It was the summer of 1987. We were on Fitzroy Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
My son Scott Rhodes, 11, was about to make his first scuba dive off a boat into the clear, warm, blue ocean,
We had to look cool — an English film crew was there.
I muttered some last-minute instructions including something like don’t mess up.
We did a safety check and I performed a giant stride entry. Scotty followed me off the dive boat and we descended past a massive green wrasse. The sea was alive with healthy reef structure, schools of fish and giant clams with their shells open.
Yes, Scott was cool, brave and tough.
He also was adventurous, extremely humble, funny (he made great chicken noises), very smart compassionate, loved the sea and was a passionate advocate for it and the creatures that call it home.
Several weeks ago, I wrote a column about the continuing quest of Pamela Stewart Conway of Islamorada to honor the memory and celebrate the life of her son, Matthew Martin Stewart Conway.
Matthew was an avid scuba diver, learning the sport at a very young age, and an accomplished surfer.
I learned about Mathew and his mom’s quest to honor his memory after I had spotted his beautiful memorial that rests in a sheltered area surrounded by colorful sea fans and schools of fish in the clear water off the Florida Keys. The memorial, a swimming sea turtle next to a starfish, has a plaque that reads:” Matthew Conway, Aug. 7, 1993 to Nov.7, 2015. You are now one with the ocean that you love so much.”
Although my son Scott had stage-4 cancer, I did not suspect that he would lose his valiant fight and succumb to the disease on April 21, 2017.
I was so moved by the courageous and classy manner in which Pamela Stewart Conway handled her grief and honored her son’s memory that I reached out to her for comfort and understanding during my bedside vigil at Scott’s hospital bed.
Scott was 20 years older than Mathew. But they were both similar young men. Both loved the sea. Both loved to scuba and both loved to surf.
Scott, like Mathew, had a warm personality that attracted all those he met. Some believe that dogs can sense a person’s character. Dogs loved Scotty and I imagine the same held true for Mathew.
As his friend Andrea Chaffey said, “Scott had an incredible soul, a passion for the ocean, the planet, and the environment. He was also one of the most genuine people I've ever known.”
Besides dives in Australia I was fortunate to share Scotty’s diving experiences in Lake Tahoe, up and down the coast of California, Hawaii, Mexico and amid the reefs and deep wrecks off the Florida Keys.
My memory is filled with dives with Scott through kelp beds in California, drift dives off deep walls in Cozumel and dives in Kauai and Maui swimming into caverns to spot reef sharks and giant green sea turtles.
Scott loved to dive in the Keys. We would explore the shallow reefs with his girlfriend Brook Fullwiler and later dive on the deep wrecks including the USCG Cutter Duane and the USS Spiegel Grove.
Scott, as always, was fearless.
I took the cover photo for this column of Scott on the deck of the Spiegel Grove. He took out his regulator mouthpiece so I could get a good shot with no bubbles.
I recently went diving in the Keys and felt Scott’s presence while finning through some of the spots we had dived.
Scott’s surfing career also started young when his grandma rented foam surfboards for him and his brother Sean.
That started a life-long passion that involved surfing beaches from Oregon to Baja California, with his favorite on the north shore of Hanalei Bay framed by the verdant waterfall-laden mountains.
Just a short time before Scott died he somehow pulled the strength together to visit Kauai one last time.
Scott loved his nieces Shannon and Rebecca and his nephew Thomas. Some of his happiest moments were teaching them to surf.
He once proudly told me, “Wow, Rebecca nailed it on her first try.”
Scott was a fun uncle.
During college Scott majored in film and later photography. But, his real passion for photography started later in his life.
Scott's photography captured the beauty and essence of landscapes and nature.
Each image told a wonderful story and drew the viewer into the moment when the photo was taken.
He was very careful and thoughtful every time he snapped the shutter. He would check film speed, now called ISO, light balance, composition, subject placement and all the things professionals do to ensure a good photo.
Most important, though, is that he had what we call a “good eye” and natural talent.
I had the privilege of taking a few photography road trips with Scotty. I would see an image I liked and would snap off a shot thinking I could fix the picture later in Photoshop.
With Scott, picture taking was art, feel, and science. He knew what he was doing and didn’t rush it.
In his short, but full, life Scott taught me many things — many things where I needed help.
Scott taught me how to forgive. He taught me about unconditional love. He taught me openness and sincerity. He helped me continue to see the humor in life.
For some reason, Scott and I could randomly pick up and perform improvised wacky comedy routines. Not everyone enjoyed the routines but we sure did.
Three days before Scott died his girlfriend Brook and I lip synced a Michael Jackson song at Scott’s hospital bed side. Not to be outdone, Scott struggled to sit up and then sang a karaoke version of the Lionel Richie song “Easy like Sunday Morning.”
One of the best times during the end was when Scott’s surfing buddy from college Shane Collins visited and they laughingly talked about their surfing exploits. Shane told us of how Scott got him into surfing and literally turned around his life.
Scott and I shared a terrible disease called cancer. We both were diagnosed at about the same time. His was very rare and much worse than mine.
He had surgery, radiation and later targeted therapy medication.
I had surgery, chemotherapy and later targeted therapy medication.
We both had similar reactions to the medication. There the similarities stopped.
Scott’s cancer spread to his bones. His pain was horrific – mine minimal.
In his final weeks, Scott taught me grace. Even with unimaginable pain he didn’t cry out. He would tough it out – beyond belief. A battle-hardened night nurse used a famous two-word expletive to describe Scott’s endurance to pain. God bless her for her compassionate care.
We love you Scotty. You taught us love. You taught us to appreciate the natural world and its beauty. You made us better people.
Being a parent who was present when my child was born and then when he passed is agonizing beyond words – both for me and his mother.
As the lyrics go: “You raise me up to more than I can be.” You certainly did, Scotty.
It was an honor to call you our son.
We will hold you in our hearts – forever.
Catch a big, smooth wave, and stay in the barrel my beautiful son.
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers. He can be reached at email@example.com.