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How to Save a Child From Drowning

A story of resilience.

By Caitlin Jill AndersPublished 3 years ago Updated 3 years ago 8 min read
How to Save a Child From Drowning
Photo by Michael Chupik on Unsplash

You never saw it coming. The kids had been skating on the pond at Chapman Park every Saturday since it froze over mid-November. It's only February, and Minnesota is still a frozen hell. It wasn’t supposed to be even close to thawing yet. You never saw it coming because it wasn’t supposed to happen. It just wasn’t supposed to happen.

Earlier in the day, Lila put on her purple hat instead of the fluffier, warmer white one because she said the white one made her hair look too poofy, and she was trying to impress a boy. At least, that’s what you deduced, anyway. You asked her who was going and she listed them off, Joey, Lucas, Brady, Shana, Nicole, Lucy, Hillary, Brandon, and when she got to Brandon’s name she blushed. She’s always been a major blusher. Her hair is red and her skin is pale. The poor kid never stood a chance.

The twins went too even though they were older and cooler than Lila, or so they'd decided recently, but they were apparently also meeting friends. You've been trying to figure out when your kids became old enough to have their own lives. They were so small only yesterday. Now Lila is in middle school and the twins have started high school. It feels like three strangers are living in your house. You barely would recognize them if they didn't look exactly like you, especially Lila. You're not sure if that makes it all easier or harder.

Lila's skates were red. You'd wanted to buy her white ones because they felt more classic to you, but she'd insisted on the red. She's always been kind of shy, and it seemed to you that she would do little things to stand out in her own way. Her skates were tied together and hanging from the crook of her arm when she left. She smiled at you and waved goodbye as she leaned against the kitchen door and headed out into the cold, her red skates swinging into her as she left. It's funny the things you remember.

* * *

You get the call an hour and 43 minutes later. You know this because one of the twins yelled, "It's already 1:26 let's GO" to Lila as she ran to meet them on the driveway. They were supposed to be at the pond with the others at 1:30, and it was about a 15-minute walk from the house. You don't recognize the number on the caller ID. It's someone's cellphone number but not one you know. You answer it while you're making a big pot of mac and cheese for all of the kids to enjoy when they get back from the pond, their ears red and their bellies rumbling. You almost forget to turn off the stove as you dash out of the house and knock the pot and all its contents onto the floor in the process. It's the first time you ever leave a mess like that behind.

You call your husband on the way but you aren't a wealth of information, just shallow breaths and panicked words. He's been working weekends lately, so you know he won't get there right away. You think about how much you don't want to face this alone. Hell, you don't even know what this is yet.

The first thing you see when you get there is the hat. A splash of purple in a sea of white. It's lying all smushed up on the ice next to the break. There's no one out on the ice anymore. It isn't safe. Still, you wish someone had grabbed the hat. You don't like seeing it just sitting there all alone. In fact, you hate it. Seeing that hat is when you really start to sob.

You get there just before the ambulance is about to leave, so you don't get the full story until later. She and Brandon had skated off away from the group and started holding hands. They think maybe there had been prior damage to the ice in that spot. Or maybe it was a weight-bearing issue that rippled off from the rest of the pond. There were so many neighborhood kids on the ice that day. They really can't be sure why it broke. She fell through and Brandon tried to pull her out. Something with the currents, something with the ice shifting. They had to be careful, they didn't want more people falling in. She was trapped under there for eight minutes before they finally got her out.

They tell you this part in the ambulance, eight minutes. What does that mean, you ask the EMT sitting in the back with you, trying to save your daughter. After four to six minutes, there's brain damage, he tells you. You mull that over. Eight minutes underwater. That's two to four minutes longer than she should have been. You start to cry again. Really, it's eight minutes longer than she should have been.

Your husband and the twins meet you at the hospital. They keep asking all these questions, but you don't know anything. You keep asking the twins questions too, and they don't know anything either, which is infuriating to you. They weren't anywhere near that area of the ice when it happened. They didn't know what was going on until they were evacuated off the ice. You want to scream at them, berate them for not watching their sister, ground them forever. Instead, you cry some more. Your husband holds you and the twins just stand there, at a loss. Four members of a family of five standing in the hallway of the trauma unit. There's loss everywhere.

They finally let you into Lila's room. You always hear parents with kids in the hospital say they look so small lying on the hospital bed, and you always thought that was a strange way to phrase it. Unfortunately, you now know it's true. Small is exactly how she looks. Small and helpless, hooked up to so many tubes. She looks almost lifeless. She's alive though. She is alive. You have to keep repeating those words to yourself. You're afraid if you don't, they won't be true anymore.

After a while, Lila's doctor comes to talk to you. You try to send the twins away, but they insist on staying. They look so much older than they did earlier. In a way they are. The doctor tells you that they won't know the extent of Lila's brain damage until she wakes up. She was under the water for too long though. There will be brain damage. You let that sink in.

Lila left the house that morning young and full of energy and excited to flirt with a boy for maybe the first time. Now she's facing brain damage. It just doesn't make any sense.

* * *

She was unconscious for days before she finally woke up. You can't even remember how long it was. It felt like years. She's awake now though, and every minute is challenging. She can't eat on her own. She struggles to speak. Everything she used to be able to do is different now. Lila is different now.

The doctors always like to start with the good things. The good news is, they'll say, and rattle off a couple of positives before getting to all of the new challenges your family now has to face. Lila is working with so many specialists and therapists and other people who are supposed to help her. She has to relearn how to do things she used to take for granted. You can tell she's frustrated, and you are too. But she is alive. You haven't stopped repeating that mantra. You're so angry and so frustrated and so grateful, all at the same time. You suppose that's just being a parent, though. It's really nothing new.

When Lila is finally released from the hospital, she's in a wheelchair. She'll continue physical therapy, but for now, this is the deal. Your house is definitely not wheelchair accessible, so every day leading up to Lila's return home, your husband and the twins have been working tirelessly to try and adjust things. They moved Lila's entire room into the office downstairs, They built a ramp leading up to the kitchen door. They moved anything she might need into the lower cabinets and shelves all throughout the house. They did their best to make sure she'll be comfortable in this new reality.

It wasn't enough, though. For weeks, Lila is completely out of sorts. She's angry, and you get it. You're angry too. Her life isn't the same anymore, and she's mad at everyone and everything that comes anywhere near her. She doesn't want to see her friends. She's too frustrated to go back to school. If she struggles to do something she used to be able to do so easily, like pick something up, she'll lose her temper and throw it or knock it over and just break down in tears.

Watching her brings you so much pain, but you almost feel like you deserve it. You weren't there that day. You couldn't save her. Now she's in pain, so you should be too.

The months stretch on, and it doesn't feel like you're making any progress. It's one step forward, three steps back, six steps sideways, a few backflips, and who knows what else. She's all over the place, and so is everyone else. Your husband works too much so he doesn't have to deal. One twin has thrown himself into school and extracurricular activities while the other twin has taken up extracurriculars of a different kind. Everything is so hard, and it's no one's fault. You feel like there should be someone to blame, and that person changes every day, but really, there's no one, and that makes it all so much harder.

Then one day, at physical therapy, Lila takes a step all on her own. It happens so suddenly, and as soon as it does, she starts to cry. She fell almost immediately after it happened, but somehow it doesn't matter. She still did it. After everything, after all the odds and diagnoses and endless struggles, she'd taken a step. And that's something. It's such a huge something.

She hates to see you cry but you do it anyway. You both cry on and off all the way home, and when she tells the rest of the family at dinner, they all cry too. One step. It shouldn't be much. It is though. It's a step away from drowning. A step away from struggle. A step away from that terrible day that changed everything.

It's a step towards resilience, and you can't help but be amazed as you watch Lila, hugging her dad and the twins in the kitchen, carving her own path towards being ok. You couldn't save her from drowning, but now, she's saving herself.

Short Story

About the Creator

Caitlin Jill Anders

Full-time writer with anxiety just figuring it out.

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    Caitlin Jill AndersWritten by Caitlin Jill Anders

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