There is Magic in the Water...I feel it every time I get in. My hands slice the surface of the pool, arms in rhythmic motion, a sensation I can never feel walking on solid ground. I swear the pattern of the black line beneath me lowers my blood pressure despite whatever swimming workout has been put on the coach’s whiteboard. The most eerie thing of all is that this magical medium that gives me peace is the same one that almost took it away. It is impossible to know, and fruitless to question, why second chances are handed out. What I do know is that our entire family of 6, was granted one of these second chances almost 6 years ago.
The details of the day remain so clear in my mind. It started out to be a lazy Sunday. We all went to Mass, where I chased two year old Matthew outside most of the time, he could never sit still. My grandma turned 90 that Labor Day weekend, the kids had only been back in school a week. There was an ambulance and tow truck cleaning up an accident that had occurred at the intersection outside our church when a white car failed to yield at the left turn and an oncoming truck broadsided the white car. As car accidents tend to do, it gave me an ominous sense and I remember saying a little prayer for the people whose day had already gone so off course.
We headed home with no plans, just to relax, swim and do what all parents of young kids do, enjoy the break of the little ones eventual nap time. After almost two hours of swimming and my husband Ryan tossing kids high enough in the air to take all of our breath away, we decided to make lunch. We made all the kids get out, I carried Matthew in my arms, wrapped in an oversized towel outside the pool fence, the gate slammed shut behind us, making that annoying wrought iron sound that my ears hate, and Ryan and I went in to make lunch. Matthew’s new obsession was sitting in his beloved green and orange Dora car, the kind that you drive like Fred Flintstone, and slowly cruise all over the brick driveway. Allow me to digress and say, 2 year olds are never safe and I should have taken him inside with me. They were playing, all four together, but little ones must be watched by an adult, always, lesson learned the hard way.
Does it take 3 minutes, 5 minutes or 10 minutes to make a slew of PB & J sandwiches? I still can’t answer that question. Whatever the answer, it took too long. I remember a random feeling of panic, like one I hadn’t experienced as a parent before but have had now many times since, it is almost what I imagine PTSD is like. Its an intrusive and fearful feeling that makes me catch my breath and bolt toward my kids if they are anywhere near me. That day, it made me leave the kitchen and quickly head out the back door, into the shaded yard to check on all of them, carrying whatever sandwiches were finished with me on flowered paper plates. The first thing I noticed was that Matthew was not in his Dora car. Why was the pool gate open? Why was 4 year old Kate standing inside the pool fence, gazing down into the pool? I made my approach, still unaware of the gravity of the situation. “Mommy, Matthew is swimming.” Kate says in her sweet little 4 year old voice, oblivious of the catastrophe in her midst.
Looking back on it, I thank God she didn’t jump in too. I don’t know how she had the instinct to freeze. I worry she will hold that vision forever and it will haunt her like it does me, his lifeless little body at the bottom of the pool, next to the side wall, 5 feet deep.
Sandwiches and paper plates flew everywhere. I don’t know if a sound escaped my mouth before I was in the pool pulling our precious, innocent and unprotected boy from the bottom. As I carried him across the hot pool deck and out onto the lawn, I shouted for Ryan to call 911 but no voice came out. It felt like a slow motion scene from a Lifetime movie. Ryan says his fingers tried to dial the numbers but that it took him what felt like an eternity to get the call out. I wouldn’t know, I felt an amazing strength and calm come over me and I was already working on Matthew. I hadn’t taken CPR in 15 years but I knew what I had to do, I had to make him breathe again. I pumped his fragile 2 year old chest, placed my mouth over his, and blew into his colorless lips. I will never forget the eyes, they weren’t his, they rolled back, he wasn’t there.
The sirens were coming, I could hear them like they were in a tunnel. Breathe...water was coming out of his tiny mouth...that was good right? I heard a cough, a muted ugly scream, please don’t die. Firemen rushed in and took over. I pleaded with God, on my knees, prayers, other worldly thoughts. The sheriff was asking me questions. Was I going to get arrested? I probably should I thought. This was all my fault, I was negligent, I know better, how could I have let this happen. He is not fine. This went on for what could have been 5 minutes or an hour. I don’t know, what I really remember was being on my knees, in my yellow bathing suit on the same brick driveway where he liked to drive his car.
I looked up from the corner of the driveway where I had been praying, they day floated like a scene from someone else’s life, and saw 3 beautiful faces that had just witnessed a tragedy that would only get worse if their brother didn’t survive. Their lives would never be the same either. The imprints of the scene had tainted their idyllic childhood, their little brother lay screaming in a muted, haunting scream on the hard back board with horribly scary looking neck and head hardware holding him in place. Later I heard from our neighbors that they were all praying as they watched Matthew be loaded onto the ambulance, with Ryan climbing in after them, and they sped away to the nearest hospital. I was inside, comforting the other kids, arranging for their care and putting on clothes so that my mom could drive me to the hospital where I would find out Matthew’s fate.
After getting Matthew stabilized, through a CT Scan, X rays and breathing normally, they transferred us to Children's Hospital Central California and checked us into a room on the second floor for the night. They were still monitoring his blood oxygen level and watching for signs of dry drowning, a condition that occurs when there is still water on the lungs, and can be fatal. We learned from the nurses that most near drownings are checked into ICU, with signs of brain damage, paralysis or other injuries that can last a lifetime. Matthew’s vitals, CT Scan and X-rays were all normal! The very next day, September 7, 2009, we got to watch our little boy walk out of the hospital holding each of our hands.
Eerily, he remembers a lot from the day. He asks questions and has a love/hate relationship with firetrucks and the sound of sirens. One thing he is not and never has been is afraid of the water. So many things in our lives can cut both ways. I crave the silence of the water, the sensory deprivation that it provides. I wonder if Matthew wasn’t, in some way unknown to him, craving the same thing. I see so many parallels between us, with his aversions to sound, crowds and other overwhelming stimuli. As all parents do, I enjoy observing the traits we pass on to our kids, I’m sorry for some of the more difficult ones I have passed on to my children, many of which Matthew seems to have in greater supply. It is always fun to dream of all four of their futures, but we learned from that dreadful experience that today, even this moment, is all we are promised. Live in it, soak it up. I will never know why my mistake only resulted in a difficult twenty-four hours when so many pay the ultimate price. All I can do is honor the gift we were given with love, respect and attention to each of our children. Thanks to Matthew, we all use our time a little more wisely and smile a lot more when we see him out on his boogie board enjoying the waves.
And here is Matthew today. I could write a novel on this kid's insight and heart.
Wendy and Matthew.
Praise God for second chances. Thank you so much for sharing, Wendy.