We were up at our cottage on the lake for the first time of the season. My husband was sick with the stomach flu and couldn’t accompany us. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to de-winterize (un-winterize? not sure) by myself, but the kids were excited to finally get up there again, and I reluctantly agreed to take all 3 of them solo.
When we arrived, my 10, 8, and 4 year-olds diligently helped me figure out how to turn the water on (and go get their uncle, my brother, for help when we couldn’t get it ourselves), move the luggage in the house, and change the bedding as I had threatened they’d better in exchange for agreeing to take them up there alone. (This was a working weekend, not just a weekend for fun.)
And then we relaxed.
My brother heated up the grill at his place, we ate, and then the kids went back outside to play as the adults began cleaning up the disaster. And in the midst of figuring out which paper plate needed to go in the campfire and which should be saved in the event a hungry child decided they weren’t actually finished as previously declared, a thought hit me: “I forgot to remind my youngest to put on his life jacket.”
We come from a pretty life-jacket heavy background. My brother’s cabin happens to be the same one I grew up going to, and I distinctly remember our neighbors across the channel shouting at their kids to “put on [their] goddamned life jackets,” a thing my parents would in turn command us to do, and it has been tradition ever since. With 5 kids and not nearly as many adults to supervise, it’s just good practice.
So just as I cleaned a paper plate off and prepared it for the fire, I looked outside for my 4-year-old and steadied myself to deliver the message when I saw it: my 8-year-old son and my 3-year-old niece, standing on the dock, overlooking my 4-year-old son, who had fallen in the water trying to retrieve a lost ball.
Instinctively, my fight or flight response kicked in. I’m not sure what I did with the garbage in my hand, but I do remember sprinting out the door of the cottage, throwing my cell phone from my hoodie pocket onto the patio table, and leaping to the edge of the dock. And what I saw will haunt me forever.
There, in the water, was my 4-year-old, struggling to stay afloat, dipping beneath the surface between defiant kicks, inhaling water, a look of fear in his eyes that will be seared into my brain for eternity.
What they tell you about drowning is true. It is silent. It is a mouth at water level, unable to escape the ingestion of liquid. It is an upright head, motionless limbs, and the inability to signal for help.
It is hell.
I quickly reached for my son, almost incapable of grasping him and in need of diving into the freezing water myself. But I got hold of him and yanked him up, ushering him away from the shore and wrapping him in the nearest towel I could find.
At first he gulped like a fish out of water, unable to catch his breath. Then he vomited. Everything he had eaten came up, painfully. Measuredly.
And then he screamed and sobbed. An eternity later — which was probably only seconds — he sobbed. And he asked me one pointed question I will never get out of my head:
“Why weren’t you there to save me?”
I was there, I assured him, but this is why we wear our life jackets. In case someone is not there. In case our mother forgets to remind us to put it on and our 8-year-old brother and 3-year-old cousin stand there in shock, unsure what to do as we drown.
We wear our life jackets so that we don’t bob in hypothermic temperatures, unable to keep the water from filling our lungs.
We wear our life jackets so we don’t slip beneath the surface, dying a silent yet painful death no one recognizes until it’s too late.
We wear our life jackets because life is unpredictable. Because our mothers are barely holding it together, trying to be everything to everyone at once and failing miserably.
We wear our life jackets so we can live.
I watched my son drowning, and it was every bit as horrifying and textbook as they say. And I thank God I was there, at the critical, elusive moment to stop it from happening.
It occurred to me that in his 4-year-old brain, my son is under the misguidedly adorable assumption that we — his parents — are always there, ready to save him from whatever tragedy may befall him. And while I don’t want to shatter this illusion of safety, I also feel it necessary to reiterate that the safety precautions we insist he take are just that — for his SAFETY.
Because we’re NOT always there. As much as it pains me, we CAN’T be. And it does him no favors to pretend.
With that, I offer a plea:
Watch your kids. Insist they take protective measures. Know that one second of inattention can be the one second between life and death.
Be the mean parent who makes their kids do the uncool thing. Be the strict parent whose demands seem too oppressive. Be the vigilant parent who rules with an iron fist.
Be whatever you have to be to ensure your children’s safety.
Because our first weekend of the season away was almost the last for one of us. And I never want that for another family.