[Trigger warning: contains description of the death of a child.]
My son got brave that day. He got curious. He got independent. All in a split second, our lives were changed. And his ended. Noah was a few weeks shy of 2 years old.
It was the first day we’d started moving boxes into my father’s house. My mother had died three months earlier, and we were moving into my father’s house to save money and keep him company. I was in the kitchen for a few minutes — no closed doors, maybe 20 feet away from where Noah was watching Zoboomafoo on TV and having some raisins. My husband was in the garage with my father.
The French doors to the backyard led directly to the inground pool. Noah had silently opened a door I didn’t think he could or ever would. Silently. When I went back into that room he was gone. I figured he was playing hide n’ seek.
“Noah! Where are you?!” I called out in a singsong voice. I went looking throughout the house, and my husband and father began searching outside. A few seconds later I heard a scream and a splash. My husband jumped in, my father called 911, and I stood in the kitchen shocked. I can still hear my father yelling, “He’s in the pool! Goddammit! He’s in the pool!”
It never occurred to me there was danger living somewhere that had a pool and the extra vigilance that was required. I assured my mother-in-law that he would never be outside alone when she expressed concern. She lives in Florida where there are accidental child drownings almost every day. If only I had that awareness living in the four changing seasons of New Jersey.
I underestimated Noah that day. He was such a good boy — not any more curious than any toddler his age. In fact, maybe he was even a little more cautious. Just that very morning, my father and I talked about how attached Noah was to me. I say these things because for any mom reading this who thinks her child would never, I thought the very same. I can’t say I know for sure if the door he went out was actually locked. If I’d had more water safety awareness, I’d have made sure it was. The same way we lock up our detergents and chemicals under the kitchen sink, pools, ponds, and that quaint bubbling brook that runs behind the house are all to be taken seriously.
According to the CDC, children between the ages of 1 and 4 have the highest drowning rates, and most of those drownings occur in residential swimming pools. And with the exception of congenital birth defects, it is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4, and for children ages 1 to 14, the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death after motor vehicle accidents.
Water safety awareness, education, and fencing would have most likely saved Noah’s life. The CDC also says that “a four-sided isolation fence (separating the pool area from the house and yard) reduces a child’s risk of drowning 83% compared to three-sided property-line fencing.” This was the basis for the town ordinance that was named for Noah.
In the months after losing Noah, we became close with our clergy. Almost exactly a year to the date of the accident, our synagogue’s cantor stopped us on our way in to services. She told us she had applied for a permit to put in a swimming pool at her home in the same town where Noah died. The town clerk informed her that the fencing laws had changed and then in a hushed tone added “because of that little boy that died.”
We had a million emotions swirling around. The next day my husband called the town to find out more. We learned about the Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Board. Every state has one. Their job is to do exactly what it sounds like: How could this, or any other accident involving a child, have been prevented?
Noah’s case had been presented to the board anonymously and without our knowledge. We saw the paperwork and the chilling sight of simply his initials, N.L., interspersed throughout the documents. We contacted the committee person who created the ordinance and asked him to please use Noah’s name and picture. We wanted this ordinance, that some homeowners may have considered a nuisance by enforcing fencing regulations for otherwise beautifully landscaped pools, to have a face and name. Now officially named, Noah’s Ordinance requires all new construction of pools to have a four-sided barrier with a locking entrance. I remember feeling like Noah was alive again, in a sad but important way.
So, you’re possibly thinking right now, “This would never happen to me. I watch my child like a hawk. My child can swim. We don’t have a pool. They would know better than to go near the water.” My favorite mothers I’ve met since Noah died have told me in teary whispers of close calls they’ve had with their kids. Little ones getting out of the house, unnoticed, in ways they didn’t know they could. Kids dashing into the street. Tripping down stairs. Horseplay gone wrong. I’ve mostly been met with sympathy and compassion.
Losing a child is a highly nuanced tragedy and difficult to talk about. The people most uncomfortable with it are the ones who have all their children alive and safe. It is a parent’s biggest fear. But I know lives have already been saved because of Noah. Please be vigilant around water. Please educate. Please have working locks on all doors leading to and surrounding your swimming pool. Please don’t think this could never happen to you.