is Toni.