Last week I spent a week scuba diving in Bonaire with my husband, Brandon, and 23 other divers on a trip planned by Tri-State Scuba ,the dive shop I used to get my scuba certification. Although there were 25 divers on the trip, there was one particular diver I was missing… Christie. I first met Christie in Cozumel, Mexico over two years ago in October of 2016 when I went on another Tri-State diving trip to complete my open water dives to finish my open water scuba certification.
Getting Scuba Certified
I didn’t always want to be a certified scuba diver. Brandon has been certified since he was a teenager and when we would vacation he would go out diving for a day and I would stay back by the pool and read my book. I was totally fine with that and thought I would be too much of a scaredy cat to ever jump into the sea and go down under to see what might be lurking under the surface. Plus, there for a while, I was either pregnant or had small children and leaving them to go diving wasn’t really feasible.
Then, in 2015, Brandon’s mom and step-dad, Pam and Wayne, invited us to join them on an amazing trip to Dubai, the Seychelles, and South Africa. Wayne said that they would be diving in the Seychelles, some of the most beautiful islands in the world, and that I should think about getting certified before the trip so I could join everyone else. I’m not sure what changed (probably the thought of this being a once in a lifetime trip!) but I thought that sounded like a good idea!
I searched online for places that did certifications around Cincy, Indy and Northern Kentucky. Most places offered classes on Saturday mornings. Some said it would take 5 Saturdays and one shop offered just 3 Saturdays. Some places had a pool to complete your skills in and other places you had to travel a little ways to get to a pool. Tri-State Scuba, on the east side of Cincy, offered the 3 Saturdays and had a pool! Perfect! So I called them first. Joly, one of the owners answered the phone, I told him I was calling around to a few places to see about getting my open water scuba certification. I was on the phone with Joly for a long time. He is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet! He talked about their different classes and I talked about what I was looking for. We talked about our upcoming big trip and a few other things. At the end, Joly told me to think about it and call him back if I wanted to sign up. I told him after talking with him I didn’t need to call around… sign me up! I felt like that was where I was supposed to be. I knew they would take great care of me and they still take great care of me!
I completed the coursework in January of 2016 and then I just needed to figure out a way to get my open water dives completed. Tri-State typically will take students out to a rock quarry in the summer to finish their open water dives. I wasn’t too thrilled about going into a quarry so I looked into completing my open water dives in Florida over Spring Break. Well, the weather didn’t cooperate over Spring Break and the dive shop I was working with in Florida notified me the week before that they were going to complete the dives in a pond. Um, no way… the first thing I thought about was getting eaten by an alligator!! When I called the dive shop to cancel my dives the guy I spoke with wasn’t willing to give me a refund on a deposit we had put down, even though I was cancelling a week in advance. This is when I knew I found something special with Tri-State. The owner of the shop in Florida was pretty nasty to talk to. We ended up getting our money back but I thought, this would never happen with Tri-State. I just had this gross feeling after dealing with the shop in Florida and was so grateful to have found such a wonderful shop at home.
At this point we decided to try to figure out a way to complete my open water dives while I was in the Seychelles. After a few emails and phone calls we had it all planned. Whew!
Then our life was flipped upside down a month later. It was actually on that Spring Break trip to Florida that I found the swollen lymph node under my left arm that lead to us finding out that I had stage 4 breast cancer. Brandon and I ended up canceling our part of the big trip because we didn’t know what my treatment was going to be like over the next few months. After the whirlwind of doctors appointments calmed down I realized that by cancelling our trip, my open water certification dives were then cancelled too. So, I gave Joly a call. I realized, looking back on my previous cancelled dives, that I was supposed to complete my open waters with the Tri-State group all along. The other plans I had made never felt right. I knew I would be completely comfortable diving with the group from Tri-State and that is crucial when it comes to diving.
I had to fill Joly in on what was going on with my health. When I was going through my certification classes I didn’t feel the need to tell them about my breast cancer background because at the time it wasn’t relevant. He told me that he knew a little about what I was going through because his girlfriend, Christie, had gone through a battle with breast cancer not that long ago. At this point it was the end of May of 2016 and Joly informed me I had a calendar year to get in my certification dives after the coursework was completed. He told me they were going to the quarry the first part of June. I still wasn’t crazy about going into the quarry. He also said “Ya know, we’re going to Cozumel the end of October and you could do your dives down there!” Hmmm… let me see… Cozumel or a local rock quarry?… ha! I told him I would talk with Brandon and get back to him. I had already decided to take a year off from teaching at that point so I knew getting time off from work wasn’t going to be an issue. I decided to go to Cozumel for part of the week and didn’t stay for the entire week that was planned.
I headed off to Cozumel early one Saturday morning. I was flying there by myself, which was a fun little adventure, and then meeting up with the rest of the Tri-State group at the resort. I was meeting up with a group of people that the majority I had never met. Shortly after getting there Joly introduced me to Christie and we politely said hello. We didn’t jump right into swapping cancer stories. Honestly, for me, it is definitely not the first thing I share with people. “Hi I’m Jessica and I have stage 4 breast cancer” Nope, not going to happen. I like the idea of people having no idea. Because if you would look at me, you really wouldn’t know. Especially then with my LONG, brown hair. I would rather people get to know me first without this curtain of pity hanging over me. Nope, don’t feel sorry for me, look… I’m out here scuba diving! Nothing to feel sorry about over here.
Also, I have always been hesitant about making “cancer friends”. I don’t want to have this in common with anyone. I don’t want cancer to be the focus of our conversations… “How’s your cancer today? Yeah, mine’s not so bad today, either” Yuck, gross… don’t want to go there. Now, I have made cancer friends and sometimes it is so great to finally meet someone who understands where you are and what you’ve been through. They get it. But, I’m still hesitant because the fact is that the chances are you’re going to lose them or they’re going to lose you. My thought is, let’s not get close so that way we both don’t have to go through this loss. Over the past five years of dealing with breast cancer I’ve lost 4 cancer friends. The survivor guilt is a real thing and it’s a serious reminder of your own mortality.
I was only in Cozumel for 5 short days. It was amazing. The diving was incredible and the people were great. With only knowing a couple of people in the group, the rest welcomed me into their diving family. I was the “newbie diver” and everyone was so helpful in giving me tips and tricks to help perfect my new skill. I loved every minute of that trip.
I met my surrogate dive parents, Mona and Stan. They watched out for me that week and even took me into town so I didn’t have to go by myself. That’s when I told them I felt like I was shopping with my parents! They reminded me that they were old enough to be my parents! Ha!
It wasn’t until the end of the trip that Christie and I stood out by the water and I shared my story with her. As I was telling her about it all Christie couldn’t hold back her tears. She cried for me, for us, for my family. She didn’t wish this experience on anyone and hated that I was going through it. I reminded her that I was doing ok and feeling good. She told me two years ago she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, which is NOT hormone responsive and is lacking the Her2 protein, that some drugs target, which makes it an aggressive form that does not have as many treatment options available. She went through chemo and said that she was really sick and that she would never want to go through it again.
I only saw Christie maybe one time after that Cozumel trip when we crossed paths at the dive shop. We connected through Facebook and would keep in touch through comments she would leave on my posts. She would refer to me as “Sweet Jessica” and always ended her comments with – “hugs” She would often comment on how darling my girls were. She sent me a message on December 8, 2017 at 11:11 am.
I just looked back at the message and saw the time stamp of 11:11. I didn’t notice it before and those numbers are special to me. I know people have said you make a wish at 11:11 but to me those numbers pop up when I feel a divine/spiritual connection, like I’m in line with God’s plan for me. The fact that her last message has that time stamp is something very special. If you look back at all of the events that didn’t work out to bring me to Cozumel that week, I was meant to be there and I was meant to meet Christie. I absolutely believe that God brings certain people into our lives at different times for a specific reason. We may not know the exact reason but He does.
In that message Christie sent me the video below of a little girl singing in her church choir. She couldn’t help but move her body to the music
We chatted about the video and then she broke the news that her cancer had returned and it was in her liver. She had started two chemos in October. She was still in shock and disbelief that her cancer had returned. She was now triple negative metastatic breast cancer. Not a diagnosis anyone wants to hear because of the limited treatment options. She said she hated taking all of the medications, she said she felt like they made it worse. I could understand and offered her some resources about alternative treatments. She said that maybe when she got over the disbelief that she would be interested in talking about some alternatives. We wished each other a Merry Christmas. She said she was looking forward to having her kids at home to spend time with them over the holidays. I told her I would be praying for her. I checked in a couple days later and told her that every time she popped into my head I was saying a little prayer for strength for her. I never received another message from her.
One week after she sent that message, I found spots on my liver. At the time we weren’t sure if it was the breast cancer spreading but six weeks later it was confirmed. I was caught up in my own health crisis at that point and I didn’t reach out to Christie after that. To be honest, I was scared to. We were both fighting the same disease, in the same organ, and if she wasn’t doing well, I didn’t want to know. I wanted to drive out and visit with her but I didn’t think I could handle seeing her if she didn’t look well. I was scared, for her, and for me.
I did see a picture pop up on Facebook of her on a dive trip at the end of January and I thought. “Oh good! She’s out traveling”. February went by and on March 16, 2018 I saw mutual friends starting to post pictures of Christie and well wishes… Christie had passed away the day before.
My first thought was.. No! No, no, no, no. I was shocked… How could it be so soon? It felt like we had just sent messages back and forth a few weeks earlier. I was extremely sad for her family and friends. I regretted not reaching out to her, not just making the drive and going to see her. I sent messages to her closest friends and offered my love and prayers. I sat down with my journal that night and wrote a letter to Christie. I told her all of the things I wanted to say to her and I ended it with “Rest in peace sweet, Christie. I will think of you often”. I wasn’t able to attend Christie’s funeral due to being out of town on a family vacation so I didn’t get the closure I needed after her passing. So when we joined this Tri-State group, somewhat last minute, to Bonaire last week, I was a little nervous. I wasn’t sure how I would do emotionally seeing everyone and not having Christie there. Even though it has almost been a year since her passing, it still felt fresh to me.
Brandon and I flew out of CVG and we ended up being on the same flight with quite a few of the other divers from the Tri-State group. I saw Joly for the first time in over a year and it was so nice to give him a big hug. I wanted to say something then about Christie but I didn’t want that to be the first thing that came out of my mouth, although it was the first thing I thought of. After I hugged him I thought, Christie would be here, and she’s not.
We had a great week of diving and meeting a whole new group of Tri-State divers. Everyone was fun and were wonderful to dive with.
The diving was beautiful. I have never seen such a variety of coral and fish. The health of the marine life in Bonaire was definitely impressive. During the dives we were under water for up to an hour. It’s so peaceful to dive. All you can hear is the sound of your own breath and bubbles. You’re floating through the water and I believe it’s the closest feeling you will get to flying. You can hover over the coral, just like you’re flying over, and look in all of the nooks and crannies. On those peaceful dives Christie was always close in thought. I would imagine her still floating through the water near me. I would talk to her and even may have asked her to send a sea turtle my way.
Turtles are my favorite and I wasn’t seeing any on our dives. I was always looking but never found any until towards the end of my very last dive for the week. I was swimming back to the boat and was looking around in the shallow area in all of the places I thought a turtle might hang out. I kept looking and looking and then all of a sudden I saw one! He was a pretty big guy and was wedged under some coral scratching his shell. I was so excited!! I could have stayed there all day just watching him move around. (The clicking you hear in the video is Joly hitting his tank to get the other divers’ attention to tell them to come check out the turtle.)
When we returned home Brandon asked if I was ready to blog about our trip! I said yeah, but the title is going to be “Missing Christie”. I enjoyed our week away but I couldn’t shake the void I felt without her there. So…
Dear Christie, I missed you last week and think of you often. Not having you there with us in Bonaire reminded me to never take anything for granted. To embrace my good days and to continue to thank God for another day on this earth. I hope you are enjoying the glories of heaven. Until we meet again sweet sister. Hugs ~ Jessica
PS: The night I finished typing this post as I crawled into bed and glanced at my alarm clock it read – 11:11- I see you Christie, Thank you.