Jessica Sandlin loves kids (especially her fabulous five), chocolate, the ocean, politics, Earl Grey tea, the Oxford comma, and the smell of coconut. She is soon kicking off a tween/teen advice column over at KidsAreHell and is glad to report that only her 11-year-old is offended by the site's name.
We all think we'll be gone before our children are- it's the natural order. We have our close calls, our slight mishaps, our "almost-bad-news" moments, but in general what allows most parents to sleep soundly at night (after the drink of water, the second kiss, the bathroom run, the third kiss, and the nightlight on-off-on routine) is this comforting promise that our children will outlive us. I needn't tell you that it's not always so.
It was a beautiful day at the ocean today. The sky was blue with the kind of huge white cottonball clouds that are cliche to write about. The sea was choppy- not good for surfing though we brought our boards. They'd remain in their bags, wax melting into the parachute material inside, yearning instead to slice through saltwater and sail like glass boats.
We went to a beach with lifeguards today instead of our usual spot with none. We met friends. My five children immediately dispersed~ the oldest to a towel under an umbrella to text friends, the two younger girls to dig in the sand, and the boys into the water. I sat down in a chair. I commented on the red flag on the guard stand- don't go in past your waist. Rough seas. Dangerous currents.
I was not facing the water. I was facing sideways- I turned my head left to look at the sea. I decided I needed to move my chair, to turn to face the water to watch the boys. I didn't turn my chair. I kept talking with my friends. I would ask them if we could turn chairs in a minute.
I had the "what if" in the back of my mind. I quelled it with the thought that they could not go out past waist-deep. There were three guards nearby watching. I was watching, every 100 seconds or so. They were near the shore. It was a beautiful day. Or whatever such stuff went through my brain. I looked over as the guard down the beach blew a whistle. She was motioning some swimmers in- they'd gone out too far. I looked to find the boys. They'd just been right there in front of me. The guard near us blew his whistle and made the same arm motions: Come in, come back, you are too far away for safety. I stood up and began to walk toward the ocean.
"It's the boys," I said under my breath. I could see them- well further out than they ever should've been, on any day but especially today. I stood, rooted in the sand for a moment which felt like a year, and then I saw the sheer, cold, awful panic on my Nine's face and heard his scream as he went up what looked like a six-foot wave face, and I saw my Thirteen swimming back toward his brother- away from shore!- and I ran toward the water, dove in and swam like hell for my babies.
Only… I didn't. I wanted to. Everything in my body- ever instinct from fellow human being to former lifeguard to mother- was activated and trying to propel me with an amazing adrenaline surge into the soup. And I didn't go. I stayed like conch whose foot is firmly, deeply in the sand and I turned to the guardstand and looked up and said in a voice my best friend swears was not my own, "HE. NEEDS. HELP." Then I turned to yell at my Thirteen, who was closer to shore, to COME IN NOW. SWIM TO ME NOW. GET OUT OF THERE NOW. LEAVE.
Within seconds, all three nearby lifeguards were in the water, swimming toward the boys with life preservers. By then, my Thirteen had reached his brother, let him grab his arm, and had begun to swim to shore. They must've swum just left of the current to be able to get in so quickly. They would've been okay without the help. Barely.
I had a moment of doubt as they came in and I saw them. My Nine wasn't vomiting up water or falling over. Had they been just playing? No, no- I remembered the look on his face. His scream.
He was okay. He had been in huge trouble. He was embarrassed now, and wanted to disappear. I hugged. I lectured. I thanked the guards. I pointed out that we live here- they know what the red flag means! I (I'm ashamed to admit) was embarrassed. My sons had been swept out to sea, and I was sitting in a chair. Wretched feeling. This is why they are called accidents.
I should tell you that while both my boys are good swimmers (on a swim team for two years), of course my Thirteen is stronger. He has a good 45 pounds on his brother. Can I tell you how impossibly, awfully black it was to call him to come to shore, while I watched his brother flail in wave after wave, almost out to the end of the nearby pier? Do you know why I did this? Because I could not lose two children in one day to the sea. Because it looked rather dire to me for a few moments, and I thought I was going to watch my Nine's small, pale face slip under a dark green wave and not reappear, and then he would not be found, not in time in our opaque Atlantic.
And do you know why the former lifeguard didn't rush in after her own sons? It's not lack of swimming skills or strength (with the adrenaline, I likely could've lifted a car)- it's the knowledge that most people who drown trying to save others do so because they are unequipped. I didn't have my surfboard, a life preserver, even a boogie board right there to take to offer my Nine. And a person who is drowning, or thinks he is drowning, is a mighty force to be reckoned with- even a child. You can easily be drowned by the drowning.
Some switch in my head went off that if I went, and something happened to me, I was leaving three children on the beach motherless. It is an awful thing to consider. Who would you throw yourself in front of the bus for, really, if not your children? I had a few precious seconds to assess and decide who was the best equipped to get to my children. Despite me having to rouse them, the best equipped were the guards, who swim that water daily and practice drill after drill after drill, and likely had already pulled someone out of the water today. At least once and likely more.
After, I was calm. My friend remarked on it. Even during, I was calm. (All that was playing in my head was, "I'm going to watch my sons drown." It rendered me almost mute.) The boys ran off to dig in the sand- no more water today (though later I realized if I didn't get my Nine back out for a few minutes, the fear might tuck in and make a nest in a corner of his psyche and warn him away from our wonderful ocean in the days and years to come). I replayed the scene a thousand times in my head. I could've swum out once I alerted the guard, even if they got there first. I could've been standing at the shoreline, watching them the whole time, making sure they didn't go out far enough to catch a rip current. I could've, I could've, why didn't I...
I was utterly grateful to the lifeguard. Then, awhile later, I was angry. Why did I have to tell him my sons needed help? He and the other guard were obviously watching the boys in the water- watching them move out- and out- and out from shore. Two whistles blew, and the boys did not move in. Why the hell wasn't he in the water to either a) tell them to move in (if they were fine) or b) bring them in safely (if they were in danger)? I shudder to think that two or three more minutes of delay would've brought the darkest day.
If you are a parent, you have had this experience. You turn around in the department store, and your preschooler is gone. You are at the playground, change the baby's diaper, and suddenly don't see the toddler. You think your teen daughter is in her room, and discover she hasn't been, for hours. It is the epitome of sheer terror. Your heart drops into your feet, blood thunders in your eardrums, your body is in a type of vise that won't release.
My anger is still here, of course. It's only been 10 hours since the event. It's a bit figurative for
my life as an adult- the story of how I alerted the lifeguard to act to save my child. I have to carry the load. No one else is looking- at least, not like I am. Even the ones whose JOB it is to look, to see, to act on instinct due to training. In the last ten years, I've been first into a swimming pool to grab a child in danger more than a half-dozen times. Once I had the child OUT of the pool before the guard was to her. But this isn't just about that.
I am the parent. I carry the motherlode. If my son wants to play tackle football when he is 35 pounds lighter than most of the kids, I carry it as I help him put on the crazyhuge pads and heavy helmet, and give him a smile of encouragment. If my daughter sits down to lunch with me and says, after a bite of veggie burger, "Hey- what does 'cunt' mean?" I'm on it as I turn phrases in my head and let a few tumble off my lips, trying to seem casual, non-judgmental, yet purposeful while I secretly freak out.
I took my Nine into the water awhile later. He resisted for a couple of hours, then was so hot and sandy, he relented. We went in to just over his knees, and he fell into the water and walked on his hands. He kneeled. He rolled around and let the waves crash over his body. He attempted a handstand. He forgave the sea, and like the kitten who'd been too rough before and swiped her owner's hand, she came back and licked his face gently, and purred a little, and made up.
Lest you think I'm too intense, too much the worrier about her children coming to doom, lest you find this tale just some situation that would've righted itself with or without my intervention (likely, thank God), just remember: I was sitting in the chair (not looking 100 percent of the time, but can we always look 100 percent of the time?). This looks dark to me, like a story that could have ended very much another way, because it is one of those. It's one that proffers to me some questions about parenting, about mothering, about myself.
It's also one that allows me to fall on my knees tonight in gratitude for my family, and pray for those who have the alternate ending.