By Heather Millar
The second weekend of every August, my family, my older brother’s family, and the families of many friends and acquaintances head up the California coast to a little town called Mendocino. The Mendocino coast, like most of the California coast, is known to be breathtaking: Hills covered in misty redwoods give way to a flat tabletop of pasture a mile or so wide. Then the strip of flat grasslands turns to cliffs that plunge into a sea that’s sprinkled with craggy outcroppings, caves, and arches. The sea surges with undulating forests of kelp that reach up 75 feet and more from the seabed. This is home to sharks, and red snapper, and sea trout, and—the reason for our trip—abalone.
Abalone is a large mollusk, akin to an oversized clam. It’s related to sea cucumbers, sea slugs, octopi, and squid. If you gut the abalone, slice the muscled foot, pound it, bread it, and fry it, it’s tender, sweet, delicious.
But California abalone are also endangered, and the commercial fishery for wild abalone has been shuttered for some time. That’s the big reason you can’t find them easily in stores. There are a few abalone farms, but since the mollusks grow so slowly, the produce of those farms is very limited, very small, and outlandishly expensive. It can cost upwards of a pound, and I’ve heard rumors that a New York City restaurant is charging 0 for an abalone entree. If you want to get a good-sized mature abalone, the only way to get it is to free dive for it.
This is no casual enterprise. You must don a thick wetsuit, weight belt, fins, mask, and a snorkel. Then you make your way by boat or boogie board to the abalone beds. At the beach where we dive, you pass a small trench about 50 feet deep, and then out to some of those craggy outcroppings about a quarter mile off shore, where the abalone are plentiful and the water is only about 10 feet deep. There, you dive, try to avoid getting tangled in kelp, and use a dull, strong knife to pry the abalone off the rocks.
That’s the theory anyway. My brother and his friends are the real abalone diving experts; I mostly play at it. Last year, I was only a month or so out of radiation, so I didn’t even try. I didn’t wear the weight belt that makes up for the wetsuit buoyancy. I just kicked out on my boogie board, snorkeled, and watched the others bag our limit of abalone. This year, though, I’m feeling strong. I was determined to get an abalone this time.
My brother, a dear friend from New York, and I started for the outcropping a couple days ago. I sucked in my breath from the cold. It was foggy and I could feel the fingers of icy sea as they seeped into my wetsuit. It seemed to take forever for my body to warm up that water. I wrapped my arms around my boogie board and started kicking. Everything seemed fine for a few minutes.
Then, the cramps started. I take a drug called Tamoxifen that inhibits my body’s ability to use estrogen. My breast cancer was very reactive to estrogen; Tamoxifen keeps that hormonal candy away from any cancer cells that might be trying to establish another beach-hold in my body. Muscle cramps are a common side effect of Tamoxifen. Sometimes, they’re just little twinges. Other times, my muscles seize, clenching up tighter than tight. That can really hurt.
I’d been kicking toward the abalone for five minutes or so when one leg seized. I cried out because the cramp came on so suddenly and painfully. My brother and my friend stopped, and we waited for the cramp to pass. Then, we all started toward the abalone again. I made it 20 or 30 more yards. Then both legs cramped severely. I cried out again. The cramp didn’t pass, and it didn’t pass. Finally, my brother ordered me back to shore.
The Mendocino coast is no place to fool around, no place to ignore warning signs, whether they come from your body or from the environment. Every year, people get injured and killed diving for abalone because they’re not careful.
I knew my brother was right, so I turned for shore. My legs seized several more times on the way back. People ran down to meet me as I dragged up on to the rocky sand.
“Are you OK?!”
That night, as we all enjoyed a lovely abalone feed on the beach, several people came up to me and inquired about my health.
“Are you all clear now?”
Lots of people told me how good I was looking.
“You look much healthier than you did last year! It must be so good to have all that behind you.”
To all of these well-wishers, I just smiled and nodded.
I didn’t want to burst their bubble. It’s mostly over, but it’s not all over. That night, in the campground, I had another terrible bout of cramps. It felt like my muscles were attacking me: first the legs, then my forearms, the abdominal muscles over my ribs, my back, my neck. It went on and on. I didn’t sleep until well past two.
The cancer is gone, I hope. The worst of the treatment is over. But little things, like the cramps, linger on. The little things make it difficult to forget the cancer experience. The little things can keep you from doing what you love, like diving for abalone.
That’s something that’s difficult to explain to people who haven’t experienced it. You don’t want to go on and on about these little things. It seems ungrateful, right? I may not have gotten out to the abalone bed this year, but at least I was around to enjoy the beach, the scenery, and the big feast that evening. But still, the little things can be hard.
What about you? Do you have symptoms and side effects that linger on? How do they affect your life? Do you tell people about them, or not?