Diving Silfra: How Iceland became a milestone in my cancer story

Published in AWOL, 12 August 2016

There is a ring road that skirts Iceland and I was meant to follow it. Twelve days, heading anti-clockwise out of Reykjavik in a rental car, just me and a few Sigur Rós albums. I was going to find the northern forests and climb the volcanic craters around Myvatn in the far north west, then wind back via Jökulsárlón to see sunlight dance on the icebergs. I had the whole trip mapped out, a whole country to see. But in 2013, the first time I went to Iceland, my plans fell apart. It takes a wealth of fortitude to travel alone and I was at my limit.

Roughly a year earlier, I had been diagnosed with lymphoma. A winter cough had led to a chest x-ray, which led to a grim diagnosis, delivered in a utility closet in the emergency department of St Vincent’s Hospital. I had a sizeable tumour in my chest, wrapped around the veins and ventricles of my heart, which was trying its best to kill me. Short of that, it would break my mind into a thousand tiny pieces.

For six months, I disappeared behind the thin film that separates sick people from the rest of the world. I had poison shot into my veins and radiation aimed at my chest, and made endless trips through the nauseating caverns of hidden cancer wards. I lost my hair and my fingernails hardened, turned yellow. And I woke up in the middle of the night, every night, panicking in the dark. I became a faded copy of myself.

And yet, at the same time, because life is complicated, I was a mule. I asked for rapid cycle chemotherapy – a round every two weeks – because I wanted it over with as quickly as possible. I was aggravated by the month-long delay between chemo and radiation therapy, frustrated by the way my body had betrayed me and the slow, devastating cure. I had things to do. Before I even knew if the treatment was working, I was making plans to travel. I had always wanted to visit Iceland. Suddenly it felt urgent.

By June 2013, I was officially disease-free. I kissed my boyfriend goodbye and hopped a plane to Europe, determined to make up for lost time. I would be, I imagined, a hypersensitive and whole-hearted traveller, tuned in to the deepest frequencies of the world due to my recent brush with death, full of joy and gratitude – all of that shit. I was, in fact, a basket case. The grief, fear and sadness of the preceding year had fucked me up completely. And I didn’t realise how deeply it ran, because I wanted so much to be well.

I found myself walking through the Tuileries Garden in Paris one day, feeling like the city was coated in sand. The whole place was charmless, boring and lonely. The whole city got me down. Later that day, I heard that my friend Bethany had died. We’d met in the waiting room at Peter Mac. My cancer was curable; hers was not. I sat on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur and wept a flood, for myself as much as Beth.

After Paris, I went to Iceland, but I was brittle and uneasy. I couldn’t face two weeks alone on the ring road so I cut the trip short, stayed in Reykjavik and looked for things to do near the city. I wandered through the national art gallery on the outskirts of town. I hiked across a volcanic plain and climbed inside a dormant volcano. I saw Frank Ocean play in a basketball stadium. I wanted to go scuba diving in Silfra, a glacial lake just an hour from town, but I didn’t have my license. Four days after I’d arrived, I was on my way back to Keflavik Airport, in love with the place but weary, just sad down to the bone.

You can’t will yourself through trauma. I know, I’ve tried. I wanted to feel like myself again, plugged into the world, but I couldn’t force myself to be happy. I would be OK, or I wouldn’t, all I could do was wait and see. In the meantime, I went home and I made lists. Learn to play piano. Learn to speak Spanish. Read Ulysses. Get scuba diving license. As long as I was still alive, there were a lot of things I wanted to do. And while I didn’t need to feel good to play piano, one thing helped the other, eventually. I kept moving forward.

This year, three years after my first visit, I went back to Iceland. There was still no ring road trip – I promised my boyfriend we’d do that together and I was yet again travelling alone. I flew into Reykjavik for a music festival – a few days of bar hopping and hot springs, and that country’s unquantifiable magic. But mostly, since I now had my scuba diving license, I went back to dive Silfra.

Silfra is a tear in the earth between two tectonic plates in Thingvillir National Park, the product of Eurasia and North America slowly drifting apart. It is fed by water from the Langjökull glacier, 50 kilometres north, which is filtered through volcanic rock and pure enough to be bottled. From the surface, it is an unremarkable stream framed in moss and boulders, but beneath the surface lies a natural cathedral in electric blue and green. With visibility up to 80 metres and the most extraordinary geological formations underwater, it is one of the most beautiful dive sites in the world.

It’s not a difficult dive. The glacial water is between 2 and 4 degrees Celsius year-round, so it requires a dry suit, thermal underwear and two pairs of thick woollen socks. The gear is heavy and so are you, and the path from the road to the site is long, but once you’re in, the water is still and easy to navigate. It’s not an isolated dive, either – there is a near-constant trickle of divers and snorkelers climbing down the sharp steps to the surface. This is just another thing that people do in Iceland, not a particularly rare achievement, and yet it meant a whole lot of something to me.

It’s impossible to describe how lovely it was down there. I drifted through the caverns wide-eyed, feeling utterly amazed by the universe; listening to the steady sound of my breathing; turning to watch the ripples on the water’s surface overhead. When you dive, your senses are on fire. The water feels like a tomb but the world around you is alien and electric, full of undersea life. In Silfra, it’s different. Nothing lives down there but rocks and algae. The water has no surface, it simply turns into sky. It was like stepping into a deep blue mirror.

When I was done, trudging silently along the path towards base camp, I thought about how I’d arrived in this place, from cancer to that first thwarted trip to the dive I had just completed. It was one of those moments you have when you travel, when you see the whole story of who you are unfolding across milestones. One thing leads to another, and patience pays off eventually. Cancer was a curse, but it was also a gift, because it brought me here.