Years and years ago, when I was about sixteen, my cousin nearly drowned in our aunt’s backyard pool. I was in the pool with her, just a few feet away.
My cousin was only very young, maybe five or six years old. It was hot and, along with various family members of different degrees if separation, we were enjoying the cool, slightly salty water. I was the oldest amongst ‘the kids’ and kept to myself, floating and daydreaming at the deeper end of the pool while the younger ones splashed in the shallows. The shallow end of the pool was deceptive– rather than sloping down in a gentle gradient, there was a large step about four foot across that served as a knee high wading pool, before it dropped very sharply into water that was more than five foot deep.
I don’t remember how it happened. I’m not sure if I even saw the moment she stepped or slipped out of her depth. All I know is that suddenly, just four feet away across the sparkling blue water, the only thing clearly visible was my cousin’s hat, floating on the surface, calmly and peacefully… not at all betraying the fact that my cousin was now thirty centimeters under the water beneath it, struggling furiously to break herself back up, clawing in the direction of oxygen.
I froze. Dumbstruck. So horrified and shocked by what was in front of me that I could not move to save her.
I don’t know who screamed her name– “Bianca!!!”– but I’m almost sure it wasn’t me. Her mum ‘left’ the closed in patio area, maybe three meters away… I don’t know the right word to use there. It’s not ‘ran’ or ‘sprinted’, even ‘flew’ isn’t quite accurate enough. There isn’t an adjective for it, and there needs to be– the parental act of moving faster than you thought possible, of instinct producing springing steps that cover meters at a time. When you’re not even aware that you’ve reacted until you’ve done so.
Bianca’s mum dove, a long straight line in denim and white that I can still see shooting through sunlight and past the poolside greenery. She grabbed her daughter, pulled her from the pool and hit her square across the back; her hair and clothes dripping, her eyes wide with a steely panic.
My cousin’s tiny body curled into itself and flung open again. She gagged and vomited liters of water out onto the clay tiles, where it dried almost instantly in the bake of the sun.
She was fine– scared and shaking, but none the worse for what happened. There was an occasional nervous, relieved laughter amongst the adults; the kind of laughter that is almost eerie because it’s so very close to the hysterical screaming that would have echoed around that patio should Bianca’s mum had not been so damn quick.
For years afterwards I felt the kind of shame that makes you blush pink when you think of the event, even when you’re all alone and you’re the only one who knows about it. I was only metres away and could have helped her, literally within the space of a second. I know now it’s not an entirely uncommon thing to happen, but even discovering that fact wasn’t enough to silence the voice in my mind.
Because what would happen one day when I had children of my own..? Would I even been quick enough to do what Bianca’s mum had done, to jump in fully clothed and grab my child? Or would I hesitate at the edge of cold water for just that second too long?