I walked back to the field where I’d left my son. I saw my extended family still in the grass, eating, but my toddler was not with them. “I don’t know,” one of my in-laws responded. “I thought he went with you back to the pool,” said the other.
My heart dropped.
“Brennan! Brennan!” My friend ran to check the sandbox while I scanned the toddler pool frantically. We were at a popular water park. I could hardly see the water for all the children in it. When I couldn’t see him, I found a lifeguard. “I need some help,” I said breathlessly. “I can’t find my son.”
The lifeguard pointed at a commotion about 100 yards away. “Lady, you need to get over there.”
At the same moment, whistles screeched throughout the water park. Lifeguards shooed children out of the water, and through a part in the crowd, I saw him. My baby boy was lying blue and lifeless on the concrete edge of the pool.
“That’s my baby! That’s my baby!” I screamed as I ran through the water. Followed by, “I did not leave him alone! I would never leave him alone!” I screamed it over and over again. Red suits encircled my baby. Behind them, the circular blue water slide no longer cascaded frantically. Someone must have turned it off. In front of me, I saw the long auburn ponytail of the young woman assigned to keeping me away from my son while they tried to revive him. I screamed into her frightened face while she gripped both of my shoulders. “I would never leave my baby alone!” “I know you wouldn’t, I know you wouldn’t,” she repeated. After some time — 20 seconds? 10 minutes? I didn’t know — the oldest lifeguard, the one in charge, looked up from my baby. “He’s breathing! Come here!”
My toddler’s face looked exactly the same as it did at the moment of his birth. Skin red, eyes closed, mouth wide, he cried. It was not the familiar toddler sound of fatigue or anger, but the ancient gasp for first air.
With shaking hands, I scooped him off the ground. “Is he still dying?” I asked. “No,” the head lifeguard said. “If he’s crying, he’s breathing. He’s going to be fine.”
And he was. He is. At 21 months old, my little boy left the world for two full minutes before he was reborn on the warm concrete beside the swimming pool that awful day. And in that moment, I too was reborn. I was baptized into a world where babies can die.
Before then, I had no idea. I didn’t understand that, for all we do, our babies can wander away and just … die. We can nurse them (or not), limit their media intake (or not), offer them organic fruits and vegetables, sleep train or co-sleep, carefully weigh school and lessons, and plan the most beautiful parties imaginable, and still, they can meander away when no one is looking and just die.
All at once, I understood every bizarre destructive act of mothers I’d read about. Mothers who strap children to their chest before jumping off a cliff, who put their head in an oven or drive the whole lot into a river. I knew I would never harm my children, but I understood why they did. We cannot protect our children from death. How could anyone possibly cope with this knowledge?
I certainly couldn’t. In the weeks after my son’s accident, my emotional stability unraveled. I stopped taking my children out in public, made a drastic change in schools (the better to keep them safe), put alarms on the doors so no one could wander out front alone. I spent my days counting my children’s heads over and again. If one of them went to the playroom alone, the air left the room. If it was that easy for a child — my child — to die, well, I was just going to have to tighten up security.
But anything could still happen at any time. And my children began having nightmares, tantrums, stomachaches. One child panicked along with me whenever his youngest brother left my sight. Another could no longer make it to the bathroom in time. They couldn’t manage my anxiety any more than I could. They needed me to be better.
So I saw a therapist.
I learned about post-traumatic stress, and how my brain chemistry was paralyzing me with fear. At first, my therapist’s suggestions sounded ridiculous. She wanted me to stand there and breathe when my son left the room? Just breathe? Not check on him? But I did it.
I practiced acting in ways that seemed counterintuitive to the anxiety I felt. I took up meditation and upped my exercise. I practiced allowing the wave of panic to crest, and then recede, without responding to it. My children began seeing a family therapist to process their own experiences. In time, I stopped counting my children’s heads constantly. We even went back out in public.
After a few months, I learned to breathe in a world where children can die. But there was one milestone left to cross. We had to go swimming again.
I carefully chose our venue. No crowds, no water slides. A deserted indoor hotel pool. All of my children got new life jackets. We reviewed water safety rules at length. Eight months after my son died and was resurrected in front of us, we went swimming again.
With a deep breath, I slid my key into the lock and watched the light blink green. I felt the threat of panic, but it receded quickly. “On the count of three, ready? One. Two. Three!” My older children all jumped at once, while my toddler gripped my hand.
Together we walked down the steps into the shallow end. Was he afraid? Did he even remember? “Watch this!” he said, as he jumped from one step to the next. I swallowed the “Careful!” in my throat, and grinned instead. Together we were born into this space where we know, firsthand, that babies can die. And together, we have learned how to live here.
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