Truly Down Under
Let me introduce Shea Megale. Shea is a remarkable young woman and her love of life and pursuit of dreams make for an extraordinary story. She is an adventurer, writer and soon to be author of her 10th young-adult novel. Shea has been featured on the Today Show, written up in national news publications, and her books are available on Amazon. To learn more, check out her site at: sheamegale.weebly.com. Shea was born with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), an extremely rare genetic condition. SMA is a genetic neuromuscular disease characterized by muscle atrophy and weakness. Although Shea is confined to a wheelchair much of the time, it certainly doesn’t define her. Her optimism and sense of adventure have taken her to some remarkable places including a recent trip to Australia, New Zealand, and a visit to the Great Barrier Reef. At the reef, Shea had the opportunity to get out of her wheelchair and explore a whole new world. This is Shea’s story, told in her own words, in a recent post.
I remember, when I was younger, I used to lie in bed in total darkness and watch the green light on my smoke detector blink. All night. Even that young I remember thinking how fascinating it was that in a room of pitch darkness, that tiny light seemed to suck me right out of the dark. I was only drawn to it.
Isn’t that how the world works? We live surrounded by constant pain and wrongfulness and yet are sustained by mere seconds of redeeming beauty.
That’s what I realized today underwater 60 miles from the shore. We’ll get to that bit.
First we should cover my first two days in Cairns.
Cairns is the rainforest. We stayed in stilted bungalows in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest. It showered hard all night long and drummed against the skylight. Insects and lizards were some of the many species we found camping at the bungalow.
But in order to get to the bungalow, we had to catch the ferry before it closed. Our flight was an hour delayed. The luggage was held up. The car we rented was an unanticipated stick shift. Nothing was going our way for making this ferry.
Dad raced around winding streets in the rain and jacked the lever to and fro. We zoomed into the ferry dock to see the booth closed. All of us sighed in despair. Dad twisted the engine off in defeat.
Then, across the crocodile infested river, a light flashed. The ferry came back for us.
A man named Wallaby, literally the most Australian person you can imagine, opened the gate for us and waved us in. His accent was nearly indecipherable, his glasses were thick, and he wore a floppy brown hat over yellow hair. Thank goodness for Wallaby.
The following day was spent sampling exotic fruit, cruising the Daintree River in search of crocodiles (we saw a huge one), and walking the forest paths. With black silt, running water, and deep armies of mangrove, I felt like an explorer. I daydreamed it was true.
And then we boarded the ship to the Great Barrier Reef.
I need to admit that I have been dreading this experience the whole trip. Dad, who is never seasick, became green on the bouncy ride over. He didn’t let me know how nervous he was for me until after.
The main instructor’s name was Beau. He’s 49 with a long brown mane, light hair puffing out of the collar of his red shirt, and these beautiful teal eyes that were amazingly caring and human.
He gave the introductory divers a demo, but kept looking over at me with a mixture of gentleness and measurement, as if trying to figure out how this would be possible.
Finally he sat down at my level with a touch of sadness and said that their referring doctor had left it up to him whether or not to take me diving. He asked lots of questions and watched me steadily.
And he could not bring himself to deny my spirit.
Three hours later, I was dressed in my wetsuit. Dad carried me down to the water but he had to leave me alone there. He would be a pupil himself. So down there, on a grated ledge next to the point, Beau and two other instructors loaded my gear. One was a big giant grey-bearded teddy bear named David. David loved to laugh. The other was an ex army, young diver named Des. As Beau attached my mask, he said “You like all this attention from three Australian guys don’t ya?”
I love how Australians can see right through me.
Des carried me to the ledge and held me. Beau jumped in the water.
I was given the oxygen. I became Darth Shea.
Haaaa-hooo. Haaaaa – hooo.
Now Beau began to talk to me real calm and kept his eyes firm on me. He wanted to see that I could independently clear my mask and reinsert my oxygen.
I couldn’t. My head was flailing. The weight just barely had my face smacking the water. But I could breathe.
Beau, by policy, should have pulled me out right there. But he looked at me as the waves lapped, just me and him, and said “Do you want to just go down?”
With literally all my strength, I nodded.
And he tore me into the water.
I rocketed down diagonally. The world transformed into coral and ocean and I breathed hard and fast into the oxygen.
I’m scared. I’m scared. God, I’m scared. I’m scared, God.
I had no control.
I had to learn to let it go.
And then I was there. I was underwater in the Great Barrier Reef. I was doing what half the ABLED population would never do.
Huge fish ribboned around my face. Little ones scattered as my hand reached out.
Several times Beau’s weathered hand reached in front of my face and made the okay sign. A question. I answered identically. Sometimes he would turn me so I could gaze into his teal eyes through the mask. Reading me. I was okay.
He took me everywhere. I felt no fear being held by him. The most beautiful, fascinating creature in the water that day were the humans.
Finally Beau turned me towards open water. Vast turquoise blue. I puffed. And puffed. Above was the grate of the pontoon. Already it was over.
He popped me out of the water. David reeled me up into his massive arms.
I took out the oxygen and laughed. “That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever done in my life. Pretty brave, huh?”
“Yeh did great, dahlin!” came Beau’s reedy voice somewhere.
David and Beau lifted me up and then David carried me alone all the way to my chair.
I did it. I dove.
Dr. Crawford said that I have a sixteenth of the muscle regular people have, but what I do have works ten times harder than any regular person’s muscle; every second of my existence. I felt it. Everything was exhausted.
I feel it now.
My muscles work hard to compensate for everything against me. But the greatest muscle I own is the one that Beau saw through my mask in my eyes before he decided to plunge me under.
That’s the one that makes my life worth living. That, like the little green button, is my little green light.
I love you all. I’m okay. More than okay.
And I’m truly Down Under.