No one expects to jump into a swimming pool to rescue his young daughter on Father’s Day, but that’s what happened to me just a few short days ago. And let me make it clear right out of the gate: I wasn’t the hero.
We were enjoying a beautiful Sunday afternoon at the community pool with some of our neighbors. We’d ordered food, had a couple of beers, and passed a few idle hours between the water and the shade of the umbrellas. Three families, each with young children between the ages of four and eight. Our daughter, Alice Wren, is the youngest. She’s not a fan of going underwater so Alice wears floaties on her arms when she’s at the beach or pool. The swim class she took at UNCW last year helped some but she’s a long way from swimming independently and cannot tread water or keep herself afloat without inflatable assistance. She adores the older kids who live nearby, especially the girls – Veronica and Audrey – who are fun and smart and good swimmers.
The pool was pretty crowded—families everywhere, people swimming all around the pool, throwing balls, lounging on noodles, diving for coins and trinkets, dads launching their kids from their shoulders. The shallow end was crammed with the little ones, with babies held tight by their new moms and toddlers bouncing tirelessly on waterlogged feet.
I was at the table with the adults. Ted Johnson, our neighbor and friend, was facing the pool and said the words that changed everything, “Hey guys, is everything ok with Alice?” I turned around and looked into the pool and saw her instantly. She was right near the rope separating the kiddie pool from the deeper swimming lanes—it’s where the bottom of the pool begins to slope downward and the water level was at Alice’s mouth and nose, and rising. She wasn’t waving or making any noise at all, but she was certainly in trouble.
In an instant I was running towards the pool. For some unknown reason, in the small gap between the table and the edge of the pool, I shed my shirt and tossed it over my shoulder while in mid-air over the water so it wouldn’t get wet—a detail that is symbolic in ways that I don’t fully understand yet. I landed a few feet from Alice, slogged a few steps through the waist-deep water, and scooped her up in my arms. I told her she was OK, told all of the shocked faces around us that she was OK, and patted her back hard as she expelled water down my back between hard sobs. I vaguely recall turning back to the poolside table I had just left so dramatically and pointing to Ted and mouthing Thank You. We walked to the edge of the pool where Carrie, my wife, leaned down and said, “Give her to me.” So I passed my child up to her frantic mother and stood there in the shallow end like a man cut loose from his old reality, stricken and alone.
Alice ended up vomiting up more water onto her worried mother as they paced around the periphery and I returned to the table with our friends and tried to make sense of what had just happened. As we discussed and watched her condition—she seemed healthy though she was quiet and visibly shaken, understandably—the prevailing fear was the thought of potential secondary drowning. For those of you that missed that piece on your local news affiliate, secondary drowning (which we actually confused with dry drowning, as it turns out – click here for how they differ) is somewhat rare but could happen if a person takes in water, it gets in the lungs, the victim appears to be good though lethargic, the lurking danger sloshes around, undetected, the individual goes to sleep later, has an pulmonary edema in his or her sleep, and never wakes up. So, though we considered secondary drowning a remote possibility, our own crushing guilt and raw fear led us to the car and a frantic ride to the Emergency Department in Scotts Hill.
Carrie drove and I rode in the back beside Alice’s car seat, anxious to keep her awake and engaged. Our fuzzy understanding of secondary drowning led us to the conclusion that if she fell asleep, she may never wake up so it was my job to keep her awake. It was like she’d been drugged; she could barely keep her eyes open and it was all I could do to keep her from falling asleep. I sang to her, asked her endless questions, squeezed her cheeks and made farting noises, pointed out a hundred things in the passing scenery, and told Carrie to hurry. She had put on the hazards and was keeping it together remarkably well despite the fragile state of her young daughter in the backseat.
At the clinic, she was evaluated and given a chest X-ray, which came out with negative findings of fluid in her lungs. The prognosis was good and the PA said that she was going to be fine. Our pediatrician’s office had been called and their protocol for these situations was conservative, erring on the side of caution. They wanted Alice to spend the night in the hospital for observation, figuring if something did arise it would be most prudent to have her near a medical team in those crucial moments. So Carrie and Alice Wren took an ambulance to the downtown hospital—which Alice voted the coolest ride she had ever taken—and Foster and I checked off items from an unending list of things they would require during their sleepover. We drove down to the hospital to visit and resupply the girls.
To Alice, her stay in the Betty Cameron Women’s and Children’s Hospital was like a resort vacation. She had a doting team of wonderful nurses, a suitcase full of toys and books and games and Wonder Woman pajamas from home, her sure and steady mother, and a kid’s recreation room that was expertly designed to distract young people from the pains, fears, and boredom of protracted hospital stays. We were very fortunate. This is an indisputable fact. And there was no greater reminder of that than walking down that long hospital corridor and wondering who was behind the other room doors. What horrors had brought those other children there? Car accidents? Cancer? How long would they have to stay? Who was getting the worst possible news? Even more, who was leaving without the gravely hurt child they had brought in? These thoughts haunt me still and I can’t help but feel that we merely stepped into that terrible place, had a peek, and were fortunate to back out of it without a scratch.
Horrible stories in the news have a way of numbing us. The observer stands at a safe distance where he can make judgements and recreate the scenario in his own imagination, reacting more admirably, making better decisions, and acing the parent test the other parent flunked. Those stories make us feel comparatively safe but simultaneously vulnerable. Most parents, me included, think we’re on the ball. We’re all over it, completely tuned in to every moment. We are vigilant and the threats are kept away by the triple sentinels of laser focus, foresight, and a weird animal intuition that develops when you bear young. But we had a lapse of attention. There’s no other way to look at it. And believe me, any criticism issued from another parent pales in comparison to the criticism we’re raining down on ourselves. Any real or perceived cries of How could they let that happen? are background noise to our own defeaning, pulsating, shrieks of guilt and self-accusation. Not to each other, thankfully, since the complete lapse of attention happened on a shared watch. We co-own it and return to our combo-guilt whenever we look at her.
When seeing those same horrible stories on Facebook or the news, it’s hard to imagine that there’s a little person behind the picture that is eventually posted—the picture that was taken at school or during a candid childish moment that caught her essence, and now, in death, has to tell her whole life story in one simple image. There was a little life force behind the headlines—you lose sense of that when you read the story. It’s impossible to fully imagine what the child was like. What his little personality was like, how he or she touched and impacted the lives of friends and loved ones and classmates. And you think of the moment in those stories when you realize it’s never going to be the same—you can almost pause the scene and look at the frame of time when everything changes. The moment when the alligator explodes out of the seemingly benign Disney lagoon, when the dad closes and locks the car door while the toddler snoozes in his car seat.
When I pause that day’s events in my mind’s DVD player, I often stop at my jump into the pool—when I stripped out of my shirt. Why was my stupid shirt so important in those frantic seconds and where was that quick thinking and attention a few minutes earlier when Alice was making her way down the steps of the swimming pool without her floaties? She told us later that she was going out to be with Audrey and Veronica. She must’ve felt like a big girl at that moment and didn’t stop to think about her floaties. Once she was down the pool stairs she maybe thought she could walk all the way to them, and when she was suddenly on her tiptoes and swallowing water she couldn’t process the issue or comprehend the danger. I try not to think about what she was thinking because I can’t bear to think that she was wondering why daddy wasn’t helping her yet.
The fact that this happened on Father’s Day intensifies it all. My young daughter spent the night in the hospital on Father’s Day due to, at least in part, a momentary lapse of my attention. But another dad stepped up huge. Ted Johnson – what made him notice? There was another grown man, likely a father himself, standing practically night next to her in the pool as she inched into ever deepening water. How did he not notice? It’s not his job to see her, assess her swimming skill level, and scoop her up just in case—but he was right there? Ted had to identify her from 50 feet away and recognize the signs of an emergency situation, of a potential drowning, words that are painful to fathom or say when it’s your own kid in the water.
There’s an alternate scene that I visit sometimes. When I rewind the action to the moment where Ted is about to sit down at the table and he sits in another chair instead, one facing away from the pool. And no one notices Alice walking across the shallow end. Not one notices she’s in trouble and I can’t watch the alternate scene beyond that part. Forever, it will be Ted noticing and me not noticing and the gratitude and guilt will bubble together endlessly in a stew of memory. But I thank Ted, I cherish my friend and neighbor for having my back like no one has had it before. My love and appreciation and awe for the magic he pulled that day will endure long, long after Alice Wren has hung up her floaties. And on each Father’s Day, I hope he feels that profound gratitude.