We cousins recline in Adirondack chairs under the screened porch by the pool as a weakening sun melts behind the trees. We chat and laugh while our four kids splash happily in the water nearby. Mari, age three, has quit with the pool and I have permitted her to take off her water wings. She is playing with the plastic toy kitchen a few feet from the pool, filling and dumping the pots and pans, stirring up a magical witches’ brew.
I am keeping an eye on Mari even though I know she is an extremely cautious child, she can swim fairly well, and there are five other adults with eyes more or less on the pool. One Adirondack chair only partially blocks my view of her.
We adults are having one of those animated conversations where everyone talks over everyone else and we all burst into laughter at the same time and slap our knees. I am into the conversation. For several minutes, my attention wavers and I am not looking.
My cousin suddenly halts the conversation by flying up out of his chair. He is at the pool’s edge in a flash. I jump up too knowing it has to be Mari; the other kids, they’re all excellent swimmers.
Blood pounds like a freight train in my ears. My hands cover my mouth while silent wordless prayers go up to God, begging for mercy for my stupid, reckless lapse in attention.
How soon had my cousin noticed that Mari no longer stood there pouring water and chattering in her adorable little chipmunk voice? What had he seen that made him jump? A splash? Or…the roundness of a tiny back floating at the surface?
Shame on me for not putting her water wings back on. Shame on me for not sitting in a spot that had an unobstructed view of her. I was too busy talking…and now I am going to be one of those mothers. We’ll be one of those families—the ones with the unfillable gaping hole. We lost my step-brother seven years ago, so I am familiar with that ugly hole and how it always hovers on the periphery. We feel my little brother’s loss constantly. He was part of our family and we can never be complete without him.
In the fraction of a second before I see Mari’s chubby little fingers gripping the edge of the pool, I am that mom, we have become that family, and the vast black hole of Mari’s absence has already sucked away our futures. In just one quick second, our futures destroyed.
But there are her fingers. She is scared and whimpering, but grabbed onto the edge of the pool, just as we have practiced hundreds of times. Through choking sobs of relief, I hug her and lavish praise on her for doing such a good job “saving herself.”
Today could have ended much, much differently. I made a huge mistake letting Mari play near the pool without her water wings. I know many drownings happen in moments such as this—when all the adults are busy talking, all the kids are occupied in their gamesand everyone assumes someone else is watching. I should have had my eyes on her or my husband should have been assigned with the task.
I know these things. I guess I needed a reminder.