ESSAY- In a flash: The day my toddler slipped under water
Her hair, that's what I noticed first: the long golden mane floating above her head like seaweed.
In one of those enduring nanoseconds– a mental snapshot that lasts a lifetime– I discovered my toddler entirely under water in the deep end of the baby pool. She was upright, as still as a stone, not a sign of panic or struggle– or life.
She was two years old that summer. We had arrived at the neighborhood pool just moments before. It was hot; the place was crowded. As always, we headed for the baby pool. I set down my bag and turned away from the water long enough to spread a towel over the lounge chair.
How long was I turned away? That's the question I kept asking myself afterward. How long could it have been? Ten seconds? Twenty?
Long enough, apparently, for a two-year-old to step off the side of the pool and sink into three feet of water without so much as a splash or a gasp or being observed by any of the dozens of parents clustered around the pool.
Why didn't she struggle? If I fell into the water and couldn't swim, you can bet I'd be thrashing around like crazy, calling for help.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, "Children under the age of five years do not struggle in the water. They can drown without making a sound." So, our experience was not unusual: This is what a drowning toddler looks like.
And nationally, nine out of ten children who drown are "under supervision."
But then, "supervision" is a slippery term. Is it "supervision" if mom or dad or the sitter is reading or chatting on a cell phone? Or if you turn your back long enough to spread out a towel? Technically, yes. Unfortunately, it may not be enough to prevent tragedy.
I dropped to my knees, reached down into the water to grasp a tiny arm, and hauled her up into the air. Jill opened her eyes and took a breath, sputtered and coughed for a few seconds. I pulled her close and wrapped my arms around her.
My heart still hammering, I looked up at all the grownups surrounding the pool: people engaged in conversations, or reading, or watching their own children. If anyone observed our brief drama, there was no indication.
Jill immediately began to struggle and freed herself from my arms. She wanted to know: Where was her ball? Where was her bucket? Not a word about sinking below the water, unable to breathe.
What happened down there? That's what I want to know. It's as though some mysterious force overtook my daughter the moment deep water swallowed her.
At a mere two years of age, was it some kind of reflex that made her think she was afloat in the safety of the womb again?
If she had fallen on the cement and skinned her knee, there would have been tears and residual sadness– a story to tell Daddy later in the day.
But nearly drowning appeared to fall below her level of awareness; there was no need for consolation.
I wonder still, 22 years later, what it was like for her. Did she slip into another dimension, a Twilight Zone for toddlers?
The National "Safe Kids" Campaign (usa.safekids.org) recommends a designated "water watcher"– an adult who maintains unbroken vigilance whenever children are in or near the water. Amen.
I discovered that day that you can't rely on other adults who happen to be at the pool to keep an eye on your child.
A bystander who is not your designated "water watcher" is not likely to be engaged and vigilant, and your child can slip out of your arms– and out of this life– in utter silence and without a hint of struggle.