Until last weekend, news stories about children lost suddenly beneath the water’s surface — a pool drowning, a toddler swept off shore — left me wondering: Where was the mother? Who was watching? How can this happen? Way up there on my high horse, I am sorry to admit, I sat in judgment.
Before I became a mother — and I had 40 years to hone this aspect — I cast my unforgiving verdict with the smug assuredness of one who suffers a critical deficit of both experience and information. After, and this is surely worse, I shook my head like the kind of mother I was certain that I was, the kind who would never let that happen.
Then, days ago, my 4-year-old son gasped and flailed as he went under in the shallow end of a hotel pool, his big, smiling eyes clouded, in an instant, with fear and panic, and I realized: I just let that happen.
All my life, I have felt most comfortable when in the water. Growing up, I was the one who could swim the farthest and the fastest, hold my breath under water the longest, and body surf for hours in freezing Maine swells while feeling only exhilaration, never fear, when the waves released me hard into the shallows.
And all my life, I have been haunted by dreams of drowning.
I nearly did, once. Swept into rapids in a New Hampshire river. I hadn’t noticed how far I had drifted from the calm waters until a rough and unsparing current yanked me along with it. My ankle caught between two rocks, and the rushing water held me down, so that I couldn’t lift my head above it to breathe. I wrenched my leg free and went charging downriver, my limbs and torso colliding with boulders, a human pinball in a watery game. I thought, This is how I’m going to die. And just as quickly, it was over. I landed where it was knee-deep, stood and climbed onto shore, bleeding and shaken. I was 26, and it had never before occurred to me that I could die in water.
Until last weekend, news stories about children lost suddenly beneath the water’s surface -- a pool drowning, a toddler swept off shore -- left me wondering: Where was the mother?
Since my son’s birth, it has been he who is lost to the watery depths in my nightmares, and they are more harrowing by an infinite measure. In them, my son — a newborn, an infant, a toddler, depending — slips from the raft that is afloat in the lake where we swim in summer. I reach for him, but he is gone. I dive in, and he is there, sinking with the velocity of a skydiver. I see his translucent skin aglow against the dark amber of the water. He reaches for me, his gaze on mine. I wake up.
I woke up when Dash was struggling in the hotel pool, too. I stood and contemplated, for a fleeting second that fills me with shame, removing my sandals, a favorite pair, the leather ties of which were wrapped tight around my ankles. Instead, I rushed into the water, pulled him up and out, and stood with him tight in my arms on the side of the pool, dripping in my clothes, our hearts pounding against each other’s.
The whole episode couldn’t have lasted more than 10 seconds, yet I cannot shake it. The looped replay in my mind is a slow motion blur. In it, I move as though it had been molasses, and not water, that filled not just the pool, but my limbs and the air around me.
Where was the mother? Who was watching? How can this happen? I hadn’t taken my eyes off him — had I? I had told him to wait on the top step. His father was changing into his bathing suit and would join him any second, and then it would be my turn to do the same.
But I had packed quickly for the overnight, and the one thing I had forgotten — no, the other thing, besides his little kid toothpaste that tastes of strawberries and fake sugar — was his life jacket.
'Thank you for saving my life, mamma,' my son said sometime later. It sounded as bright and as light as if he had been thanking me for an ice cream cone.
Just one weekend prior, my son had braved lake water that had still been frozen in April. He wore a wetsuit that seared my heart for the glimpse of the future it offered: a shaggy blond surfer boy, but with a baby’s round belly and cheeks. He hadn’t used a life jacket then, and he did wonderfully, kicking and paddling until his lips turned blue and I made him get out of the water.
So when I saw that he was ignoring my request to remain on the top step, I didn’t worry. I was right there, as I would tell his father just moments later, when he found me, sopping and upset, poolside.
“Thank you for saving my life, mamma,” my son said sometime later. It sounded as bright and as light as if he had been thanking me for an ice cream cone.
But when he ventured past that bottom step into water 4 inches shallower than he is tall, he went under. Just like that.
And I had let it happen.