Editor’s note: We received this important story from Lane Buckman and this is what she had to say. “I am sharing the story of how I was with a family when their toddler drowned about ten feet away from me. It is timely because of how easily tragedy can occur – even in the most vigilant of situations – and because we are in swimming pool season.”
TRIGGER WARNING: CHILD DROWNING
Twenty-four years ago, I was sitting in a swimming pool with a couple of friends, while their kids played around us in their water wings. It was late and dark, the pool lit only by the hotel sign and street lamps, as we were ignoring the hours of operation, along with some drunk who was draped over a lounge chair.
I had taken off my glasses and was treading water, facing the shallow end, watching the 18-month-old splash on the steps of the shallow end behind his parents. As we laughed and talked, with the three-year-old chattering and dancing on the side of the pool behind me, my friends started to tease me to take off the scrub shirt I was wearing over my new swimsuit. I demurred, worried it was too low cut, squinting to make out their faces, hoping they were just kidding.
We bantered back and forth, as noisy as twenty-somethings can be until I realized we were the only ones making the noise. “Where is Yasmin?” I asked, spinning around to look for the toddler, whose singing had stopped.
If you’ve ever done CPR, you know how horrifying it is. You have to gather your wits and remember the steps. You have to tilt the head back, clear the windpipe, pinch the nose, and breath into the mouth and pray to whatever God might be listening that you got those in the right order. When the head will fit in the cup of your hand, and the nose is smaller than the pad of your thumb, you start praying you aren’t breaking anything.
But, getting the steps right isn’t a guarantee that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation will work, and chest compressions rarely deliver without causing further damage.
I will never know how much time had passed between Yasmin sliding off her water wings as she chattered her way down the ladder in the deep end, before silently slipping under the water, and away from us forever, but it couldn’t have been long. I do know that it was fewer than ten minutes from the time her father brought her body up off the bottom of the pool, I started CPR, and the drunk in the lounge chair managed to struggle upright enough to understand that we were screaming for him to get help, that the paramedics arrived.
Her father had taken over mouth-to-mouth by then, and what seemed like gallons of water had rushed up out of her mouth and nose, along with what she had eaten for dinner. I saw that she had lost her bowels, and only just managed to keep my composure. I knew what that meant. I talked to the police officers and gave a statement, then carried the baby back up to the hotel room while my friends climbed into the back of an ambulance with their daughter.
Every time I hear a news report about a child’s accidental death, I think, “Yasmin would have been this-many years old…if I’d done more.”
I think, “Yasmin might have children of her own if I’d angled my body differently so that I could have kept an eye on both ends of the pool.”
Or, “If I’d just worn my glasses, Yasmin wouldn’t have died.”
Every time I hear a news report about a child’s accidental death, and for countless other reasons day in and day out, I am reminded of how a little girl drowned, not ten feet behind me, and I am reminded of how easily those lives slip away. I am reminded of how vigilant you have to be to keep children alive, and how just a few seconds of distraction can negate years of watchful care. I am reminded of how loss happens in a heartbeat.
I’ve been there, so when a toddler finds a way into a gorilla’s enclosure and adventures himself down for a better view of the big fluffy thing, all I can imagine is the mother’s horror. All I can imagine is the invisible hand squeezing the air out of her lungs, as she realizes what turning her head for just a second meant. And as awful the outcome for the gorilla, I can only imagine the grateful relief that mother felt when her child was returned—alive. I can only imagine it because the child we put in the ambulance that night, never came back.
There are probably a hundred things that child’s parents and I could have done differently, things that would have saved her life, saved the distress and emotional scarring of the hotel employees who watched helplessly as we flooded their front desk with chlorinated water and the contents of her stomach, and saved that one drunk’s nap. We didn’t do them. We failed her.
We, as adults, failed that child. We, as adults live with that failure, and that loss, the guilt, and the shame daily.
However, it wasn’t out of neglect, or lack of love, or bad parenting. It was an accident. Accidents happen*.
It was an accident that ended in tragedy, and that is all.
*According to the CDC, about ten people die from unintentional drowning daily. For every ten, two are children under the age of 14.
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This original essay was written by Lane Buckman exclusively for BonBon Break Media LLC.