By Elizabeth Bottiaux
I sat on the lounge chair by the pool, a mere five paces from where my youngest was perched on the steps leading into the swimming pool. All four of my kids were in the water. But my eyes were glued to Nathan, my only non-swimmer.
The water thing has been a very recent major breakthrough for Nathan. Besides the bathtub, garden hose and backyard water table, he’d never enjoyed the water. He’d always preferred to merely dip a toe in the water on the steps, while all his siblings swam like fish throughout the pool. I had put off swimming lessons every summer because of his strong aversion to all things swimming-related. I just didn’t have the fight in me to force him into the pool to learn to swim—until last month.
I’d avoided it for four summers, but this had to be the year. Like it or not, he was going to learn to swim. Becoming water-safe was the main reason he had to learn to swim. Living in Southern California, we are constantly in or near the water. It’s a way of life. We live seven minutes from the Pacific Ocean and two minutes from our closest community pool.
On the first day of class—at the San Clemente Aquatic Center—he cried for hours before it was time to head to the lesson. I had to peel him off of my body, unclamp his hands from my T-shirt and hand him over to his new swim teacher. I could tell by the way his tiny chin quivered when he asked me “why,” that he felt that I’d betrayed him.
Soon enough, I began seeing hints of happiness creeping across his face. Little laughs here and there. He even floated on his back one day—unassisted. He’d climb out of that pool, at the end of the lesson and his little green eyes would flicker with delight. I was so proud. He was so proud! It was happening. His fear was slipping away.
I sat there, warmed by the May sunshine, clapping and flashing the thumbs up for his small accomplishments. I watched him on those steps that day, squealing with excitement each time he plunked his head under, knowing this summer would be different. I’d have to really watch him closely in the pool and ocean this year. He was no longer terrorized by water.
On a family outing at our community pool I must’ve looked away. Maybe I’d glanced around the pool for my other kids. But, when my eyes returned to Nathan, I saw only his two hands wildly flailing. He had gone under. I bolted over to the steps—in what felt like slow motion—threw myself into the water and yanked him up by his hand. He sputtered water, gasped for air and was shaking with genuine fear.
My heart refused to slow. It remained beating wildly out of my chest. I’d been so careful, so aware. Yet, this had happened. I’m guessing it took me eight seconds total, to realize what had happened, jump up and get over to save him. What if? What if…
Initially, Nathan wanted out of that water. I envisioned all of that hard work to overcome his fear of swimming, reversing itself. We sat on the lounge chair together. I held my little burrito, wrapped tightly in a beach towel. I hugged and kissed him. I reminded him of a promise I’d made to him when he began swim lessons. I’d promised him that I would always jump in the water, even if I was fully dressed, to save him if he started drowning.
It’s preventable. I’m hoping to have all four of my kids water safe by summer. Nathan’s improving with each lesson. So, sign ’em up. Even if they scream, kick and complain. Sign ’em up. The sooner, the better. I was weak, and waited. But it could’ve ended up costing my child his life.
May is National Drowning Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the No. 1 cause of death in children ages 1 to 4. Drowning can be quick, quiet and can happen anywhere. Bathtubs, pools, buckets and even toilets are common places young children to drown. Sadly, most drownings happen at home, in backyard swimming pools. The Orange County Fire Authority offers drowning prevention information and advice on what to do if you find a child in a pool, on the OCFA website at www.ocfa.org. For information on swim classes at the San Clemente Aquatic Center, call 949.429.8797 or visit www.san-clemente.org/recreation-community/classes-program.
Elizabeth Bottiaux is mom to four small humans, ages 4, 6, 8 and 10. She’s a San Clemente resident and has lived in Orange County for the past 16 years. She publishes a blog, www.fourkidsandadog.com, about family life in our tri-city area.