I've come to realize that I'm the supporting character in my own life story. The first time this was evident to me was February 9th, 2012. My wife Cheryl had surgery that day to remove cancer from her breast. It was within 10 minutes of that surgery that our surgeon came out to the waiting room and asked me to join him in a private room. There, he informed me that what started in one area had spread to her lymph nodes under her right arm as well. If memory serves, he told me then that she officially went from stage 1 to 2B cancer. Fear doesn't paint the picture. I sat in that little room aware of two things: I had to go out and inform the family and friends in the waiting room. More importantly, my life couldn't be about me. I'd become the supporting character in my own life story. In truth, it was overdue. I'm thankful to say that over 10 years has passed by, and Cheryl is still cancer-free.
-Cheryl Wilkinson, post-chemo, film screening party
But life experiences yield follow-up reminders to lessons learned. So in 2017, I had another humbling reminder about my supporting role. Our family went to Hawaii for a Christmas family reunion. Below is the short story of an experience one day snorkeling:
-Hanauma Bay, Island of O'ahu, Hawaii
Are there sharks? This is one of the most common questions about Hanauma Bay State Park, a popular destination for snorkeling tourists on the island of O‘ahu, near Hawaii Kai. The first time I went there as a child, the long, winding highway car trip to it felt like an eternity. The last time I went was Christmas 2017 with my family and it didn’t seem to take as long to get there. Trust me, the wait is worth it no matter how far you travel to see it. In December, after parking at the top, I looked out over the curved bay. It reminded me of a gigantic water cul-de-sac. Roughly 100 acres, Hanauma Bay features a massive living coral reef with tropical fish and marine life. Every time I’ve walked down the path toward the beach, there’s never been a shortage of colorful things to focus on. The bay is housed in a volcanic crater with lush trees and turquoise water. However, I’ve watched enough film and television that my focus was always distracted by that age old tourist question. Are there going to be sharks? My uncle, a local, actually works at the park, and we met him there last time. Once a lifeguard there, he’d tell you that the greatest threat to humans in the bay isn’t sharks, but rather, inexperienced swimmers. Many years ago, he actually saved a very famous athlete from his own lack of swimmingexperience. I won’t tell you what he tried to offer as gratitude. Those story details belong to my uncle. Back to the details of my story. The fear of sharks was a short lived thought this last time. The worst thing I’d ever seen in the bay underwater was a rare, moray eel. If you ever go, and you should, you’ll be most likely swimming with schools of fish like butterfly fish, tang, or surgeonfish. Because they’re so colorful and exotic, Cheryl and I were very excited to take the kids snorkeling. It had been twenty years in the making. However, when we arrived at dawn, we not only beat the crowds, we beat the heat. It was cold. We gathered up our kids and gear and slowly waded in to the lower left side of the reef in a spot called Keyhole Lagoon. I was particularly looking forward to recording the experience with my waterproof GoPro attached to a head strap. It took me a few minutes to tighten it and carefully put it on above my snorkel mask. I looked over at Cheryl and my daughter Aubrey. Their lips were blue. My middle son Zac was violently shivering. I assured him it would warm up soon and I encouraged them all to submerge up to their necks so their bodies would adjust to the temperature. No dice. No matter. I swam away from them toward Back Door Lagoon. My oldest son Jacob followed me. As a child, he loved to swim everywhere. We called him “our little ahi”, which is Hawaiian for tuna. As we swam above the coral, I hoped to get footage of a large sea turtle. As an adult, an eel would also have been cool. A reef shark? Still a hard no. Everywhere I explored with Jacob, we could see the detail of every school of fish, all of it recorded on my GoPro. 45 minutes later, out of the corner of my eye I noticed something large approaching from the left. It was gray, slender, and long. If you can hear the theme song in your mind, let me cut to the chase. No dorsal fin. No worries. The 6 foot Chinese Trumpetfish gliding up from my back left side was easily the biggest fish I’d ever seen underwater. Yet, before it entered my camera frame I heard the worst sound: beep, beep, beep. The camera battery died. My underwater tutorial was over. Jacob never saw the large fish. I have no evidence of it to share with anyone; just a story of “almost”. I emerged and glanced from a distance at Cheryl and our other two children, still cold. That’s when I realized that even at Hanauma Bay, the place where I had gone to explore and be the leading character in my own story, Cheryl was content to stay near our kids and enjoy being a mother.