A story of coping with winter
|It was a late spring day after a heavy rain had brought the top of the pond to the edge of the bank. I thought it might be fun for Ian to go out in the rowboat. We strapped him into a child-size life vest, snapping the plastic clasps closed and pulling the webbed straps snug. I slid the boat from the grass into the water and lifted Ian into it. Steph stepped from the bank to the front seat where she sat with Ian. I stepped into the middle, took one oar out of the oar lock and shoved us off. Ian reached over and dragged his hand on the cool water as I rowed in slow circles around the pond, under the branches of the willow that grew on the berm, the sunlight flashing in the ripples I made.
Steph and Ian talked while I powered us along.
"How many word can you think of that rhyme with shoe?"
Ian, took no time to consider. "Blue . . . Two . . . New . . . Glue . . . True . . ."
"Now you pick one" Steph suggested to our three-year old.
"Lamp! That's a hard one. Lamp. Amp. Stamp. Tramp. Ramp. . . . Camp . . . Damp . . . Champ. I think that's all. Wait. Cramp."
"Gramp-pa!" Ian beamed.
"Can we camp? In the damp?" he asked.
"Maybe dad can put up the tent this weekend and you guys can."
"Are there fish?"
"I don't know. Dad, are their fish in the pond."
"There are fish,” I answered, “and turtles, frogs, crawdads, mussels, snakes."
"What's a ‘crawdad’?"
"It’s like a big bug with claws that lives in the mud."
"I like frogs. They don't have claws."
"But they have sticky tongues." I don’t know why I said that, but it seemed at the time to fit the conversation as well as anything.
"I wish I was a frog."
"Why would you want to be a frog?" Steph asked.
" ‘Cause frogs can jump, have sticky tongues and can live underwater. And they don't give you warts."
I rowed to the shore. The water wasn't quite high enough to be able to row up on to the grass. I had to get the boat parallel to the bank and hold it in place with the oar pushed down into the mud and gravel. I lifted Ian out by the loop on the back of his life jacket and put his feet on the edge of the bank. As I did the front of the boat began to drift back, and I let go to grab the oar to maneuver the boat against the grass again, so Steph could get out with him. As I did Ian lost his balance.
He fell backward into the water. His feet stayed on the bank, higher than the rest of his body, forcing his head under. He tried to turn but the flotation of the life vest kept him on his back. I looked at his submerged face. I think Steph did too, but I wasn't watching her. I had expected he would self-rescue. When he fell I had kept trying to get the boat back along the shore. I didn’t realize he was just staying under, stuck. Even when I understood what was happening I still delayed, unsure what to do.
I dropped the oar, reached over the side of the boat, and lifted him up by the same strap on the back of the life vest that I'd used to lift him out of the boat. I tossed him unto the bank and then clambered out with him where he lay. My memory now tells me he was pale and blue.
I didn't know what to do. That is a truthful statement but it's also a cop out. The thing about life is that no one ever knows what to do and if you wait around until you figure it out you're going to be waiting a long, long time. Use your best judgment and do something. I would not have told you then it was a lack of caring enough, or an inability to confront fear that had made me slow to act, but in the years after there have been many times when I would have told you that.
Every decision, from going out in the boat to how I stood him on the bank when we were getting out had been mine. Accidents are things you cannot control. Mistakes are things you did not control. Ian was pale and blue because of my mistakes. Because I did not do what a dad should do. Because I bought a life vest without a flap of foam at the back that would have held his face above the water, because I took him in the boat so young, because I didn't set him far enough onto the bank, because I was too busy steadying the boat to pay attention, and because I hesitated when he fell. And it was he, on his own, who spontaneously coughed out a stream of brown pond water like projectile vomiting. I turned him on his side so that the water he expelled would not drain back. It was the only thing I thought of to do.
Steph and I sat with him for a few minutes while he regained his color and his energy. We did not speak. This event had built a wall, solid and uncrossable. We both knew this was my fault and she wished for my non-existence. I had been deliberate; I had done this because I had wanted to. No, worse, I had done this because this is who I was, who I'd always been, who I would always be. We walked back to the house when Ian was sufficiently recovered, but still an anger loomed and our only conversation was with Ian.
Before we even started to the house Ian was back to normal. I didn't understand why or how, but I didn't question it either. I couldn't question it. When you receive such grace there is no asking why or how. That fact that it is overwhelms you. It overwhelms you and you begin to worry that it is not real, that somehow time can still run in reverse and give a different outcome, and that questioning why or how you have been rescued might be the trigger that reverses time.
I made sandwiches on rolls sliced in half, each with a circle of cucumber, tomato, and fresh mozzarella cheese. We had glasses of ice water. Ian wanted to play Monopoly so we got it out while Steph took a nap. After a few turns Ian said "I don't feel well." He started coughing.
They call it secondary drowning, I've since learned. Although all seems well, it is not. It‘s a reaction of the lungs to the trauma of having been filled with water. They swell up and shut off. When it happens death’s inevitable, there is nothing to be done to stop it. At least that's what the doctor told us when it was too late. If that's true, sometimes I think I wished I'd known that over the course of that next half hour. Sometimes I think it's just as well that I did not. For Steph though there is no question. She slept as her son died. And I had done nothing, not even wake her up to give her the chance to save him, or her the chance to hold him in her arms.
When I’m feeling sorry for myself, set back, cast aside, defeated or lost, I think about how this is not the way the story unfolded. I think that there have been eighteen years since that day and that each moment in each of those eighteen years has been better than it would have been if the true story had not ended at the coughing out of dirty water. When I find myself thinking in life “I want something better” I hear myself saying “you have it.”