“I guess being unconscious during the entirety of a near-death experience has its benefits. So does being 10, I suppose. But I was very much conscious. And I am not 10.”
I wrote “When Great Swimmers Drown” with the idea of sharing our story, and some of how I felt about it, with my friends and with organizations that had requested some quotes about the accident. I never expected it to spread beyond this blog, but it did: to the Today Show’s parenting community, to Red Crosses all over the US, to YMCAs, to swim coaches’ associations, to radio stations, and it was even translated into Polish for coaches of various water sports. Over 300,000 people have read the story on this blog and the Today Show’s site – who knows how many else have viewed it through other channels. It’s been interesting, and even a little bit scary, to watch something I created spin out of control into a life of its own.
It’s been nice to know that sharing what happened to us might help keep a tragedy from happening to others. And helping others was a great tool to focus myself on the experience in a way that wasn’t too upsetting. A sense of purpose kept me from looking inward too much. It was a good thing.
Time is passing, and my daughter seems no worse for the wear. I guess being unconscious during the entirety of a near-death experience has its benefits. So does being 10, I suppose.
But I was very much conscious. And I am not 10.
The first night in the pediatric ICU, I rested in bed curled around her feet, because the head of the bed was occupied with tubes and cords and a child who tossed about in discomfort. I didn’t really sleep at all, what with the cramped space and the nurses’ visits and the horrible images I knew were just behind my eyelids. In fact, I wondered if I would ever sleep again, knowing the dreams that would surely haunt me.
So for hours I cuddled my daughter’s feet and wondered just when they had gotten so big, like real kid’s, instead of the chubby, Fred Flintstone feet of a preschooler. I touched her soft skin and smiled at her crazy swimsuit tan lines every time I helped her to the bathroom.
So close I had come to never touching her again. Just a breath away, really.
That very same day it was reported that several people, some of them young, were killed at a concert in England. I did not read articles about it or watch the news stories. I cannot research it now to add facts or figures to this story, because there is only a breath between those poor, grieving parents and me. I had glimpsed, just for a second, what it was to be them, and it nearly breaks me to think about.
A week or so after the accident, my daughter was still receiving visitors. She was somewhat over all the attention, but very polite to the kind people who needed to see her for themselves to feel peace and closure. One of those visitors said, “Everything happens for a reason….”
And I thought, but didn’t say, “No, it doesn’t.” Because as much as I believe my own child to be Special with a capital S, those other parents, the ones who lost their daughters on the day I nearly lost mine, they believed the same. They still do, I’m sure, as they grieve their unbelievable, unbearable loss. Don’t try to make sense of our great fortune in the face of near-tragedy. It makes you feel better, I know, to think that there’s some protection that covers you and those you love from disaster, some reason. But thinking that my daughter’s survival is part of something bigger demeans the lives of others that were lost. Don’t do that, please. It hurts my heart.
Now that the bustle of the medical issues is largely over, and my daughter and I are back from her exciting experience at the synchronized swimming Junior Olympics, in the still moments, I can feel it. That dreadful, blackhole-ish feeling that swirls through my stomach, with the whispers of what may have been, what would have been, with just a few moments more. Will those hauntings end? I don’t know. How could they, really?
It’s funny how near-tragedies can be. Before, if I read a news story in which someone escaped from disaster alive and relatively unharmed, I thought, “Ah, a happy ending.” But it turns out that there’s no real ending. And while we are certainly quite happy with our daughter’s survival and good health, what would be really, really happy would be the chance to turn back time and not have the accident happen in the first place. To “unknow.” To be the person who thought, at least on the surface, that she could keep her child relatively safe from the dangers of life through education and supervision and those sugar-coated gummy vitamins.
I’m not that person anymore.
I miss her, to be honest.
I’m doing okay, this new me-person that I am, with most things. I let my daughter and son take a Pokemon Go walk around the block together with only the usual warnings about not staring at the screen while crossing the street and whatnot. But still, there’s a differentness there. The waves of stomach pain, the sharp stabs of empathy for grieving parents, the brief moments of absolute fear that, though I escaped their ranks this time, sometime in the future, I could join them still.
There are no guarantees. There’s no super strength protection packaged in those gummy vitamins.
This control we think we have over our lives, it’s all a ruse. And while we all know it, really, we don’t know it. We don’t feel it through the walls. We don’t see it through the cracks. Except, now I do.
Usually I have a takeaway in my writings, a clever summary, a nifty moral, a word of advice. But I’m not sure that I do here. I just know that life is even more complicated than I ever thought, and that many of us traverse it at times in a state of rawness, tender to the touch. I guess the best hope is that the wounds scar over with time, leaving us without the fresh sting of experience and instead with just that tight, uncomfortable, pulling feeling of thickened skin; a reminder that there is so much more to us, and to life, than we see on the surface.
At the 2017 Synchronized Swimming Junior Olympics in Riverside, California, in July.