Betty Duffy

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

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 muscles 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 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.


Clare@ BattlementsOfRubies said...

Oh boy.
I was right there with you, my heart in my mouth.
A brush with death is a little weird because it's so anticlimactic when you stay alive after all.
Glad you're all ok.

Kimberlie said...

I was going to write a different comment but I can't even go there. Such an intense scene you painted I am overwhelmed.

Maggie said...

That right there is pretty much my worst nightmare, and why I insisted on having P go into the water with our kids on our beach weekend. Did you have a breakdown later when the kids weren't around? I think I'd need at least an entire wine cellar to deal with something like that. I am so sorry, but also relieved and super impressed.

deanna said...

I recall that feeling of thinking I was going to drown while noticing that my daughter who had also been thrown from the raft appeared to be doing just fine. Glad you are both okay.

BettyDuffy said...

Surprisingly, no breakdown. But I wouldn't take kids to the beach alone again. And everyone going past the dock had to wear a life jacket from then on.

Paul Stilwell said...

Riveting. Don't mean to make an entertainment of your experience, but, well...riveting. So strange how one goes from that skirmish with death right back to the ordinary.

I know too well that feeling when you're out on a lake and suddenly all your energy goes out from you.

I was swimming with a friend and we decided to cut straight to a big bleached tree stump standing out at one point, rather than sticking close to the curve of the shore. We made it there fine of course. We soaked in the sun on a big heat-imbibing rock (mistake number 1). Big mistake in going back the same way we came, cutting straight across.

My friend (stronger swimmer than I) had no idea, as I told him afterwards how close I was to losing it, what position I was in while we were swimming back. I prayed to our Lady, and I used every ounce within me. I knew that if I lulled, stopped swimming (or what only resembled swimming as I was basically reduced to undersurface strokes with one arm and kicking legs), even for just a second that would be it. And it wasn't a calm lake. When I got to shore I couldn't stand up for quite some time. Knees shaking uncontrollably.

The walk back through the sunlit forest paths back to the car was sort of like paradise. Oh, the firmness of the earth! What things we don't appreciate!

My Feminine Mind said...

So scary!

Paul Stilwell said...

Oh, forgot mention, as a warning to anyone reading this: never gauge your ability to swim a certain distance by your energy level. You think you have the energy, indeed all is well, as I thought, until you're out there in the middle, between both points.

mrsdarwin said...

At the pool last week, as I waded toward my three-year-old who had wandered further than the zero-entry baby pool, I could tell that he'd gone out of his depth. His head would pop up for a second, and then he'd go back under. Then I could see his head under the water as he tried to find his footing. No struggles, no cries. As it was, I was five seconds away from him, and watching him all the time, so there was no danger, but it was a sobering object lesson in how easy it is for a child to drown. Too bad these lessons are wasted on the young -- just a few minutes later he wanted to head back out the same direction. Danger only benefits the experienced.

Erin said...

Wow. When I began reading this, I had no idea it would be so dramatic. Then I had to remind myself a few times that you couldn't possibly write this, if you hadn't survived. So I had hope.

Ashley said...

I'm glad you're all safe.

Julia said...

Well now, *that's* a story! I have non-beach days that feel like that from time to time, but most of them don't have the same fatality potential. Good thinking.

Anonymous said...

"Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning" is a very sobering article which illustrates just what you went through with your son.. I'm really glad you're both OK.

liz o said...

So glad you're both okay. What an experience!

The Sojourner said...

This post is making me think I need to take swim lessons again. I'm 21 and I'm honestly probably not a much better swimmer than your son. I can't imagine what I'd do if one of my hypothetical children was ever in distress in water out of my depth. (Well, I'm sure I'd go grab them and then think very dramatic thoughts about my funeral, but what I'd do AFTER that.)

Lizzie said...

My heart was in my mouth throughout this although as Erin said, I kept thinking that as it had been recorded, you must be alive and well! What a shock and a timely reminder for me as I prepare to go away with friends to a house with a pool and 10 small children. Last year, there were a couple of near misses...

Aside from the human drama, what an amazing account - your writing is such a blessing.

I prayed for you yesterday at Mass especially with the walking on water Gospel.

Misha Leigh. said...

I read this last night and seriously have not been able to comment until now. It's one of my worst fears. Your account was gripping - and, as usual, also so beautiful and instructive.

Thank you for the sweet link and comment, too. You have continued to be in my thoughts.