I’ll never forget the day I stayed alive just long enough to be saved.
Giving into the demands to play with her at the water’s edge, I had coaxed my lively 4 year old daughter into the waves with me, and when our bodies adjusted to the temperature of the frothy sea, I hitched her high on one hip and walked out to a point in the gently rolling surf where my toes still touched the sandy bottom, and the water was waist deep. It was in this spot we stayed lifted effortlessly by the waves, or ducking our heads underneath them squeezing our eyes and mouths shut just in time.
On that day, the happy squeals of children pierced through the racket of the crashing waves, and bathers were tossed and upended, like staggering drunks and grinning zombies, back into the throbbing, frothy surf. The sky was azure and cloudless. The sun beat down scorching the sand and skin of the sun seekers below; a terrestrial beacon of heat and light millions of miles away. It was a stifling August afternoon, and the warning flag atop the lifeguard stand laid green and limp in the suffocating humidity.
“Watch them, okay? I’m going in with Laura.”
I called out to my husband from over my shoulder marching knee deep into the breaking waves carrying forty-eight pounds of slippery, squealing flesh. Short a set of extra eyes and hands now, I left him to manage the three other children alone, scattered here and there building sandcastles and playing tag with the foamy waves. Growing up near the ocean, my husband and I knew enough not to underestimate its danger and unpredictability. It only took one rogue wave, like a circling man-eater, to strike and claim an unsuspecting victim in an unguarded moment, and children were most vulnerable to the sorcery of the sea.
This middle child of mine wasn’t timid or fearful. Friendly to a fault, and extroverted by nature, ‘stranger danger’ fell on deaf ears. Precociously independent with an inquisitive mind and a strong stubborn streak, she approached the world as if it was hers to conquer. Third in the birth order of four, she muscled her way to be ‘first’, to be heard, and to always get her way. Manipulative and persistent, she could wear down the most competent childhood expert into a head scratching stupor.
The word ‘no’ put her in a trancelike state while she composted and plotted her options. It only greased her wheels and made her more determined. I learned through trial and error to use the word sparingly when setting limits for her. Instead, I practiced the art of distraction and deception. And exercised a parental sleight of hand inserting the power of suggestion to minimize conflicts. With a lot of praise and gentle persuasion, Laura learned to manage her emotions and expectations with greater success. Her temper tantrums became fewer and further between. I loved her deeply with all my soul and understood her completely for she and I were most alike.
Laura was as big as her personality. Muscular, sturdy and athletic, she moved beyond the slug stage early. At nine months, she had hurled herself out of the crib in a fit of rage after being momentarily placed there while I assisted another child. We lowered the sides of the crib permanently, and installed carpeting fearing she would injure herself badly if she tried again. And she did so, regularly.
When she was two and a half, working herself into a textbook head banging conniption, she projected herself out of shopping cart like a ballistic missile standing in the check out line. The box of animal crackers had not been enough for her. She and I had gone to war over the irresistibly stocked racks of gum and candy strategically and deliberately placed near the register for tiny, chubby hands to reach and pilfer. As quickly as I returned the Tic -Tacs to their place, she grabbed the M & M’s, and so on, until the line drawn in sand was crossed, and she began to stuff the candy under her bottom in the back of the cart. Losing my patience, I scolded her firmly, and pushed the cart out of reach of the bounty. But, she was not to be denied, and went airborne in perfect execution of her signature move.
As I lifted her from the floor, she arched her back in a seizure of rage and resistance knocking my glasses off sending them flying through the air. Her screams turned into high-pitched squeals, like pigs in a slaughterhouse, as we wrestled on the grimy, gummy supermarket floor. Scraping from the very bottom of my well of strength, I finally subdued her and scooped up her convulsing body conscious of the smug, judgmental stares of other shoppers silently condemning my lack of control over a disobedient toddler. Abandoning my bursting cart of groceries, and without a glance back at the carnage, I half dragged, half carried her dead body weight out of the store balancing an infant in a baby carrier on my other arm. By the time I buckled her into the car seat, she had stopped sobbing, and her body went limp. She wrapped her tiny, pudgy arms around my neck, catching her breath, and held me tight.
She whispered into my cascading hair that had fallen out of its clip during the scuffle muzzling my face. She sniffled into my neck, not letting go, wiping her tears into the collar of my shirt. My heart was pounding, my back felt broken and I was reeling with anger and frustration. I slipped her arms from around my neck and studied this product of my DNA who had a switch inside her that she couldn’t master. She was slathered in sweat, ringlets of hair glued to her face with snot, eyes puffy from filled sinuses. Laura held her arms out to me again and said something so primitively compassionate and mortal, I stared down at her feeling hopelessly inadequate. She placed her hands on either side of my cheeks, and drew my face into hers.
“We need a hug.”
And just like that the madness and insanity of the previous ten minutes disappeared. With one tiny gesture, she saved us from drowning in our own bitter battle of wills.
With no fight left in me, resisting the urge to scold her again, I hugged and kissed her wet, slobbery face, and finished buckling her in. I checked her head for lumps, and asked her if anything hurt. With enormous relief, I felt lucky that she had not harmed herself. Yet, a sense of failure and regret lingered, and I felt hopelessly unfit to mother.
“I love you but I just want you to remember you can’t have everything you see in the grocery store.”
She nodded wide-eyed with an impish, angelic look furiously sucking her on thumb. By the time I pulled out of the parking lot, her eyes were shut tight, her sucking reflex was on automatic, and dreams of sugarplums probably danced in her head.
Going through a self-berating session driving home, I asked myself what harm would one more piece of candy have been? Why didn’t I have a better instinct over what battles to fight, and which to lose with a two year old? She didn’t get the Tic-Tacs, but I left behind the dinner ingredients for that night’s meal, tomorrow’s school lunches, and another piece of my waning sanity. I was the biggest loser.
That day at Sagg Beach, I recall how she laughed each time the wave carried us upward and we sailed over it, and how she loosened her grip around my neck a little more each time we breached a wave with growing confidence. Laura was full of glee, and so was I. A mother of four, I scolded myself daily for not spending enough quality time with each one of them over the course of a day, and Laura was no exception. Remarkably mature and independent waddling curiously and happily about her world, she was especially vulnerable to my lack of time, and undivided attention. With my patience reserves often sorely tested and depleted, she often got too little of me when all she desired was a little bit more.
One or two waves knocked me off my feet momentarily as I held her but I used it as an opportunity to introduce her to body surfing. Soon she realized no harm came of our roly-poly exploits except the occasional sting of salt water leaking through pursed lips and pinched nostrils. Delirious with the thrill of it, she began to release her legs cinched around my waist as well, treading water, screaming with delight at her bravery only to cling back on to me at the sight of another wave bearing down on us. The sun, reflecting its rays off the water, warmed us, and we bobbed there in the surf, mother and daughter, enjoying a deliciously rare moment of uninterrupted play.
Catching my breath, it occurred to me that the waves were coming in bigger and faster. I felt myself growing tired carrying her weight, and coming up so often for air in between waves that we couldn’t ride out. I searched for my footing to inch our way towards the shore but it was gone. I tried again and turned to look at the beach. Suddenly, I noticed there were fewer people around us, and we were much further out than I realized. Without my glasses, I couldn’t make out my husband anymore or my other children along the shoreline, just a frenzy of fuzzy life forms on a packed beach. The lifeguard stand was further away, too, from where we entered the water, and I feared we were drifting caught in an undertow.
My first thought was to not panic -- just let the next wave push us towards the shore. But we were forced to dive under the next one, sucking us out further instead of towards the shore. With the weight of my daughter, and the use of only one arm as I held on to her, I was losing the battle to stay above the water by just treading. I must have tensed, and Laura reacted instinctively sensing my panic. In that instant, she wrapped her arms around my neck so tight I couldn’t breathe. I fought to loosen her grip but doing so caused us to sink below the water again. Naturally, she was trying to keep on top of the water by climbing up on me unaware that she was pushing me down under. Beneath the water, I struggled to free her legs from around my waist so that I might get her horizontal in a floating position, and then me, but she held me in a wrestler’s headlock.
Up I surfaced once more, waving one arm as high as I could manage gasping for breath, and signaling for help. Terrified, she crushed her body against me, muffling my cries. Down under I went, pushing her up now to save her. My lungs burned from the effort and my legs went noodle like, completely useless. I’m so tired I thought. Resurfacing, I begged her to let me go so we could we swim to the shore together but she was overcome with fear and began to cry, squeezing me with all her strength, smothering me.
With my heart pounding against the wall of my chest, I heard the blood pulsating in my eardrums. My brain was cranking in survival overdrive but my body was surrendering to the fatigue. How does death could come so quickly? The adrenaline pumping through my body only escalated my state of panic as I fought to stay afloat. My muscles and limbs, unable to respond, acted as weights and we began to sink. Choking and sputtering, inhaling salt water, the fire in my lungs became unbearable. Caught in the grip of death, we began to spiral downward again.
Once more I managed to come up, but numb with exhaustion, this time my mind quieted, and I prepared to slip away under the ocean.
“I’m sorry, Laura. I love you, my sweet baby doll. Look, see? Swim to Daddy--he’s right over there waiting for you.”
I whispered into her velvety soft ear, kissing her neck and inhaling her scent one last time. I didn’t want to drown but I wanted her to live more.
I embraced her one last time, and kissed her chubby cheeks as she sobbed against me. I dropped my arms and relaxed gently pushing her body away. Maybe she had a better a chance without me. The world went silent. I was going to die. We were going to die. I traded my fear for salvation, and submitted to God’s plan. Before letting go completely, I heard a voice.
“Are you in trouble? Reach for my hand.” Hardly 6 feet away, a man stretched his hand towards me while he held onto the hand of another behind him waving furiously for help. Out of nowhere, like a celestial vision, he had appeared. The ocean quieted, and the throbbing beat of my heart ceased against my eardrums.
Too exhausted to even nod, our eyes locked. My lips trembled silently pleading to be saved. With my last gasp and only a shred of will left, I reached for his out-stretched hand. When our fingertips touched, he lunged and grabbed my wrist pulling me towards him in a slow motion quicksand save. I felt the pad of my big toe skim the sandy bottom, and then my other foot came down on the soft floor of the ocean. We stumbled through the surf, to the shore, to the other side of Heaven. The fickle, unforgiving ocean had surrendered us. It wasn’t our time to die.
My near drowning and that of my youngest daughter lasted less than four brief minutes. We would have gone quietly into the deep, unnoticed, sinking slowly, our hair rising just a poke out of the water, our bodies still entwined in a failed life-saving embrace. Back on land, my frantic husband, squinting into the sun and sprinting back and forth along the beach with his squirrely, soaking, sand-crusted other offspring weeping after him in pathetic confusion would realize we were missing.
My daughter and I would float on top of the water where the sea meets the sky, pickled and bloated, until finally plucked from the ocean by the somber rescue team. The tragic headline in the next day’s newsfeed along with the obligatory dire reminder of swimming in strong tides would reduce us to just another summertime statistic. And my husband would collapse under the weight of his despair and guilt, turn to drinking, unable to cope with his needy, surviving children, who would grow up motherless with only a shell of a father to nurture them. Permanently wounded and emotionally disfigured by the accidental death of their youthful mother and feisty sister, on a very ordinary, blistering summer beach day, they would become that family.
But the story did not end that way. Funny, I don’t remember praying in those brief moments. I only remember feeling terrified at the brink of death, and a profound hopelessness, loss and shame that I contributed to my daughter’s death, that she had suffered at my hands, that I could not save her. That was all.
My daughter doesn’t remember a thing about that day. That comforts me. I keep the horrific memory repressed deep in the moist crevices of brain tissue where it lingers, rancid and rotten, to torment me occasionally in my dreams. Vivid with sounds and smells, I relive the physical and mental labor of dying: the agony of bodily pain and bottomless remorse, and the moment of surrender and relief as I released my body to die. Then the divine, transitory embrace of the last mortal hug between my daughter and I, and the sweetness of her baby breath as she grabbed my face in her hands, squeezing my cheeks, her tears mingling with mine.
“Don’t let go, Mommy.” She begged.
Laura wasn’t ready to leave the world. She had things she wanted to do.
I bowed again to my tiny determined, headstrong daughter, and held on just long enough so she could go on.