To me, the commercial real estate industry is a complex blend of thriving and surviving. Sometimes, the world is our oyster: Lease rates are rising, tenants outnumber spaces to put them in, and landlords beg for deals and gleefully pay hefty commissions when said deals close. (That’s the ‘thrive’ part.) But there are other times.
The Discovery Channel has a show called Dual Survival where two ruggedly hairy and undoubtedly odiferous outdoorsmen with varying degrees of primitive survival skills are dropped into inhospitable places around the world and have to find a way to come out alive.
So with a hat tip to Dual Survival, this past spring I set about making summer vacation plans for my son and me to scuba dive in Belize. Okay, the place we chose wasn’t exactly in the deepest, darkest jungles of Borneo where the Dual Survival guys might go, but we were going to an atoll 30 miles off the coast of Belize. Yes, we would have air conditioning in our room, but we would not have cable TV or a mini bar. Roughing it? Oh, absolutely.
But before I could finalized our plans, though, my doctor’s office called. He needed to see me stat.
“Why?” I asked.
“Your CT results are in.”
“And?” I prodded.
“The doctor doesn’t have this sort of conversation over the phone.”
I had kidney cancer: renal cell carcinoma. The diving trip would wait.
On June 9, my surgeon removed my cancer. Three weeks later he told me I should be cancer-free by the end of July. I would be tested every six months for the next two years, and if I was still cancer-free, I would be tested every two years from then on.
I had survived.
That very day, I booked our diving trip. We would leave on July 26, my 55th birthday.
We’d make nine dives over three days. And all was going perfectly until we dived the Great Blue Hole. I had been told if we were going to see sharks, the Blue Hole was where we would see them. But I don’t like sharks. Not even a little. They are not cute, cuddly, or our friends, despite what we had learned in Finding Nemo.
We left the dock at 7:30 a.m. and were in the water at the Blue Hole by 9. A quick scan showed no sharks in sight. (Not yet.)
We kicked our fins up and went straight down just as fast as we could clear our ears and sinuses. Once down, we checked our dive computers, which showed we had seven minutes at 136 feet below sea level. We wandered among the stalactites and stalagmites there until our computers said it was time to ascend.
On our first safety stop at 60 feet, I saw it: A large, gray form slowly swimming across the inky blackness some 50 feet below us. I signaled our dive master, made the ‘shark’ sign, and nervously pointed to where he was. The dive master looked down and nodded, apparently unimpressed.
Minutes later, we were at our next safety stop at around 30 feet. There, our dive master rattled his noisemaker, the one he shook when pointing out a puffer fish or a channel crab. I looked where he was pointing: an eight-foot black tip reef shark was coming right at us. Was I thrilled about this development? I was not.
The shark slowly meandered by, turned, passed casually three feet below us, and swam off into the gloom. At about that time I reminded myself the importance of breathing while underwater, something I had stopped doing for about five-and-a-half minutes.
Once aboard our boat, we talked little about the encounter while heading to our next dive spot 30 minutes away. I figured it might be bad luck to rehash such a thing. Besides, I didn’t want to admit to my kid how terrified I had been having something that big—and that deadly—so close by.
Once we anchored again, we suited up and dropped into 60 feet of water to explore another coral reef. Shortly after reaching depth, we spotted another black tip reef shark. But this time, the shark didn’t mosey by and move on; he hung around the whole time.
I kept a close eye on my oxygen level during that dive, and soon as I was down to a half a tank, I signaled the dive master it was time to go.
We started back to the boat, and when we did, the shark followed.
And then it happened.
Out of the gloom ahead, I saw the shark coming our way. I was up at the front of our group, the dive master on my left. Fortunately for me, that was the side the shark edged toward. Just as we were passing by, less than five feet away, the shark cut to its left and charged straight at us, jaw open.
Of the five of us in the water that day, only the dive master had any sort of weapon: A short spear he used mostly as a pointer. In a flash, he grabbed that spear and jammed it into the shark’s snout. The shark shot it off, grabbed the spear in its mouth, and gave it a tremendous shake, thrashing back and forth. Then suddenly, the shark let go and swam off.
I had never been so relieved to see the bottom of a dive boat in my life.
Later, it struck me just how lucky we had been. Had that shark eased to the right rather than the left, I would have been the one it had attacked. Or if it had passed those of us up front and chosen to attack the third, fourth, or fifth (my son) in our group, the result could have been disastrous. But that shark chose to attack the only member of our group who had something useful to protect himself. Dumb luck? Fate? Karma? Some may think so, but I’m not so sure.
Once again, I had survived. But as was the case when I learned I had cancer, my survival was not of my own doing. My kidney cancer was at Stage 1 (five-year survival rate: 81%), and with the right surgeon, it was readily removed. I didn’t lose my hair, suffer through the nausea that often comes with cancer treatments, or fight the good fight that too often ends with whispered prayers baptized in anguish-laden tears. Instead, I felt as though I had been spared, just as I felt when thinking about whom the shark chose to try to bite.
Sometimes, for reasons we may never understand or fully appreciate, undeserved providential grace shines upon us. For me, that happened twice within two months. And for that, I will forever be humbly grateful.