Underwater, Shannon Leone Fowler always found peace.
“You go down, and it's cold, and it's dark, and I wouldn't say it's silent,” Shannon says. “There’s popping and snapping, the sand tinkling against the glass of your mask. You might hear snapping shrimp. I've heard whales sing.”
Shannon fell in love with the water when she was 8 years old, spending summers with her grandparents on the beach in San Diego. Her grandfather was an oceanographer, and he taught her about currents and tide pools, showed her sea anemones and crabs.
From then on, growing up in California, Shannon was never far from the water. She learned to dive, became a marine biologist, and started her Ph.D. studying sea lions in Australia.
“The ocean was one of the most important relationships in my life. Sometimes the most important. It was my identity. It was where I felt most myself.”
That didn’t change when, at age 28, Shannon got engaged to a man named Sean, a 25-year-old Australian working in marketing.
“I remember telling Sean at one point that there were only two things that filled me up in life, and it was him and the ocean,” she says.
They celebrated their engagement with a trip to Thailand and the island of Ko Pha Ngan: white sand, blue water, paradise.
One evening, as the sun set, Sean was holding Shannon in the water right outside their cabana, when Shannon felt something large bump the outside of her thigh. She jumped.
“He said, ‘What was that?’ And I was about to say, ‘I just felt something.’ ”
But before she could say anything, Sean dropped her and rushed to shore.
“And he said, ‘I'm having trouble breathing. My head feels heavy. Go get help.’ ”
Shannon got the attention of some tourists at a nearby bar, including an Israeli woman named a Shani Goren. When they got back to Sean, he didn’t have a pulse. They tried to open his mouth, tried CPR, Shannon screaming for an ambulance, but Sean wasn’t coming back.
Then, Shannon felt all eyes turn from Sean to her.
“Something shifted from it being Sean and I on the beach getting help, to me being alone. Sean was gone.”
Later, Shannon would see the string-like purple welts that wrapped around Sean’s legs from his ankles to his knees. Later, she’d learn that he’d likely been stung by a box jellyfish, one of the most poisonous creatures on earth, its tentacles up to 10 feet long.
But at that moment, she got into the back of a pickup truck with Sean, and she tried to breathe for him on the bumpy ride to a clinic.
Shani Goren and her friend were still on the beach, and they decided to follow the truck on foot. They were 21 years old and on vacation from Tel Aviv, but they couldn’t leave what happened behind. When they got to the clinic, they found Shannon pacing.
“Right when they walked in, the doctor came over to me, and he said, ‘I'm sorry. There was nothing we could do,’ ” Shannon says. “I collapsed onto the ground.”
Then she looked up at these two 21-year-olds, and they looked back at her.
“We understood that we’re not leaving her,” Shani says. “We have to be there for her, [so] that she won’t be alone.”
“And then the receptionist said, ‘How are you going to pay? Cash?’ ” Shannon remembers. “And the girls turned to her and said, ‘She needs to be allowed some time alone with him.’ ”
So while Shannon sat with Sean’s body and kissed him goodbye, Shani and her friend argued with the doctor. He wanted to chalk up Sean’s death to drunk drowning, they say, maybe to keep from deterring tourists.
Eventually the clinic staff told them a local temple was the only place on the island to keep his body cold, so Shannon and the two Israeli women drove with Sean’s body to the temple.
“We felt that we can be her shoulder. Bring her water, bring her food, because she forgot to eat and drink.”
While locals looked for the key to a refrigerated casket, they waited together for hours. Next to them, Sean’s body lay under a sheet in the back of the truck.
“It was very intense,” Shani says. “It's between life and death. You are sitting next to Sean, who is not with us anymore, but in the second way he's there — you can feel him, you can touch him, you can talk to him. ... It’s like meeting with death.”
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Shani already knew death. She and her friend had been serving in the Israeli army, and she’d been to 11 funerals in the previous three months. So Shani knew to let Shannon lead. When Shannon wanted to cry, Shannon cried. When she wanted to talk, she talked. When she wanted silence, they sat quietly together. Shani didn’t offer platitudes.
“I didn't feel the need to speak with her. I felt the need to be for her, there.”
It was early hours of the morning when Shannon got back to her cabana.
“I didn’t want to touch the water again,” Shannon says. “I just couldn’t. It felt like a betrayal.”
Inside the cabana, Sean’s things were still strewn about, and the sound of the water was overwhelming, as though a wave was about to put the whole place underwater.
“I could just hear the waves. It felt like the salt was seeping in through the cracks in the walls; the ocean was pressing in. I wanted to block it out.”
But Shannon couldn’t block it out. Instead, she walked outside to the spot where Sean had died hours before.
“I wrote in the wet sand that I loved him, and I was sorry.”
As soon as she wrote it, the waves started pulling the words back into the sea.
The next morning, Shannon had to go the police station, and she was surprised to see her Israeli friends waiting for her.
“They not only offered help, they insisted on it,” Shannon says. “They didn’t give me a choice.”
In fact, they didn’t leave her side for three days.
They argued with police to make sure the cause of death was right and helped with arrangements for Sean’s body. While a tidal wave crashed inside Shannon, these strangers held on to her.
“It gave me beauty when everything else was dark,” she says. “If I had had to go through all of those days after his death completely alone, I don’t know how I would have survived. I feel like I would be a different person if they hadn't been there.”
At the end of their second day together, Shannon realized she didn’t even know their names. Somehow it hadn’t mattered.
Shani agrees: “To meet Shannon in her low point in her life was very powerful. We didn't need names.”
The three of them shared something no one else could understand.
Three months after Sean died, Shannon visited the women in Israel. They talked for hours, and then Shani suggested something else.
“It was hard for her to see the ocean, to get close to the ocean,” Shani explains.
So the three of them went to the Tel Aviv coast, the first time Shannon had been near water since Sean died. They walked on the shore and looked out over the sea, tasting the salt in the air.
“The ocean has a lot of darkness, but it’s got a lot of beauty and light, too. ... And I remember thinking, I can do this. I will return to the sea. Maybe not right now, maybe not today, but I’ll get there.”
With the two of them at her side, Shannon felt that somehow, she’d get back to the water — and to life.
Shannon Leone Fowler wrote a memoir about her experience called Traveling With Ghosts. In it, she uses the pseudonym Talia for Shani.