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My Daughter Almost Drowned

"If my child is at risk in water, then anyone's is."

Published on: December 23, 2013

Feet in pool

I’m not ready to write this post, I don’t think I ever will be. I didn’t think I could write it.

But I have to. Because it might remind someone to be more careful. It might help keep one kid safe this summer. And it will help me to not forget.

To not forget that, three weeks ago, my youngest daughter nearly drowned.

I am the last person who should be saying that.

I am an over-protective parent, sometimes to a fault.

We have put our children, 6 and almost 8, in swimming lessons for the past three years precisely in order to ensure their safety around water and develop the skills necessary to swim confidently. My husband and I kept them in those private swim lessons through preschooler tantrums and cold, rainy winter days when the last thing any of us wanted to do was head to the pool on a dark Friday afternoon.

If those reasons aren’t enough, I’m an editor who has, more than once, written and published tips for water safety, including one piece just days before my own child could easily have died in a neighborhood pool.

If my child is at risk in water, then anyone’s is.

My child almost drowned last month, while her dad, nearly a dozen other adults and I were right there.

That is why I’m writing this, even though I’m still traumatized (though she seems to have, on the surface anyway, moved past it), terrified and, yes, ashamed.

We were at a party to celebrate the end of my daughter’s soccer season. She had just turned 6. We were invited to a teammate’s backyard swimming pool.

We were lucky; the early June weather was perfect. The in-ground pool was small, only about 15 feet wide by about 30 or 35 feet long. A cute pool, the envy of the neighborhood, with a shallow side my daughter could stand comfortably in, and a deep end she could not.

The water was clean but murky, an aquamarine green that was opaque beneath the surface. You could not see the bottom. At one point, a mom lost her sunglasses down there. She had to dive and feel blindly on the bottom of the pool to find them; there was no visibility.

My little girl was in a transition with her swim skills: Technically, she had just (finally, after those three years) learned to swim on her own. She was doing crawl strokes at her Friday lessons, her swim teacher gently touching her belly under the water, standing right next to her but hardly helping anymore.

So my daughter had gained a new, very fresh confidence. And we, her parents, had, too.

Still, my husband went in the pool with her. For an hour or so, she stood or played in the shallow end, where her feet could touch the bottom. The pool owners had a big collection of floaties and toys, and my little girl was having a blast trying them out.

My husband sat on the steps, or stood beside her, or played in the water nearby with my older daughter, who swims fully and confidently.

The barbecue was fired up; other parents milled around, chatting about what a great season the girls had on the field, squirting ketchup onto hotdogs, thanking the weather gods for the warmth and lack of Seattle rain.

There were about 10 kids in the pool at a time, half in the shallow, half in the deep end, and at least a couple of other parents accompanying their kids or small siblings in the water.

I noticed that many of my younger daughter’s teammates, all 5 or 6, swam confidently on their own in the deep end. This surprised me — all those years of lessons, and despite great progress (from protesting, scared toddler to almost-swimmer) my girl still wasn’t proficient.

“It’s OK,” I called to her. “You’re doing great!” And she was.

Even though my husband was in the water much of the time, I sat on a lounge chair at the edge of the pool watching my kids. I didn’t feel comfortable turning away. I chatted with acquaintances, but I kept staring at the pool, my eyes tracking back and forth between my two kids, my husband, and other kids swimming independently.

My little daughter and my husband had moved to the deep end. My girl sat atop a large inflatable raft across the width of the pool from where I sat. She squealed and shouted and splashed. She was so happy in there.

My husband was at the other end, width-wise, of the deep end, closer to me. With my little one perched happily on that raft, he had turned away for a moment to help out some other kids.

I stood up halfway, across the width of the pool from our daughter, my husband in between us, in the water, but suddenly so, so far from her.

An unexpected patch of clouds moved over the sun. The smells of burgers wafted.

Life stuttered into slow motion.

I saw her, back to me, laughing, suddenly tipping back, off the raft.

She did a backward summersault as the thin plastic raft slipped out from under her. She tumbled 360 degrees feet over head, under water.

Time almost stopped.

I stood up halfway, across the width of the pool from her, my husband in between us, in the water, but suddenly so, so far from her.

I screamed his two-syllable name in a voice that almost didn’t sound like mine, shrill yet slow as molasses.

He turned his head to look at me, then swiveled around to search for our daughter.

She went under, flailed in panic, bobbed up for air.

She went under again.

My husband dove down.

She flailed, came up, went under.

Slow, slow.

My husband was swimming but not there yet.

The parents were frozen around the pool.

I could see her arms grasping just under the surface of the water. Her mouth made it up again, but she couldn’t stay. She went back under.

How could it take so long for a powerful, six-foot-four man to swim the width of a pool? In reality, it probably was 15 seconds, maybe 20 or 25. I'm sure he shot over like Aquaman.

But it felt like forever. I knew she had gone under four times. I knew she was panicking. She did not have the skills, the experience, or the strength yet to get herself up.

She was drowning.

He reached her. She was under. He lifted her up. She gasped, coughed, spat water, began to wail.

I was, by then, around the other side of the pool, reaching down, pulling her out to me.

She cried and cried, but she was there, in my arms, breathing and not choking, soaking my T-shirt right through.

I could tell you what happened next (my panic, fear, disbelief, unwarranted frustration at my husband and myself, my daughter’s crying jag, reluctant eating of a hot dog and, later, a last stint back in the pool — a little more cautious but smiling again and so, so brave).

But I’d rather emphasize this:

What if I had looked away, to laugh at a joke or make a plate of food?

What if I had gone to the bathroom?

My daughter almost drowned, with a team full of adults around her, armed with almost enough (but not enough) swimming lessons to fund a trip to Hawaii.

My child almost drowned.

If it can happen to my kid, it can happen to anyone’s.

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