Elizabeth Duffy: Thinking Her Way Out of Drowning

I remember the swimming safety rules. One of the first was do not jump in the water to try to save someone who is drowning.

The reason?

In their panic, they will latch onto you and drag you down with them.

The instructors went through dramatizations. One would pretend to drown, the other would jump in to “save” them and be promptly pulled under by the flailing arms of the “drowning” one.

After this graphic presentation, the instructors would show us the better way. Take a pole they said, as they lifted one of the long poles on the side of the pool, and extend it to the drowning person. Remain on the side of the pool, on dry concrete, while you do this. They extended the pole to their “drowning” colleague who reached out for it and was pulled to the side of the pool without mishap.

It was a great lesson in how to help and survive the act of helping. It would work at any well-equipped pool when the drowning person was still above water.

However, what do you do when you’re at a lake and the drowning one is too far away for poles and you don’t have a pole anyway? Do you just stand there and let them drown?

I suppose a wise person would always have a pole of some sort with them when they swim. That way, they could, at least theoretically, swim out to the person in trouble, extend the pole and then pull them back to safety. Of course, a panicky person is perfectly capable of coming up the pole at you and overwhelming you, anyway.

People are only tenuously at home in water. It’s not our natural habitat. Everything we do there is in some way a work-around, and those work-arounds can fall apart and leave us in trouble all too easily.

Drowning is evidently a quiet affair for those who observe it. People can drown right beside us in the water and we may not know it until it’s too late.

All these facts converged on Elizabeth Duffy, who blogs about perspectives on Catholic life, family and culture here at Patheos, when she was enjoying an early-summer swimming outing with her kids. Elizabeth nearly drowned, and her young son along with her. She was trying to rescue her child and his panicky latching onto her almost took them both out. Meanwhile, her other children continued to play, unaware that Mom and brother were in such peril.

It’s a gripping read about something we all hope never happens to us. The remarkable thing is the way Elizabeth rose above the panic and thought her way out of this situation. Her post says in part:

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. (Read the rest here.)

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Book Review: One Woman’s Trip to Heaven and Back

For a link to buy To Heaven and Back or to join in the discussion about it, go to Patheos Book Club here.


To Heaven and Back is the story of one woman’s life of providential living.

To Heaven and Back tells the story of Dr Mary Neal, an orthopedic surgeon, who drowned in a kayaking accident in the Chilean Andes, went to heaven and was revived by the efforts of her companions. But it isn’t just another I-died-and-went-to-heaven-then-came-back book, although it certainly does tell the story of a woman who did exactly that. Dr Neal tells that story with clarity and in detail. But what sets the book apart is Dr Neal’s life in Christ. That’s what inspired me.

It is the story of God’s interaction with Dr Neal throughout the course of her life. Dr Neal has the charism of discerning Divine Providence in the events of her life and the grace of accepting this Providence for what it is when she encounters it. She is unembarrassed to share these experiences in an age when people who admit they see God at work in their lives are often the butt of jokes.

It’s too bad that Edward Kennedy had already taken the name True Compass. It would have been a perfect fit for this book. Following Jesus and living her life for Him have provided a true compass for Dr Neal throughout her life, not just on that day in Chile when she died.

The accident in Chile wasn’t Dr Neal’s first close call. When she was in college, she and her diving instructor had a narrow brush with disaster on her first free dive. She and the instructor accidentally swam into an underwater cave. They didn’t discover where they were until night was falling and they were both running out of air. Dr Neal says:

I kicked the bottom of the lake with my fins and raised clouds of silt. We were running out of air and the tank alarms were echoing. That’s when I remembered to pray. I called out to God and I was immediately filled with the feeling of God’s presence and the knowledge that He would show us the way out … The silt cleared and we saw several fish … lining up together, swimming in the current. They seemed to beckon us to follow, which we did.

The fish led Dr Neal and her instructor out of the cave. By the time they got to the surface, her instructor’s tank was completely empty of air. Her instructor

believed we had survived by pure luck. He … proceeded to drink himself into oblivion. For my part, I had a profoundly different response to our survival. I did not believe that luck was involved … I believed that we had survived because God intervened, even though we had been such knuckleheads and He had to essentially push us out of the cave.

That is one of the better descriptions of the difference in how providential living and existential living affect people’s responses to life that I have read. Dr Neal viewed the event through the lens of faith. She was willing to give God His due when He helped her. This faithful life view allowed Dr Neal to see meaning and purpose in the near disaster in the underwater cave. Her instructor saw what had happened as a random accident. Faith gave Dr Neal emotional resilience, while her instructor had to drink away the trauma.

This experience is an example of the way Dr Neal’s willingness to see God in her life has allowed her to move through difficulties with courage and face serious obstacles without becoming overwhelmed by them. I believe that is the true theme of the book.

She was severely injured when she drowned in Chile and endured a long recovery afterwards. But the greatest challenge of her life came when her son died. I don’t believe that anyone who’s lost a child is ever the same afterwards. Dr Neal says that she is not and never will be the same as she was before her son’s death. The grief she describes was so acute that she had to hold onto her faith like a lifeline. In her words:

I taped the following daily creed to our refrigerator and grasped onto it for survival.

My Daily Creed

I believe God’s promises are true.

I believe heaven is real.

I believe nothing can separate me from God’s love.

I believe God has work for me to do.

I believe God will see me through and carry me when I cannot walk.

God continued to carry our family month after month, as we struggled to put one foot in front of the other. I do not understand how anyone can make this journey without trusting in God’s plan.

Even though she suffered grievously, Dr Neal’s charism for seeing Providence in the simple things was balm to her wounds during this period. Her willingness to accept God’s love was the saving grace, not only for her, but for her husband and her other children.

To Heaven and Back is an easy read, dealing with one woman’s life in Christ. It deals with life, love, grief, death and authentic living in an honest and unembarrassed Christian manner. These topics are at the core of the human experience, while most of the things we consider more important are far out on the periphery.

I think one reason why books that relate honest human experience in these areas often seem simple is that they are simple, but not in the sense that they are simplistic or shallow. They are simple in the way that elegance is simple; because it is true.

I’m glad I read To Heaven and Back. It gave me a lot to think about in terms of my own walk with God. I recommend it.



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