I envy the grace with which some people take to water: their bodies slick, their confidence unquestioned, feet-first, head-first, the body first a closed fist, then a palm extended, plunging and gliding and breathing with ease. I’ve a graceful doggy paddle at best and more often than not have to hold my nose, an embarrassment for a woman over forty. Still, all my life I’ve been drawn to the water, like my mother before me.
Last year I lost uncountable hours on spotthedrowningchild.com, a website with a simple mission: to show you that drowning is deceptive. Videos of pools play, many of them rippling with man-made waves and overstuffed with people in translucent blue inner tubes. Your job is singular: monitor the pool and click on the drowning child. If you save them in time, the website reports how long it took you to respond, a number measured in seconds that allows you to feel like maybe you’re good at this—at spotting danger where others don’t see it. If you fail, the site reminds you that “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning.” When I flunk this particular test, I remind myself that this is a macabre game, that there are no consequences because I am not in charge of a pool. I have no children. But when hours pass and still I look for the children at risk, I have to ask: who exactly am I trying to save?
The first time I almost drowned, I was about eight years old. My mother’s best friend had children the same age as me and my younger brother, and our days spent at their Victorian home a few towns over are among my favorite childhood memories because (1) they had an endless supply of name-brand junk food, and (2) my father was never there. It was the only house I knew that contained no menace. I suspect it offered the same solace to my mother. In addition to lacking violence, the backyard held an enormous deck and pool. Packs of Carlton 100’s kept the moms locked in whispers in their chaises, but it was the water that kept us kids occupied in the school-less days between June and August.
Their pool began at three feet in the shallows and sprawled to depths well beyond what I could touch on the far end. I still do not like swimming in water over my head. I understand my limitations. In fact, I am rarely in water without a kickboard or boogie board, something more buoyant than me.
But kids with pools are fearless. They run the length of the slippery deck, trailing ghostly footprints that evaporate in the sun, and cannonball into the depths. I use the stairs, cling to the sides. One of the kids convinced me to try a scuba mask so that I could open my eyes underwater—something I’d never done because I wore contact lenses. The boy taught me how to rub my spit against the plastic lens, and while I didn’t understand why, I did it to seem tough. It didn’t occur to either of us that what fit his head might not fit mine. He pointed toward the scary end—that’s where the cool stuff is—so I doggy paddled along the side and kept my fingers clamped to the concrete as the water stretched beneath me.
It was a marvel to open my eyes underwater. Soon I spotted coins glittering on the floor of the deep. I wanted to bring one up, to prove to myself that I could, so I swam down and managed to snag a quarter. But down there, so far from air, so much deeper than I’d ever ventured, I panicked. I had to get to the surface immediately and pushed off of the floor with such force that the mask slid down my face, capturing water as it moved, and suction cupped over my nose and mouth. I couldn’t breathe. When I broke the surface, I couldn’t yell for help either. I only bobbed and choked and flapped my arms against the surface, as if that would push me up and out of the water.
No one noticed I was drowning.
By sheer luck, a pool raft floated by, and my flailing arm caught it. I kicked my way to the side where I tore off the mask and hacked up the warm water of my lungs. After I found my breath, I went inside, shaky, and in the bathroom mirror saw that the mask left a red ring around my mouth and up my cheeks. The words drown and clown uncomfortably close.
Spotthedrowningchild.com states, “of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. In ten percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening.”
Ten percent will stare at danger, at what they fear most, and fail to recognize it.
For a decade after the scuba mask incident, I dreamed of roller-skating on the deck beside that same pool, my skates thumping along the boards until I’d trip into the shallow end. For a moment, it would seem like I might make it to the edge, skating through the water in the slow motion of dreams, but then the roll would start, my body weighed down, sliding along the pool floor’s steady decline. Inevitably, I’d find myself in the deep end, unable to move, looking up toward the light of the surface, toward the wavy shape of my mother too busy with her own life to notice me.
Recently a friend of mine, a synchronized swimmer, posted a photo of herself underwater on skates: smiling, her hair loose as ribbons, her fingers in the pointed V of a peace sign. She radiates joy, but my breath tangled in my throat when I saw it. I have looked at that photo dozens of times now, my brain still partially unwilling to accept that it is possible for her to be safe.
The second time I almost drowned, I’d swum out to a sandbar on Long Beach Island to swipe my hands along the muck and unearth sand dollars. I’d left my boogie board behind to carry a bucket for my haul; it seemed ridiculous to take a board to hang out in ankle-deep water, even if I had to swim through a deep basin to get there.
But sandbars break. Without warning, the basin water shoved its way through the shoal and took half a dozen of us with it. One moment I stood solid; the next ferried me out to sea.
The National Ocean Service reports that rip currents have been recorded traveling up to eight feet per second. That seems slow on land but, as many websites point out, it’s faster than an Olympic swimmer.
I am no Olympic swimmer.
I knew better than to try to swim toward shore, so I floated on my back, watching the line of beachfront houses whirl by, but my breaths grew shallow with anxiety. I floated and kicked and fluttered until my muscles burned. I thought I was done for. Mercifully, the touch of a lifeguard arrived, and I wrapped my hands around his red rescue buoy. Once on shore, I lay on the sand to catch my breath before beginning the long walk back to my family, to my mother, who slept stomach-down on a towel, her eyelids twitching with dream.
While writing this, I visited spotthedrowningchild.com for the first time in ages. Here’s how my first nine videos went:
- 1.9 seconds: saved
- “Just splashing around. Keep looking:” false alarm
- “Seems ok. Keep looking:” false alarm
- 1.3 seconds: saved
- 4.5 seconds: saved
- “Drowning doesn’t look like drowning:” failure
- 9.1 seconds: saved
- “All clear there. Keep looking:” false alarm
I should know what drowning looks like and still I had an equal number of saves and false alarms. I played the videos until they cycled back to the first one and I knew where the drowning children would appear. I wasn’t sitting in my office congratulating myself, but I couldn’t help but wonder why this pulled me in so readily. It’s clear that the videos offer me two roles: savior of children, and savior of former child self. Play-acting at either feels a bit shameful. But I’m not convinced that’s all it is. Only as I type this do I wonder if this is my extension of forgiveness to my mother, the woman who never saw me drowning, the woman who often still doesn’t.
When I think in metaphors, my mother appears like this: we are on the beach, me in the water, she on the sand, waving at one another. She is happy to see me, the daughter whose trauma she tucks into some dark attic of her mind, her face a broad grin. I wave back, exhausted from treading, actively drowning, but she mistakes it for a greeting. Two women waving their arms to different ends, one of them in danger, unnoticed.
Drowning doesn’t look like drowning.
But there was a time before the pool, before the sandbar. A fishing trip with my father: a rowboat, a cloudless sky, and the still, flat waters of the bay on Long Beach Island. My father grew up in Crete, the largest island at the southern margin of the Aegean Sea, and he swam without fear in the Atlantic. He reminded us often that he was a Pisces, a fish-man made for the water.
While my father cast his line, I dropped my crab trap and pulled in starfish after starfish, running my fingers along their spiny legs before tossing them back. He was the kind of man who thought that rocking a boat, letting its floor fill with water until I scream-begged him to stop, was hilarious. That day, he also thought that tossing me into the water earned top marks for humor.
I did not yet know how to doggy-paddle; as my heart galloped and I splashed and bobbed, my father laughed and laughed. He laughed right up until the moment he saved me.
When someone is actively drowning, they are “physiologically unable to call out for help.”As a child, I feared my father so much that I couldn’t speak my terror aloud. I couldn’t say that my father tore me down with his words, that one look from him made my body erupt in hives. I couldn’t say that he’d aimed a rifle at me and threatened to kill me and my mother. I wouldn’t dare admit that he crept into my bedroom at night. I knew the cost of telling. The single time I did, my mother confronted him; he pummeled her with his fists while I watched.
But still: I longed for someone—anyone—to notice the signs: the half-moons beneath my young eyes; my intense withdrawal from people; my inability to look a man in the eyes. Why could no one see I was drowning in father?
We survive our lives any way we can. For some, that means shoving all of the hard stuff into the darkest corner of memory’s attic. To let it see the light of recall could destroy you. That is my mother’s method: bury it, and bury it deep.
It is not my own.
It has taken me decades to share some hard truths with her. Only two years ago did I disclose my father’s visits to my childhood bedroom.
She wept, cursed, and asked the question she always does when confronted with some old horror: How did I not know?
I do not say, You should’ve known. You should’ve paid more attention. How could you not have seen the signs?
Instead, I take the weight. I say, “Because I didn’t tell you, Mom.”
Most of the time, I am not angry. I love her and recognize her limitations to touch the past that I hold on to. She was a victim, too, after all, and no matter the fallout, the most important truth drifts to the surface again and again: we survived.
As I type these final words, the screen wobbles above my bouncing leg. I’m in a regional airport in southwest Indiana awaiting the connecting flight to Atlanta that will drop me at Tampa International. An hour before my plane is scheduled to land in Florida, my mother’s will already have docked and released its passengers. Together we will drive to pack up my grandmother’s house, a daunting task in itself, but my anxiety stems from a simple fact: we have not seen each other since she walked me down the aisle at my wedding three and half years ago. We have not seen each other because I refuse to go home to New Jersey, to Philadelphia, to revisit the stomping grounds of my adolescent abuse.
Despite my anxiety, I offered to go because I know two things to be true: we’ve always worked best when we have a project to channel our energy away from difficult conversations, and Florida is more than neutral territory; it is peninsular, the Gulf and Atlantic that surround it fill my me and my mother with palm and possibility.
After claiming my bag, I will exit the airport and meet her at the curb for a hug before driving along I-4 and looking out toward the wide-stretching, green-throated Gulf. I am not certain why my mother is so drawn to the water, but I like to bury my feet in the sand as the limitless ocean yawns and all that hangs above my head is the vastness of the universe. It reminds me how small my problems are, how small the lot of us are. I need that reminder often. I imagine my mother does, too.
Nearly drowning doesn’t leave behind visible scars, but we carry those aquatic scrapes with death in our water-made bodies. I imagine them riding the rapids of our bloodstreams, traveling through our veins as if to say, Yes, that happened a long time ago, but I am still here, a reminder that you are vulnerable. And that is what I feel as my plane is called for boarding: vulnerable. Exposed. I want to be open to a new relationship with my mother, but I also want to protect myself. I don’t want to drown in my own unmet needs. Holding those two desires at once feels like having frostbite on one hand while the other bursts with fire.
Still: I am full of hope. I hope that as the local radio station fills our commute with classic rock or news, we look to the water and see what we need most. I hope we see each other—really see each other. That we take one another in for who we are and not for all that’s happened to us. I hope for a moment of silence and peace and understanding. I hope we are able to make and hold the space we need. But more than anything, I hope that if I should begin to drown, my mother will dig into her purse, her pocket, her heart and pull out the lifeline I’ve reached for since I was a child.
Lisa Nikolidakis’ work has appeared in The Best American Essays 2016, Los Angeles Review, Brevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Passages North, The Rumpus, Nimrod, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing in the Midwest.