(Illustration: Dadu Shin)

Inhale, Exhale. Sitting with Grief on the Red Sea Floor.

A secret abortion, pirates, and the peace found at the bottom of the ocean

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With each inhale, the small pink balloons of my lungs swelled, lifting me a few inches off the sand—not into air, but water. As I exhaled, a string of bubbles tickled up my face, growing into bulbous, cellophane-like jellyfish by the time they reached the surface, 60 feet above. With empty lungs, I settled back down, my weight sending pearls of white sand dancing away across the textured seafloor.

I was on the bottom of the Red Sea, sitting cross-legged in a world of blue, the only place to cool off. It was 2010, I was serving as a crew member aboard a marine-research vessel, and for most of our three-week voyage on the sea, the thermometer stayed in the triple digits, at best dropping to the nineties in the middle of the night. Simply jumping off the boat provided no relief—the surface was like bathwater.

Our 114-foot-long ketch, which I’ll call Persephone, was anchored off the volcanic, uninhabited islands of Yemen’s Zubair archipelago. We had to repair the roller-furling system before entering the most dangerous stretch of the voyage—an area called Pirate Alley, which we’d been dreading for months. That summer, the Gulf of Aden, between Yemen and Somalia, was making international news due to a spate of boat hijackings. The pirates weren’t looking for cargo; they wanted hostages. There were ten of us aboard this slow boat, hailing from the U.S, France, and Belgium. We had no weapons. We were a perfect target.

The day before, 175 miles north of the Gulf of Aden, we heard a distress signal on our VHF radio. A man’s voice crackled through the thick static, in what sounded like a Greek accent.

“Help us, help us!” he said. “We’re being boarded… pirates… We’re being boarded… surrounded…”

Another voice responded, asking their location. The man shouted out coordinates, then fell silent. We never heard him again and never learned what happened. The range on our radio was only 40 miles.

It had been almost a year since I’d joined this crew, and I’d scarcely had a moment to myself since. As soon as I was alone and could think about anything other than our freshwater supply, or cleaning the head, or pumping the bilge water from the bosun’s locker, my mind seemed to empty. I spent that first dive floating in some liminal place between worlds—away from the hot, crowded ship, the yelling captain, the over-masculine crew, the suppressed grief for my dead father that brought me here in the first place. I felt serene for the hour and twenty minutes I sat down there, empty thoughts opening like glass parachutes above my head. But my mind would not remain empty for long.

My journey to the bottom of the sea began the year before, at a dinner party in California. I sat next to a man who I’ll call Taz. We got to talking, and I learned that he and his partner, Ellie, ran an environmental NGO that had fallen on hard times. The ship they were leasing for marine-conservation work was taken back by its owner, leaving them without a seagoing vessel. But they had recently found the Persephone for sale at a shipyard in Malta and were preparing to move to the Mediterranean to fix it up.

“Need a dishwasher?” I asked, mostly joking.

“We need a lot more than a dishwasher,” he said. “Why, you interested?”

“I… yes. Absolutely.”

I was 25 and had never sailed a day in my life, but I convinced them to take me along and committed to the entire yearlong endeavor of making Persephone seaworthy.

I felt serene for the hour and twenty minutes I sat down there, empty thoughts opening like glass parachutes above my head. But my mind would not remain empty for long.

The retrofit ended up being more like an exorcism. Persephone was a 100-year-old ketch that was about to be sold for scrap before we came along and worked six, and sometimes seven, days a week from sunup to sundown for nine months—cutting out nearly 100 square feet of the corroded steel hull, reconstructing two rotted wooden masts, replacing the defunct engine and propeller and hydraulic steering system, and gutting the entire inside down to its ribs before building it back from scratch.

By the time we finally left Malta, broke and exhausted, the boat still had no radar and no weather fax, and we couldn’t fly the mainsail for fear it would rip the mast from the rotten deck, which we hadn’t had the time or money to replace. The payment Taz and Ellie offered me and other volunteers for our hard work was the adventure of getting to sail Persephone from Malta to Singapore, more than 6,000 nautical miles away. According to Captain Taz, though, the real payment was all the scuba diving we’d get to do in the Red Sea.

The author in the Red Sea, July 2010
The author in the Red Sea, July 2010 (Photo: Courtesy Sam Keck Scott)

The six countries that border the Red Sea are some of the hottest in the world—Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Djibouti. Seeing these desert names on maps, I imagined mountains of yellow sand quivering beneath the glare of a white sun, but I quickly learned that the sun in these parts at the time was not white, and the sand was not yellow—both were dark red.

A haboob was blowing east off the Sahara that summer, a dust storm of atmospheric proportions, turning the sun into a bloody orb you could stare straight into. For more than three weeks, we were covered in a red dust as fine as flour. The entire ship was coated in it, coloring our off-white sails a firebrick hue. It filled our galley drawers, hid the compass on the helm stand, and left a thin red film on the bilgewater. Our hair was red, our sweat ran red. The dust got between our teeth and into the corners of our eyes. The haboob also acted as a great sooty quilt, trapping the heat of the day. I took to sleeping on the roof of the navigation deck, out in the open air with no blankets, but even so, every morning I wrung the sweat from my bedsheet.

After my first visit to the seafloor, I couldn’t wait to do it again the next day. I sank below the ship, placing my flippers beside me on the sandy bottom, the way you would set your shoes aside at the beach. Even from way down there, I could still see the dirty, reddish tint to the air above. Inhale, lift; exhale, settle. With nothing to focus on in a liquid world, I let my vision go soft, the scalloped sand stretching white and dreamlike in every direction.

I thought of my dad, of how proud he would have been that I’d come on this adventure. He was a marine biologist, and in my mind he has always been synonymous with the ocean. So much so that when I remember how I thought of him when I was a child, I think I actually thought he was the sea. In my mind, the warm man who tucked me in at night became marine by day, dissolving into gleaming, flickering, endless blue as he carried me across the sand in the glossy morning light. He had big hands, silver hair, bushy eyebrows, a voice of sweet syrup. But also, somehow, he was made of gasping prehistoric barnacles, bubble-mouthed crabs, and green anemones that grabbed at my small fingers like sticky flowers while I squealed with toddler rapture in his arms.

I thought I was the sea, too, which meant I was also him. We were the string of pelicans festooned above the serpentine waves. We were the sharp cold of the briny surf. At night we slept so safe and so sound, dreaming that we were a baby whale flying through a world of smooth blue glass and golden featherine light. Following our mother’s song.

At some point, as I grew older, reality was no longer a place where a father could also be an ocean. There were boundaries now, differentiation, things to build an ego with. But when I was 19, something that should have been impossible happened—my dad died. Out of nowhere. Complications from a cancer surgery. He was all the way here, then all the way gone, over the course of one terrible Fourth of July weekend.

In the months afterward, I found myself standing at the seashore every day, strangled by grief. Staring out at the green galloping waves, at the pelicans skimming the curling surf with their beaks of ancient stone. Watching the foam roll like sudsy tumbleweeds across the sand. Day after day, as I breathed in the heavy iodine stink of the nearby tide pools, my mind began to rearrange itself and I stepped from one world back into another. A world where, in his physical absence, I think I thought he became the sea again. So I went looking for him.

The Red Sea was a colossus the moment we left the Suez Canal. After a gentle week crossing the Mediterranean, our crew and boat were suddenly put to the test as we raced up, down, over, below, and along the flanks of a dizzying waterscape of roiling, metallic-blue hills and troughs. Every time a wave struck just right against the stern, the entire steel hull would vibrate like a tuning fork.

“That’s the type of force that can break a weld,” my bunkmate remarked in the darkness one night, also unable to sleep from the heat and endless motion. I lay wide-eyed, listening for bilge alarms and the sound of flooding water.

Belowdecks became nearly unbearable—a sauna where mold crept up the walls in black archipelagos. We learned to keep all the portholes closed after one particularly impressive yaw that caused every window on the portside of the ship to gulp water and flood the galley, two bunks in the fo’c’sle, and, most consequentially, the captain’s quarters. But it didn’t matter, there was no keeping the sea out—the teak deck of our old ship was covered in soft spots, and the subfloor below it had rotted through, so it rained inside our cabins each time the bow harpooned into the face of a wave, scooping up hundreds of gallons of seawater.

Captain Taz yelled at whoever was steering each time it happened, as if it were avoidable, his huge frame stomping up and down the soaked deck in nothing but a Balinese sarong. Whenever he took his turn at the helm, however, more often than not he too would flood the deck, but instead of breaking the tension with a self-aware laugh, he’d act as if nothing had happened. The rest of us exchanged looks, but didn’t dare say a word. Taz was growing increasingly belligerent. When not actively yelling at us, he muttered to himself, and we all learned to give him as wide a berth as the narrow boat allowed. Thankfully, soon enough, he went nearly catatonic, spending the final month of the voyage locked in his cabin, leaving us mostly, blessedly, captainless.

In my mind, the warm man who tucked me in at night became marine by day, dissolving into gleaming, flickering, endless blue as he carried me across the sand in the glossy morning light.

It had been frightening to learn how wrong my first impression of Taz had been. When I met him at that dinner in California, he was charming and warm, a potential father figure. But it only took a few weeks of living with him before the varnish wore thin, and I learned he was the furthest thing from my dad, who was gentle, compassionate, patient—and who cried if I disappointed him. He never yelled. Taz could turn on the charisma whenever he wanted, but ultimately he ruled with his temper, and we all lived in constant fear of the six-foot-four-inch, black-haired grenade rolling up and down the boat, day and night.

I couldn’t blame Taz for being frustrated; most of us didn’t have a clue how to rebuild a ship, or how to sail one. The majority of the crew were young, inexperienced volunteers like myself, requiring constant hand-holding. Only Clarence, our chief engineer, brought any real skills to the table.

In normal circumstances, Clarence and I likely wouldn’t have become close. He was a loud, crass, motorcycle-loving welder and blacksmith, while I was an introspective, bookish animal lover. But on the Persephone, we became fast friends.

Whenever the generator was off, we were forbidden from opening the refrigerator, so Clarence would keep a lookout while I snuck cold Egyptian lagers from the icebox.

“You’re wasting away, Sammy,” he said to me one day as we sat on large coils of rope at the bow, sipping from our clandestine beers.

“I know it,” I said, looking down at my torso, covered with a heat rash and gaunt from all the weight I’d lost due to weeks of nonstop sweating. “You’re looking quite svelte yourself.”

Sam, Chloe, and Will
Sam, Chloe, and Will (Photo: Courtesy Sam Keck Scott)
Family photo, 1986
A family picture from 1986 (Photo: Courtesy Sam Keck Scott)

Back on the seafloor. Again in a liminal place, neither here nor there. An unborn place, perhaps, the water becoming more amniotic fluid than ocean. My thoughts floated to my mother, my original Red Sea. My inhalations were no longer my own but someone else’s breathing entirely—huge lungs expanding all around me. The slow bubbles I exhaled were the gurgle of intestines and the murmurs of other red-brown organs, swishing and swaying like soft corals and sea fans in her water body, where I too lived, tethered to her alone and not yet the rest of this world.

At the bottom of the sea, everything seemed to drift toward origins—toward my parents. The builders of my body. The people who got me here. My dad was my mom’s college professor, and when they first got together, he was 42 and she was 19. He was married at the time and had been for longer than she’d been alive. The story always went that the reason they split up shortly after I was born was because their 23-year age difference had finally caught up with them. That while my young mom was beginning her career as a midwife, my dad had decided to retire early and became depressed and aimless. Their lives were no longer compatible, so they separated. Simple as that.

It wasn’t until more than 20 years after their divorce, shortly before I packed for Malta, that I got the rest of the story. My older sister, Chloe, was going through a divorce herself, and she, our brother, Will, and I were at our mom’s house one night, supporting Chloe as she threw her world into turmoil, knowing it was what she needed to do to live the life she truly wanted. It was late, and we were in the dimly lit living room of my mom’s drafty wooden house. Chloe was crying, knowing that she was being painted as the villain by their mutual friends and her in-laws, that they saw her ruining a perfectly good thing, never mind that she was miserable. We were all a little drunk, having moved from wine to whisky, when my mom spoke.

“I was the villain, too, when I divorced your dad,” she said. “Everyone thought I was crazy for leaving such a good man and cruel for putting you kids through all that when you were so young. But no one knew why I actually did it.”

She told us that everything we already knew about their divorce was true—their age difference and his depression—but there was a piece she’d left out. Around the time I turned two, my mom had gotten pregnant again. She wanted to have the baby, but my dad insisted they get an abortion. He was almost 60 at the time, with three young children and three grown ones from his previous marriage. He was done having kids. But my mom wasn’t. She felt the embryo growing inside her and wanted to hold it in the warm sea of her body until it grew and grew. But he won the argument, and she never forgave him for it.

“It was my second abortion,” she told us. “The first was after the very first time your father and I ever had sex, when I lost my virginity. And the second was after the very last time your father and I ever had sex.”

My family is staunchly pro-choice—my mother’s career was in childbirth and advocating for women’s reproductive rights—so there was no antiabortion sentiment present that night. Yet there was a feeling of being anti-this-abortion. We all felt it, because our mother, the carrier of that embryo, did not choose it. And although our father had a strong case for why he didn’t want another child, he still ended a life that was wanted by its mother, where it briefly lived, tethered to her alone and not yet the rest of this world.

Was I the only one who suddenly felt the abyssal emptiness of another presence in that room? The presence of someone who might have been? A whole other lifetime flashed before my eyes in which there was one more of us, another member of our family. Will and Chloe, twins who are four years older than me, are the two people closest to me—they have defined my life since the moment I was born. To think I might have had another sibling, that I might have been a middle child instead of the youngest, always trying to keep up, would have changed everything. It would have been an entirely different life.

Mom told us how our dad hadn’t wanted the divorce, how he’d begged her not to leave. And when she wouldn’t budge, how he had resorted to using the three of us to gang up on her. She said that when I was a toddler, I avoided her, and when she’d ask me what was wrong, I’d reply: “You’re bad for making dad sad.”

She was crying, telling us all this, and it was clear the pain was still alive. I went to sleep that night with turbid, unsettled thoughts, but when I woke up the next morning, they had drifted someplace deep inside me where I was glad to let them rest. It was too confusing. I wasn’t willing to accommodate the fact that my father hadn’t been perfect. That is, until I went to the bottom of the Red Sea, where it was all waiting for me.

Inhale, lift; exhale, settle. How could he be so careless? I had always let their significant age difference just be a fact, and never examined it too closely, but now I couldn’t help but see it in a whole new light after learning she had gotten pregnant the first time they slept together. He was the experienced one, and she was just a teenager. He never should have let that happen. What was he thinking? And the way he turned the three of us against our mom during the divorce? It was unforgivable.

None of this felt like the man I had known, who was so loving and sensitive and careful with the feelings of those around him. Even after the divorce, when mom got into Yale, he moved from California to Connecticut so he could stay close to us and help her juggle school and parenting. Then he moved back to California when we did, after she graduated and got remarried, because all he cared about was being our dad.

I was cold, almost shivering. Oxygen gauge in the red. I slipped on my flippers, pumped some air into my buoyancy-control vest, and began my slow ascent to the surface.

Back on the boat, the crew were all talking about how they’d heard a U.S. warship on the radio, patrolling for pirates. Recent reports had told of pirates expanding their range into the southern Red Sea, and we started to get nervous as we approached the Gulf of Aden, knowing we had officially entered the fringes of the danger zone.

Before making it this far into the Red Sea, Taz and Ellie told us they wouldn’t begrudge anyone who decided this was all too risky and needed to get off the boat. I thought hard about it, and listened to my mother’s pleas over Skype to not risk my life for these people, but I knew I couldn’t turn back now. Only one of our crew decided it wasn’t worth it, and we left him at a port in Egypt.

Once we got the roller-furling system flying again, our plan was to use the high winds and heavy seas to get through Pirate Alley as fast as possible, hugging the Yemeni side of the Gulf, far away from Somalia. But the rope that released the roller-furling sail was still catastrophically bound up in the drum, and while Taz and Clarence worked to fix it, they kept the rest of us busy on smaller projects—sanding, varnishing, cleaning, organizing.

At the end of each workday, I was quietly happy to learn they still hadn’t succeeded in fixing the sail, because that meant I could keep leaving behind the dusty, angry heat for my cool blue desert on the seafloor.

It was strange and awful to watch my father fall from grace. He was like a huge marble statue at the bottom of the sea, ghostly white and rippling, and the more I thought about the indiscretions that affected my young mother, the more the statue of him began to falter, to shift on its base, until it finally toppled in slow motion, sending a wave of sand toward me, until I could no longer see him at all. As if I had never even known him.

I recalled my earliest memory. It was during their divorce. As I was in the bathtub, I listened to my parents’ raised voices. When all went quiet and my mom came back into focus, she was alone.

“Where’s dad?”

He had left without saying goodbye, and I can still feel the betrayal coiled up in my two-year-old stomach, hot and twisting. The dad I knew never would have left. Yet he did.

Now all that stone was finally gone, and I was left with nothing but salt water. The sea within me mixing with the sea above and all around me.

I recently described this memory to my mom, and she filled in the rest of the scene for me. After he drove away, I threw a tantrum so powerful and sustained that she was forced to call him at my aunt’s house. Despite the pain he must have been in, he came right back.

But the next time he left without saying goodbye, 16 years later, he never returned. And now, down on the seafloor, he once again had become someone other than the person I thought I knew. All I wanted was to hear his side of things. To have him help me understand. But I would have to do that on my own.

My daily rhythm of floating between the surface and the seafloor began to feel like a macrocosm for breathing: inhale—a world of blue, bubbles, disgrace, an invisible father; exhale—a red world, heat, a yelling captain. Inhale—blue, silence, settling sand; exhale—red, dust, another coat of varnish. Inhale—blue, goosebumps, a small frightened child; exhale—red, stomping feet, a huge frustrated child. Inhale—blue, good visibility, compassion; exhale—anger. Inhale—compassion; exhale—anger.

Then there he was. As the last of the sand fell around what was once an oversize monument, a normal-size man stood on the flat seafloor, wearing the red raincoat he always wore when he took me to the tide pools, where he introduced me to the sea. He held up a hand in greeting and smiled, as if to say, Nice to have you finally meet me.

He was no saint. Just a man. A really good man. Kind, loving, and imperfect. He could act from hurt when it hurt enough, and be careless and immature, even when he was supposed to be the grown-up. Just like the rest of us.

I found the man who had always warned me that if I hold in my tears, they’ll turn to stone inside me. But who forgot to warn me that if I exalted my own father to something larger than life, he too could turn to stone inside me. Now all that stone was finally gone, and I was left with nothing but salt water. The sea within me mixing with the sea above and all around me.

The next day, after nearly a week of repairs, the sail was finally fixed, and we weighed anchor. It was time to go. The Red Sea’s southern end is a strait called Bab-el-Mandeb, which narrows like a birth canal before opening up into the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. The moment we passed through it, the temperature dropped 20 degrees, and we all whooped and hollered and ran downstairs to put on long-sleeved shirts for the first time in a month.

We saw no pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and the winds and swell were in our favor the entire time. Every night of our passage across the Indian Ocean we sailed through waters so thick with bioluminescence that I barely let myself sleep for fear of missing it. Night after night, I’d sit first at the bow, watching the ship cut a glowing V through the invisible water, then move to the stern, where a wake of living light became an opaline road in the darkness behind us.

No matter how brightly that road shone, it always disappeared again, as if it were never there, while new light erupted from beneath the ship, filling its place.