During a family vacation to Kona, Hawaii, last year, my husband and I took our kids to Kealakekua Bay to paddle to the spot where Captain Cook was killed by native Hawaiians in the late 18th century. Because this is our family’s idea of fun.
It was a perfect morning, clear and cool. I surveyed the bay and declared it a beautiful place to die, then onto the water we went.
I generally don’t mind being on the water, but I’m not fond of being in the water, particularly where man-eating creatures are known to live. So when my son jumped out of the kayak to snorkel, I was a bit on edge.
“You’re sure there are no sharks in the bay,” I whispered to my husband, who was sitting with our daughter on a paddleboard next to me. He just rolled his eyes, which I took to mean “You’re being ridiculous.”
His eye rolling didn’t answer my question, however, so I also took it to mean that there absolutely were sharks in the water.
At that very moment, for reasons that remain a mystery, blood began gushing from my daughter’s nose and dripping into the water where her brother was swimming.
I don’t believe there’s a sensible way to have a panic attack of any kind, but there’s certainly no sensible way to have a panic attack in a kayak while your child is actively bleeding into what you are now convinced are shark-infested waters.
I was immediately seized by a vision of some razor-toothed mouth emerging from the deep to drag my children below as they clutched their snorkel gear to their chests, saying solemnly, “We only wanted to see the angelfish ...”
If you’re prone to episodes like this, you’ll understand how hard it is to shake an image that gets lodged into the reptilian part of your brain. Somehow I refrained from screaming “Get out of the water, you’re about to be eaten by a shark!” and calmly convinced my son to get out of the water so that we could get closer to the Cook monument.
Tour boats were dumping snorkelers into the water in that direction, and I was certain the sharks would prefer to attack them.
We paddled on without being eaten. In the shallows near the monument, both kids snorkeled successfully with their father while I hung back with the boats, clenching my teeth.
I briefly tried to see what was swimming below me, but only needed to stick my face in the water to bring about an episode of panicked gasping. I decided to be content with the children’s occasional reports.
In the end, nothing lurked below the surface but my anxiety, and even then it didn’t pull me under, which was a significant victory.
It’s always there, lurking, like the shark that did attack a swimmer a few days later, just north of the bay where we were paddling.
This is the flaw in anxiety: We’re always swimming with sharks. Most days they don’t attack. Some days they do. Captain Cook could tell you about how quickly tides can turn.
It’s a struggle to make peace with the inherent risks in life, but I do. I must. If I want to know more joy than fear in life, I just have to keep getting into the water.
Joanna Manning is a freelance writer and college composition instructor who lives in North Tacoma. She submitted this to the TNT in honor of National Face Your Fears Day on Tuesday (Oct. 15). Check out her writing blog at www.jlmanning.com