This past Sunday was my little cousin’s birthday party — a pool party. It was a glorious day, in the upper-80s with feathery clouds wisping across a bright blue sky.
Mari, age 3, was in her water wings — she basically can swim, but we keep the wings on as an added precaution, even as we watch her. And of course Lucas, age 7, is a dolphin, flipping and spinning under the water — he only comes up for a quick breath once per minute or so. He spends the whole time underwater with his goggles on, examining the stream of water shooting out of the pool’s jets.
Later in the afternoon, once all the non-family partygoers had departed, we cousins sat around chatting, enjoying the gorgeous day while our four kids played happily. Mari didn’t want to go in the pool anymore, so I permitted her to take off her water wings. She was playing with the plastic toy kitchen a few feet from the pool, filling and dumping the pots and pans, stirring up a magical witches’ brew.
There were six adults sitting under the screened porch. I was keeping an eye on Mari even though I knew she was an extremely cautious child, could swim fairly well, and there were five other adults with eyes more or less on the pool. But an Adirondack chair was partially blocking my view.
And we were talking, y’know? We were having one of those animated conversations when everyone talks over everyone else, and we all burst into laughter at the same time and slap our knees. I was into the conversation. I was not paying attention. I was not looking.
My cousin suddenly broke the conversation by jumping up out of his chair and was at the pool’s edge in a flash. I jumped up too, knowing it had to be Mari. The other kids, they’re all strong little dolphins — excellent swimmers.
My heart exploded in my chest and blood rushed like a tidal wave in my ears. My hands covered my mouth as silent, wordless prayers went up to God, begging for mercy, begging forgiveness for my stupid, careless lapse in attention.
How soon had my cousin noticed that Mari wasn’t still standing there pouring water and chattering with her adorable little chipmunk voice? What had he seen that made him jump up like that? A splash? The roundness of a tiny back floating at the surface?
Shame on me for not putting her water wings back on. Shame on me for not sitting in a spot that had an unobstructed view of her. I was too busy talking… And now I was going to be one of those mothers. We’d be one of those families…the ones with a hole, a missing piece. We lost my stepbrother seven years ago, so I know what that hole looks like. I have seen what it does. It never, ever goes away. We feel my little brother’s loss constantly. He was part of our family. We are incomplete without him.
These chipped families — we pray for them, we think of them in the shower, on the drive to work. When we think of how they carry on in spite of their horrific, unfathomable loss, we berate ourselves for losing patience with your own kids over stupid crap like leaving socks on the floor. These broken families wish their precious child was still around to leave socks on the floor.
We feel deeply for these families. We see them smiling and moving through the motions of life, and we wonder how they go on, though we know subconsciously that the reason they go on is because that is the only thing there is to do. We pray to God we won’t ever have the need to summon that kind of strength. And we feel guilty for praying it, because after all, they have to suffer through the emptiness of all those birthdays that will never be. What makes us any more deserving of them to have children who get to stay alive? We feel we would do anything to take away their pain…
Anything but trade places.
In the tiny fraction of a second before I realized that Mari’s chubby little hands were already gripping the edge of the pool, just as we had practiced hundreds of times over the summer, I was that mom, we were that family, and the vast black hole of Mari’s absence had sucked away our entire future. Through choking sobs of relief and self-loathing, I hugged my baby tight, lavishing praise on her for doing such a good job “saving herself.”
Of course, my cousin had been right there and saw the very moment her little body went over the edge. And of course we’d been practicing all summer the technique we call “The Princess Who Saves Herself” (which goes like this: “Fall” in the pool. Swim to the nearest wall and grab on. “Monkey walk” to the steps and climb out).
So we had some safety measures in place.
Sunday could have ended much, much differently. I made a huge mistake letting Mari play near the pool without her water wings. I know that many drownings happen in moments such as this, with all the adults busy talking, all the kids occupied in their game, everybody assuming someone else is watching. I know I should have had my eyes on her, or that my husband should have been assigned with the task.
I know these things…
I guess I needed a reminder.