On July 10, 2010, my only child, Noah, drowned in a swimming pool. He was a few weeks shy of 2 years old.
It was the first day we’d started moving boxes into my father’s house. My mother had died three months earlier. We were moving into my father’s house to save money and keep him company. I was in the kitchen for a few minutes. No closed doors. Maybe 20 feet away from where Noah was watching TV and having some raisins. My husband was in the garage with my father.
The French doors to the backyard led to the in-ground pool. Noah had silently opened a door I didn’t think he could or ever would. Silently. When I went back into that room, he was gone. I figured he was playing hide-and-seek. I went looking in the house while my husband and father went looking outside. A few seconds later, I heard a scream and a splash. My husband jumped in, my father called 911 and I stood in the kitchen in shock.
I underestimated Noah that day. He was such a good boy. Not any more curious than any toddler. In fact, maybe he was even a little more cautious. Just that very morning, my father and I talked about how attached Noah was to me. I say these things for any parent who thinks, “My child would never…” Well, I thought the very same thing. This could never happen to us.
Life after losing Noah was pure hell.
My husband and I began changing the channel when commercials or water scenes with swimming pools appeared. We grabbed each other’s hand when we heard a child cry in public.
The analogies for the emotions of grief are almost comically water-related:
Drowning in sorrow
Trying to keep my head above water
Grief comes in waves
We hibernated for a long time. I threw myself into a new job and, when we could, we got out of town. We took overnight and day trips to places we’d never been. Especially places we’d never been with Noah. Essentially, we wanted to get far away from ourselves. But of course, that’s impossible.
Two and a half years after Noah died, our daughter Miriam Phoenix was born. The only mention of water was made each time we drove to the zoo. The wide-eyed reaction Miriam would have to the big lakes we passed with swan paddle boats, high spouting fountains and a small waterfall was met with one stern phrase: “You never go near water without Mommy or Daddy.”
She started to repeat it back without being prompted as soon as the lakes appeared on our drive. Naively, we hoped that warning would be enough. We would just keep her away from water forever.
At 6 years old, during bedtime, she finally asked the question I’d been dreading. “Mommy, how did Noah get to heaven?” She knew she had an angel brother who lived in heaven. “His body stopped working” is the most I’d ever told her. But now there was no choice. I didn’t want to lie.
I told her that her brother didn’t know how to swim. He went near the water without Mommy and Daddy. He was little. He didn’t know any better. He couldn’t breathe underwater. His body stopped working and he went to heaven.
I had hoped she would’ve started swimming lessons before this moment came. I didn’t want her scared of the water. I just wanted her to be a normal kid with a healthy respect of water but able to enjoy it as well.
Six years old is late to be starting swim lessons. There had already been invitations to swim parties that we’d turned down. We just couldn’t face our fears yet, even as caring friends and family gently urged us to get her swimming lessons.
For her kindergarten year, Miriam had been attending the Westfield Area YMCA after-school program. We adored the teachers and wanted to send her to the YMCA day camp this summer. But the elephant in the room was getting bigger and bigger. Miriam had to learn how to swim.
I can’t shout any louder about how seriously the YMCA takes water safety. About how professional and skilled they are. But also, about how compassionate they are. When we first joined the YMCA and the subject of swimming came up, I told them we weren’t ready yet. And while we weren’t ready to begin the lessons, Bonnie, Susan, Patti and Sharon always reminded us that they would be there when we were ready. The words “when you are ready” are perhaps the kindest words bereaved parents can hear. Because this grief is forever. And we go day by day.
Whether I was truly ready or not, I had finally accepted that it was much more dangerous for Miriam NOT to learn how to swim. I called the YMCA and told them we were finally ready to accept their generous offer of private swim lessons for Miriam.
The week before her lessons were to begin, Miriam put her feet in the ocean for the very first time. Something that most New Jersey kids do as babies was a “first” for her at 6 years old. This was my first time by a body of water since that day in 2010 as well.
I tried to keep my thoughts simple. I tried to be in the moment. I tried to feel the sand and the wind. I tried to just hear the sea gulls. I tried to tune out the smattering of other adults yelling at their rambunctious kids and the teenage girls taking selfies against the ocean backdrop.
We held hands so tightly as we walked to where the tide met the sand. We stood planted in the sand as the water rushed in and rushed out. We felt the sand give way under our feet and we talked about how strong the water is. She said it tickled her feet.
We went back to our blanket and I told her she would be starting her swim lessons on Friday.
Miriam: In a pool??
Miriam: Are there sharks??
Me: No, sweetie. No sharks.
Miriam: Are there fish??
Me: Nope. Just water.
Yeah, she was ready.
The night before her first lesson, with her seashell-patterned bathing suit hanging on her bedroom doorknob, we watched a shark movie together. And while you might think watching a movie about a killer Megalodon shark the night before you go near a swimming pool for the first time in almost nine years is a bad move, it’s been a springboard for a lot of interesting conversations.
Miriam and I had been talking about choices people make. We talked about life and death and bravery. We’d been talking about breathing. How nobody can breathe underwater. And how important breathing is as she learns to swim. In fact, how important breathing is throughout life.
I’d been deep breathing throughout the week. Preparing myself for the triggers like the smell of chlorine and splashing sounds. I’d been breathing through the constant but usually controllable fears of something happening to Miriam. I breathed through the memories of the silent ambulance ride and the confusion of the emergency room. But I’m not going to lie: stress-eating a few bags of potato chips snuck in between breaths.
At Miriam’s first swim lesson, she couldn’t get in the pool fast enough. The YMCA had two instructors, Rob Faggiano and Sharon London, in the water ready for her. Luke the lifeguard was right there as well. The staff was so sensitive as to how difficult this was for me. I followed her as she walked alongside the pool to the ladder.
I never made it past sitting two steps down on the ladder. But not because I was afraid. Once I felt the warm water, I wanted to propel myself through the water and feel weightless for the first time in years. But I didn’t want to be a distraction. I wanted Miriam to pay close attention to Rob and Sharon.
Miriam thought she would just be able to get in the pool and start swimming. She was so eager it terrified me. At that moment, I realized how important teaching her to swim NOW was. Not next year or the year after.
I cried a few times during that first lesson as I watched from the ladder. I cried with relief that this obstacle had finally been met head-on. I was so proud of my daughter and myself. I was so thankful for the support we were getting at the Y. Yes, beginning swimming lessons didn’t come as early in her life as many caring friends and relatives would have liked, but we did it. We were doing it.
Her second lesson could not come fast enough. She loved it. Rob had her blowing bubbles in the water and practicing getting her face wet. She even dunked under with him twice. As I watched how she balanced on his knees and held onto him, building this trust between them, it reminded me of my father teaching me how to swim when I was very young.
For the third lesson, Miriam asked me if I would sit outside the pool area and watch her through the big viewing window like the other parents. She’s very independent like that. I watched her through the window with the calming hum of the vending machines filling my head. I was envious of her fearlessness. I was afraid of it as well.
She wants to be normal. I respect that. I wish I were normal, too. For me, the memory of a parent’s worst nightmare is never far from my thoughts. But there’s that saying, “fake it till you make it,” so for her, I’ve become quite a good actress.
According to her instructors, she‘s getting acclimated to the water. I assure them I’m getting acclimated, too.