Saying goodbye to Ron Akeson – my final lesson

Death is the great unknown, a fact that if viewed objectively by anyone who enjoys adventure would seem to be a final-days positive, a climax of exploration to cap life’s end with a curious optimism, if not actual excitement.

But—as we all know—the unknown, uncertainty in general, is scary stuff. The reality that death comes to us all may be superficially accepted, but that has little to do with the denial most of us live with every day.

If you have read Setting the Hook, then you are familiar with the name Ron Akeson. I don’t believe that Ron lived in such denial, but rather took the risks of what he was doing underwater seriously and thoughtfully.

Ron Akeson was the owner of the “Adventures Down Under” dive shop in Bellingham, and as my trimix and technical diving instructor in 2000, he played an integral role in bringing my long dormant deep diving skills up to modern standards.

Those astute readers will have noticed the uncomfortable use of past tense in the above sentence. Ron died one week ago, much as he had lived – diving. I honestly believe this, despite the technical medical perspective of death coming days later in a hospital while in an induced coma.

I did not know Ron well. He was a difficult person to get to know, and our conversations in 2000 were almost exclusively about the dive training track. He was an excellent instructor, which really means that he was an open learner, willing to pick up what he could from whoever was able to provide a tid-bit of additional knowledge.

It wasn’t until while at a DEMA (Dive Equipment Manufacturers Association) trade show in Las Vegas, a year and a half ago, that I had my first “real” conversation with Ron. He walked up to me out of the blue and asked real questions and listened intently while I gave what I considered thoughtful, honest answers. Maybe the entire 2000 episode had been a warm up or try-out of some sort before he committed to getting to know me better as a person. The same might be said of my attitude toward him.

That doesn’t mean that I lacked regard for the man, much to the contrary, I admired and respected him greatly. It just seemed that once technical diving was no longer in my future, we had too little in common to keep in touch.

Ron died one week ago during a “routine technical training dive.”

There is a saying in the Navy: “Never go on a routine training mission” because that’s where the overwhelming majority of accidents occur (visualize headlines: “The mishap pilot was on a routine training mission at the time of the accident”). It’s an unsettling truism that holds water for diving as well.

Perhaps it points to the unnerving fact that the vast majority of us will not go out in some blaze of glory, but instead will succumb to some dreary illness or simply life’s tired story’s denouement. What possible meaning can be derived from that?

Although I don’t recall the actual substance of our hour-long conversation in Las Vegas, I clearly and distinctly remember the tone: honest, direct interest and engagement. Ron and I finally connected, if only briefly.

So what is one to take away from this? As Ron was being readied to go off life support in what has to be a sister’s most difficult task imaginable, I was doing chores and thinking about our talk, the tone, trying to figure out the inner core of this amazing individual who I had thoughtlessly brushed aside from my focus fourteen years earlier. I surprised myself with an unplanned, genuine smile.

And that, in my opinion, is the real lesson. It is not in the act of dying that we intercept meaning or obliquely touch upon purpose, but rather through the vibrant, daily connections with other living people that we might catch a peek at life’s essence.

I learned to honestly cherish human connection (again), a lesson as valuable as it is inevitable to be learned and re-learned countless times.

That was Ron Akeson’s final lesson to me.

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