By Kristen Mae
We were mere feet from her. Six adults sitting under the screened porch. I was keeping an eye on Mari even though I knew she was an extremely cautious child, could swim fairly well, and there were five other adults with eyes more or less on the pool. But an Adirondack chair was partially blocking my view.
And we were talking, y’know? We were having one of those animated conversations when everyone talks over everyone else and we all burst into laughter at the same time and slap our knees. I was into the conversation. I was not paying attention. I was not looking.
My cousin suddenly broke the conversation and jumped up out of his chair. He was at the pool’s edge in a flash. I jumped up too, knowing it had to be Mari. The other kids, they’re all strong little dolphins — excellent swimmers.
My heart exploded in my chest and blood rushed like a tidal wave in my ears. My hands covered my mouth as a silent, wordless prayer went up, begging for mercy, begging forgiveness for my stupid, careless lapse in attention.
How soon had my cousin noticed that Mari was no longer standing there pouring water and chattering with her adorable little chipmunk voice? What had he seen that made him jump up like that? A splash? The roundness of a tiny back floating at the surface?
Shame on me for letting her play so near the water. Shame on me for not sitting in a spot that had an unobstructed view of her. I was too busy talking, and now I was going to be one of those mothers. We’d be one of those families, the ones with a hole, a missing piece. We lost my stepbrother seven years ago, so I know what that hole looks like. I have seen what it does. It never, ever goes away. We feel my little brother’s loss constantly. He was part of our family. We are incomplete without him.
These chipped families — we pray for them, we think of them in the shower, on the drive to work. When we think of how they carry on in spite of their unfathomable loss, we berate ourselves for losing patience with your own kids over stupid crap like leaving socks on the floor. These broken families wish their precious child was still around to leave socks on the floor.
We feel deeply for these families. We see them smiling and moving through the motions of life, and we wonder how they go on, though we know subconsciously that the reason they go on is because that is the only thing there is to do. We pray we won’t ever have the need to summon that kind of strength. And we feel guilty for praying it, because after all, they have to suffer through the emptiness of all those birthdays that will never be. What makes us any more deserving of them to have children who get to stay alive? We feel we would do anything to take away their pain …
Anything but trade places.
In the tiny fraction of a second before I realized that Mari’s chubby little hands were already gripping the edge of the pool, just as we had practiced hundreds of times over the summer, I was that mom, we were that family, and the vast black hole of Mari’s absence had sucked away our future. Through choking sobs of relief and self-loathing, I hugged my baby tight, lavishing praise on her for doing such a good job “saving herself.” We’d practiced it and she’d remembered.
My cousin had seen the very moment her little body went over the edge. And we’d been practicing all summer our “save yourself” technique (which goes like this: “Fall” in the pool. Swim to the nearest wall and grab on. “Monkey walk” to the steps and climb out).
We had some safety measures in place.
That day could have ended much, much differently. I made a huge mistake letting Mari play near the pool without appropriate safety gear. I know that many drownings happen in moments such as this, with all the adults busy talking, all the kids occupied in their game, everybody assuming someone else is watching. I know I should have had my eyes on her, or that her father should have been assigned with the task.
I know these things …
I guess I needed a reminder.
Kristen Mae is the bestselling author of Red Water and Beyond the Break as well as the hugely popular and completely twisted short story Black-Eyed Susie. Kristen is also a social media manager, freelance writer, classical musician, and artist. She lives on the Atlantic coast of Florida with her two children and a fuzzy, giant-eared little dog named Gizmo. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Bookbub.