To Save a Life

Resort Pool

Family vacations don’t often start out so dramatically, nor finish so profoundly, but lately it seems I have had a summer of visceral experiences surrounding what most might consider “leisure time” with the family.

Our first day at the resort pool recently, while minding my own business with my own children, ages 21 – 8, and with my wife, I was snapped out of my vacation mode daze by the lifeguard’s whistle. A young girl, apparently swimming alone in about four feet of water, was drowning.

Too far away for me to get there before the lifeguard, I watched in stunned amazement as the lifeguard wadded quickly to the girl’s side and then lifted her out of the water.

The girl had no flotation device, but clearly had no clue how to swim or float on her own.

No parent came running to snatch her up.

The lifeguard brought the girl to the edge of the pool and then assisted her up and out, where the girl was met by an older sister. The girl was coughing and was wide-eyed but otherwise seemed fine.  Just moments before she was clearly in distress, gulping water while trying to suck in air as her head bobbed up and then slowly down into the water, limbs uselessly flailing.

This brief moment of horror triggered memories of similar experiences over the years with my own children in pools. My wife and I are extremely vigilant, but realize our limitations. From young ages we exposed our children to water, their grandparent’s pool playing a prominent role.

My four boys are all Boy Scouts, the two oldest are Eagle Scouts and have aged out of the boy program, the next boy is a Life Scout working on Eagle, and then the youngest is a Tenderfoot Scout, just turned 11 years old. For all of them, the first Eagle Scout required Merit Badge they earned was the Swimming Merit Badge. My oldest son also earned the Lifesaving Merit Badge.

Swimming Merit Badge

We also gave our children swimming lessons from very young ages. We live on an island. It seems like every other family has a pool or a family member with a pool. How could one not teach their children how to swim?

My wife and I are so paranoid that if one of our children is invited to a pool party, my wife goes and then stays, at pool side, every second our child is in the pool. Helicopter parents?  Maybe. Alive children? Definitely.  My wife was a lifeguard as a teen, but takes no chances, even when the odd pool party includes a teenage lifeguard. She’s there.

Every summer it seems there are stories about toddlers or other young children drowning in pools on Long Island. We don’t even have a pond in our backyard. Not taking any chances.

At the last pool party my 8 year-old daughter attended, my wife told me she stayed pool side even when our daughter was high and dry doing something else. She said she did it because no other adult was watching the children, even though there were toddlers in the pool. She said one mother, after putting “water wing” inflatable arm flotation devices on her toddler child said out loud, “There, now I don’t have to worry about you,” and then walked away.

Is it millennial parenting? Is it naivete? Lack of common sense?

A first time parent colleague of mine with a month-old son told me that millennial parents were avoiding mini vans because that’s what their parents had. He included himself in that category. Are millennial parents also rejecting helicopter parenting because that’s what their parents did?

When my wife and I had just two children, at a time when our second child was super rambunctious, we went to a water park for kids. While moving from attraction to attraction we used a harness and, for lack of a better term, a leash on him. We felt that because of the crowds, and our resistance to using a stroller (we practiced attachment parenting for all of our children), we felt the leash would give him the freedom to walk (OK, “toddle”), but also keep him relatively safe. Also, we wouldn’t lose the little rug rat among all the others!

Wouldn’t you know it that my wife was verbally assaulted by a young lady who obviously had no children of her own, for being a “horrible person” for putting a leash on our child?

children_11

The following year, this same child, without the leash, went missing at the very same water park. I had taken the two boys into the changing-slash-men’s room. We took adjoining stalls and I told the boys to wait for me, “outside the stall door,” and then we would all leave together.

I changed quickly and then found my oldest son waiting outside the stall. “Where’s your brother?” I asked him. He didn’t know. Of course, panic sets in almost immediately when you think you’ve lost one of your children. I calmed myself and then figured the younger boy was still changing. He was not. After a frenetic search we discovered he was not in the facility at all. He was gone.

If you’ve ever lost a child, one of the most difficult things you do is tell your spouse you’ve lost a child. It didn’t go over well. Cooler heads prevailed, however and we began searching together by making concentric circles around the place we last saw him. The park was very crowded and was about to close. The thought of him being taken and never seeing him again began to creep into my mind and soul as we searched and couldn’t find him.

Eventually we got fairly far from the changing room and in our desperate exasperation happened to notice the Lost Child building. My wife and I looked at each other and then nearly sprinted to the place.

We saw him through the glass in the window. He was being spoken to by an attendant who was on bent knee to get to his level. My son was in tears. But he was safe, and we had found him.

He told us he thought I meant for him to wait outside the restroom. So he went outside after being the first one to finish changing. He looked around (while we searched for him inside) and then figured we had gone to meet up with his mother, who was changing in the women’s facility. He went the wrong way and then found himself lost in the middle of a very large bustling crowd. He said he began to cry which was when a very nice woman with her own child asked him if he was lost. He said he was, and then she took him to the lost child area.

A happy ending, but a terrifying experience for both parents and child. One we will never forget, and one that caused us to re-double our efforts. We both neurotically count to five – the number of children we have – when we are out and about with everyone . . . most of the time.

Of course, none of us are immune from these things, no matter how vigilant or careful or caring. One gets distracted, and it only takes a split second.

So on this most recent trip, experienced as we are at staying relatively close in crowded areas, and never feeling comfortable splitting up, we lost one again.

This time, after seeking shelter from a sweltering Central Florida sun, we left the coolness of a souvenir shop to visit an attraction. All of us that is except for the 10 year-old. He had apparently found something very interesting in the store to look at, looked up, and then noticed we had all left him behind.

Instead of panicking and running out of the store looking for us and then getting hopelessly lost, he stayed put. He positioned himself near the entrance to the store and then waited.

My wife, who immediately rushed back to the store, found him grinning at the entrance. When they met up with us outside the attraction he calmly stated that he knew exactly what to do because he had recently earned the Boy Scout Search and Rescue Merit Badge, which taught him to stay put in a visible area if he got lost. Bingo.

We survived heat indexes of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and our vacation was coming to a close, when we sought out the refreshment of the resort pool prior to leaving for our flight home. It was the coolest day of the whole vacation, overcast, not too humid and only around 75 degrees. A blessing!

We had all walked and average of over 9 miles per day in the amusement parks; seeking shelter most days from noon until four or five in the afternoon.

My body ached. Every part of my body ached, including my head, as I had picked up a wicked sinus headache the day before.

My plan was to sit in the hot tub for fifteen minutes and then jump into the pool, over and over again.

By the third time I was feeling much better. I highly recommend this for any ailment!

I had just gotten out of the hot tub for the third time and was wading into the now very cool water of the pool; kind of in a temperature transition daze, really immersed in the experience and the pleasure of feeling better than I had felt since starting the vacation, and then I saw him.

The drowning toddler wasn’t far away, and he was looking straight at me, right in the eyes, which burn into me as I recall this. The eyes said, “I’m dying and there’s nothing I can do about it, please help me.”

I had seen the look in my own children’s eyes, when, as many parents have experienced, your young child starts taking on water and then disappears underneath the surface. You quickly yank them to the surface, they cough a bit and then everything is fine. Lesson learned.

This boy had water wings on, but he had splayed his arms out so far that the flotation devices were actually preventing him from keeping his head above water, as his head became the unsupported center. The water wings supported only his little arms.

He gasped and then gulped as he began taking on water, a lot of water, and then he disappeared under the surface.

I took two steps toward him, heard the lifeguard’s whistle blow, and then pulled him out with one hand, then grasped him under the armpits with both hands holding him up as if to say, “Hey, I have someone’s child here.” He coughed and gasped, but seemed OK, despite his wide, terrified eyes.

The millennial father came around from behind me just then, grabbed his son from me and then said, breathlessly, “Thanks.”

The lifeguard, who had jumped in, apparently seeing what I saw about the time I saw it, turned and then got back out of the pool. She went on about life-guarding everyone else. Not a word or a glance. Par for the course?

I didn’t even turn to watch the father leave with his son. I was feeling kind of stunned by the whole thing, which probably took place in a span of about five or six seconds. I knew what he was feeling and I didn’t want to exacerbate his embarrassment by engaging him.

The boy was safe, that was the important thing.

The parents had been fortunate that the lesson they learned that day was not a tragic one, but only a near tragic one.

Lifeguard-20868116

Life comes at you fast, but then so can death. It is God’s blessing when we are in the right place at the right time, and then do the right thing. How long will it be now before I can truly relax in a resort swimming pool?

Just please remember, these things are not “accidents.” Every tragic or near tragic incident has precipitating events, some controllable, some not. Hopefully, this story will help some “hands-off” parents think twice.

There’s nothing embarrassing or un-cool about doing what you feel is best and safe for your children, no matter their age or experience. We know our kids best, and we have to live with the consequences of our actions or inaction’s.

Our most important job as parents is always to protect and keep our children safe and secure. Letting go as they get older is another story. But for now, let’s be safe out there, our children’s lives depend on it.

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