Once when I was around 9 years old, I was drowning and my Dad saved me.
My Dad stopped drinking for good around the time I turned seventeen years old. Maybe too late to be a good dad to my sisters and me for the bulk of our childhood, but in time to be the great father he has been to us in the decades since.
For a long time my strongest memories of childhood were mostly the bad ones. My parents arguing, the drinking, the crying, the fear. I know now that to remember these experiences over the good ones is a normal human response to danger. We are hard-wired to remember the things that scare us in order to avoid them in the future. Much like learning to steer clear of snakes or be cautious around fire. Unfortunately, this instinctive hyper-vigilance lingers long after such danger is gone. But more and more I have recalled all the good times too, including the memory of my Dad saving me from drowning.
Growing up in the 1960’s we didn’t have central air conditioning in our home, but we had fans and a basement and we had the beach. On 90+ degree summer days we would drag our mattresses down to the cool concrete of our unfinished basement to sleep at night, and we would often head to the beach for a dip before bedtime.
It was at Lake Johanna one hot summer evening that my father saved me from drowning.
Beaches were popular back then. They were incredibly crowded and there were few rules. Fathers (mine included) would launch their kids into the stratosphere where we’d flail wildly before slapping down hard on the surface of the water, sinking into the quiet, cold, weedy lake. Kids dunked one another to within an inch of their lives. Teens smoked cigarettes while reclining on beach towels, their tanned bodies slick with Johnson’s Baby Oil; smelling all at once like nicotine and newborns.
My Mom and Dad would both get in the water with us and they’d laugh and splash and rough-house with each other too. I remember even as a child knowing how fragile those joyful moments were. I tried hard, we all did, not to shatter them.
That hot summer evening when I drowned, I had drifted just a few feet on the waves when suddenly I could not feel the soft muddy lake bottom under my feet anymore. I’d slipped over a drop-off. Initially I managed to rise up out of the lake just enough to get my mouth above the water line by desperately pawing at the lake bottom with the tips of my toes. But my efforts weren’t enough. Drowning is truly a quiet affair. My arms stretched out at my sides, my head tilted back seeing only sky as I tried to keep my mouth and nose above the waves. I couldn’t make a sound, nor could I wave my arms. When I tried, I would immediately go under.
All around me, even brushing against me, people were splashing and screaming and laughing, oblivious to my struggle. Finally, exhausted, I gave up and lowered my chin. Just my eyes were above the surface. I could vividly see my mother in bright Technicolor passing from right to left in front of me, only a a couple of feet away. When I opened my mouth to scream her name, lake water rushed in. A blackness began forming all around the edges of my sight and I felt myself go limp and peaceful with surrender.
Suddenly two hands slipped under my arms from behind and lifted me, coughing and sputtering, from the depths. In my panic I swung around and clung to my Dad, burping up water over his shoulder, my chest heaving painfully to replace the expelled water with air.
I remember he said something to me like, “What the hell were you doing?” Not fully appreciating the gravity of the situation, he deposited me in the shallow water. I stumbled to the beach where I sat wide-eyed and flustered by what had just transpired as my dad swam back out into deep water, unaware he had just saved my life.
My Father stopped drinking for good around the time I turned seventeen years old. He says he loves me often, lifting me up each time he does. Not fully appreciating the gravity of his influence, he is unaware that by showing me it is never too late to change yourself and the trajectory of your life–that we are all capable of miraculous redemption and expansive love–he saves me over and over again.
I don’t know if I’ve ever said thank you to my Father for the gift he has been to me in my life. Thank you. Thank you especially for saving yourself. I love you.
After sending this to my Dad to approve before publishing, he sent me this beautiful response:
“I think it was a great essay. Although I cannot recall the incident, I feel that
two lives were saved. Because I would not have survived the death of my
child, being in that chapter of my life. Love. Dad.”
Mammaste~Divinity in the Everyday