Don’t Swim Alone

It’s that time of year again, when everyone shares the article about how drowning doesn’t look like drowning.

It’s true.

A couple years ago, my son and I almost drowned together on the first day of our summer vacation. Below is the post I wrote about it on my old blog. I’d also add the warning that there should always be more than one adult on the beach. I’ll never take the kids swimming alone again.




There’s something conspiratorial about packing a comfortable nook in the car, sleeping in clothes and departing the house before dawn. The kids were all excitement at 4:30 a.m. though soon everyone realized they were tired and in one another’s special nooks, big toes crossing invisible lines drawn on the car cushions with intermittent squawks of dissatisfaction. But we had arrived by noon, so the kids dropped their offenses alongside their car clothes as everyone changed into swimsuits to run down to the lake.

I took the four kids who could swim to the beach, which, with 60 degree temps and a threat of rain, was more or less deserted. This was the first year it seemed I wouldn’t have to stress out about everyone being on the verge of drowning. If none of the kids were accomplished lap-swimmers, at least they could all keep afloat for a respectable distance. I opened my book.

The older kids swam out to the raft in inner-tubes through greenish water that varies in depth between four and eight feet. My oldest made it there first, standing on the raft doing a victory dance, some sort of sprockety, lizard-looking move where his skinny, elastic body turned inside out. He swung the tube over his head like a hoolahoop, until a wind lifted it off his extended hand and into the water.

When he didn’t jump in after it, the waves carried it westward, near where his brother and sister shared another inner-tube. They’d been kicking out to the raft at a leisurely pace, but they changed direction, to chase the tube. When it passed them, my second oldest abandoned his sister in the tube to swim after the one they had lost.

By this time, I had put my book down. My five-year-old who had been raking some sand on the beach, put down the toys to watch the drama unfold.

The boy chasing the inner tube is not a great swimmer. He’d been on the swim team for two years, primarily because I thought he needed more practice in order to achieve competency. And yet, at the end of his most recent season, he still grew tired in the middle of one length of the pool.

As he neared the inner-tube, the wind picked up, and the hand with which he meant to grab the tube accidentally pushed it further away from him. It appeared I was going to have to chase the tube.

I like to swim, quite a bit, and ever since I was a kid, my policy has been to get in the water at least once a day while we’re in Michigan. But it was our travel day, and it was cold, so I’d planned to give myself a pass. I slowly lowered myself into the water from the end of the dock, cold water thigh high, dreading the moment of no return when you just give up and drop your whole body in, shouting out the coldness. Waves lapped up to my hips as I stepped out deeper, avoiding rocks and mussels that slice the bottoms of your feet.

My son was still chasing the tube which had passed beyond the neighbor’s dock. I yelled for him to abandon the mission, “Get back to the raft! I’ll go get the tube!” But as he turned around to head back against the current, I could see that he was already tired.

The wonderful thing about the lake, that it has variant depths that make it ideal for wading, for swimming, for fishing and skiing, is also the thing that makes it dangerous. Swim ten feet in any direction, and the lake bottom is so inconsistent, you may have moved to a spot that’s two feet over your head.

I could see that my boy had stopped moving in any direction and was barely keeping his head afloat. Quickly, I overcame the cold, and dove under to swim out to him. I thought I would be able to latch him onto my shoulders and walk him in, but I had not anticipated the water being over my head where he was treading.

As expected, when I reached him, he latched onto me, but walking in to shallower water was not going to be possible. Nor was swimming, as his weight on me prevented my getting above water for a breath. I would have told him to turn on his back and kick towards shore, but I couldn’t give him any instruction. Each time I opened my mouth, it filled with water.

This is how tragedy happens. I was under water. I couldn’t communicate. The boy couldn’t swim. The other kids were stranded on a raft in rough water. The five-year-old was unsupervised on the shore, and no one was around.

Over the forty years that our family has come to this lake, a handful of people in the area have drowned. It never happens out in the blue water where the depths reach 80 to a hundred feet. I’ve always wondered how a grown person could drown in six feet of water. Did they have a heart attack? An aneurism? Were they drunk? Surely no one who is a competent swimmer and in good health meets such an end.

Just as I recognized the near proximity of death, the romance of the situation began to surface. My husband had had to work, and my dad didn’t want to be away from the farm for two weeks, so my mom and I had driven up with the kids, to be joined by our spouses on Friday. She had driven to the store with the baby and would stop by the beach on her way back to the house.

Would any of us still be here? How long would it take for her to figure out who was under water, and where? How would my husband take it when they told him?

What an irony to have a double death on the first day of vacation–the mother who sacrificed her life for her child. I was glad to know I had it in me, actually. Considering the hypothetical possibilities of giving up my life for my children–I’ve always harbored a doubt. Perhaps I’m too selfish to throw myself in front of a truck for one of the kids.

I hadn’t really had time to weigh my life against my son’s. I just took one step, and then another, into deeper and deeper water, realizing slowly, that the whole death bit was going to be terribly anti-climactic. No witnesses, no noise, just the two of us, my son and I, engaged in a struggle under surface.

A struggle? Was I struggling? How long does it take for your life to flash before your eyes, and to imagine your life flashing before the eyes of everyone you know and love? Really, it takes less than half a minute, I’d say, and then you start to think about getting out of that situation.

It turns out that my sense of self-preservation is just slightly stronger than my sense of self-sacrifice, and while my life was flashing before my closed eyes in the depths of Crystal Lake, I was also very vigorously disentangling myself from my son’s grasping body, so that I could push off the lake bottom up to the surface to catch a breath. I was successful.

He immediately latched onto me again, I went back under, disentangled myself again, pushed off and got another breath. It occurred to me, that I could not only push him off of me long enough to breathe, but that if I could push him off and away from me, towards shore, that perhaps we could repeat this process of my pushing him off and away from me, until we bounced underwater to a more manageable depth.

And that’s what we did. He only had to stay afloat while I took a breath, then I could take several steps under water with him attached to me, and push him off to come up for air. Once I figured out the system, it was sort of a cakewalk. Why had we panicked?

On shore, I stationed the boy in a chair. His lips were pale, but it was hard to say if that was from the cold or lack of oxygen. Otherwise, he was fine, terrorized, but fine. The two on the raft seemed not to have noticed that anything was amiss. They were still laughing and dancing. I called them in, and together they kicked ashore holding on to the remaining inner tube. The five-year-old had gone on digging his hole in the sand, which was now filling up with water.

Everyone was fine. We were all fine. We were going to go back to the house, rinse the sand off, and eat dinner. We were going to wake up the next day as usual. Only minutes ago, I had thought the world would wake up the following day without us in it, but now that prospect seemed absurd. We were going to go on living; no witnesses, no noise.

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