‘Mom, why did we only get him for 3 years and not for a real, whole life?’: Mom urges parents to know ‘drowning happens, to real people, in seconds’ after son ‘slips away’ to pool 2 floors below

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“My son, Levi, will never turn 4. He will never have a birthday cake with 4 flickering candles or beam with pride and embarrassment as his family and friends sing to him. He will not run up to me with fingers sticky from icing and grab my hand. I will never have any pictures of him surrounded by friends in matching Paw Patrol party hats.

Levi will never celebrate another birthday, because he drowned on June 10, 2018, when we were on vacation in Alabama. It was quick and silent, and we weren’t even swimming.

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

My husband and I always knew we wanted three kids. We had two girls: Lily: she is 10, but, of course, thinks she is 17. She was Levi’s greatest treasure, and his real mom. Lily had infinite patience for his toddler antics. Her tiny heart is broken, and she has asked me often, through tears: ‘How did we not know, Mom? How did we not know he could drown when he was sitting on the couch?

Reese. She is 6, and wants to be 6 forever and ever and ever. Reese and Levi were 24 months apart, a package deal: always squealing and chasing… and squabbling. They slept together every night, Levi cuddled up right next to Reese. Her Kindergarten heart is unable to process this permanent loss. ‘Mom, why did we only get him for 3 years and not for a real, whole life?’

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes
Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

Levi. He was our third child, we assumed our final one, and our only son. We were thrilled to have this boy as our family’s caboose. And, he was a BOY. Levi had boundless energy and never slept; it now makes sense he was trying to fit so many years of living into just three. He loved chocolate chip mini muffins, reading books about scary ocean creatures, and jumping everywhere. We will never stop missing this energetic, snuggly, silly boy.

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

During my husband’s anesthesiology training, we became more family than friends with 5 other physician families. When our husband’s graduated in 2012, we went separate ways – ending up in 6 different states. But, we always took an annual summer beach trip to Fort Morgan, Alabama, which is the highlight of our summer. Each year, we have added a few new babies to the mix, with the grand total for 2018 being 17 kids, 9 and younger. It was our 7th year in this exact same house.

Sunday, June 10, 2018, our first full day, was perfect. The kids ate popsicles, swam, and rode a kayak in the ocean. In my final pictures of Levi, he is wearing a life jacket or puddle jumper. Flying a kite with his daddy: life jacket. Playing in the pool with his big sister: puddle jumper. I really thought I was doing everything right.

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

I talked to Levi about the dangers of water. Just hours before he died, we walked past the pool. He asked me to carry him because the sand was hot on his feet. ‘Mama, carry me, please.’ He was my little mama’s boy, and of course I scooped him up.

I asked him for the hundredth time: ‘Do you ever go near the water without me?’

He shook his head adamantly and said: ‘No way, Mama. Then I wouldn’t see you again, and we would be so sad.’

I never imagined these words would come true.

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

On the first day of the trip, the dads always took the kids crab-hunting, complete with matching, custom bright yellow shirts. When I put Levi’s shirt on him the evening of June 10, he was thrilled to finally be one of the big kids. ‘Mom! This is not my pajama shirt! This is my crab hunting shirt!’

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes
Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

While we waited for it to get dark, we hung out in the main room of the house. Levi was sitting on the balcony in my husband’s lap watching his iPhone. I was worried about ‘screen time’ and suggested Levi come inside with the other kids. I wish I had cared less about screen time that night.

My husband asked Levi: ‘How many crabs are we going to catch tonight?!’

Levi giggled: ‘So many, Dad!’

How could we have known that we would lose our cherished son before the crab-hunting trip even started?

Levi wandered to the couch and I grabbed a brownie to split with him. I put half in his bowl and ruffled his hair. My son, this baby boy I loved with all of my being, grinned up at me, delighted. This would be my final interaction with my son. My next steps were meaningless. Somehow, (and even after reliving these moments countless times, I still only have the word somehow), Levi slipped out the back door without any of us seeing him. HOW did I not see him?

I wasn’t drinking and wasn’t on my phone. I turned to close a bag of Cheetos while my son sat safely on the couch. In this moment, Levi opened the heavy door and slipped out of the room filled with adults and kids. I would give my life in a heartbeat to go back and stop him from getting out that door.

I didn’t even know he was missing- that’s how quickly it happened. I walked out of the back door to check the weather. As I instinctively looked over the balcony of the second floor and into the pool below, a bright spot of yellow pierced my soul. It was our Levi, on the bottom of the pool.

First: confusion: ‘But, we weren’t even swimming. How can you drown when you are wearing khaki shorts?’

Then: panic.

I banged on the glass doors behind me and ran screaming down the spiral staircase. The other half of the brownie was still in my mouth. We would later learn that a child under 30 pounds can drown in 30 seconds.

I cannot remember the exact sounds that I hurled into the universe. Later, I would ask a friend, ‘What was I screaming? How did you all know to come running?’ He would look at me, his eyes broken, determined to protect me in even this small way, and tell me, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ But, even I could feel the echoes of the anguished cry lingering in the air afterward.

As I jumped into the pool and grabbed Levi, someone else grabbed his other arm at the exact same time. I had no idea who it was, but in that horrific moment that I am condemned to relive for eternity, I was not alone. Later, I would find out that one of our friends had rushed out the door, seen Levi, and hurled himself off of the second-floor balcony in a desperate attempt to save our baby. From the very beginning, I have not been alone in this journey. It was my first gift of beauty in the midst of tragedy.

Beach Shutters Photography

My husband and our friends, 6 physicians, were by the side of the pool and began CPR. Despite my every instinct demanding differently, I GOT OUT OF THE WAY. If anyone could save my son, it was these experienced professionals who happened to be some of our best friends.

I hung onto the pool fence, literally gripping it as an anchor in the storm. With dripping wet clothes and my son just feet behind me, fighting for his life, I raged at the universe. ‘ONE MINUTE. I just needed one minute back. Please.’ There is no desperation like that of a mother pleading for her child’s life.

In this most unimaginable of all moments, when Levi was not coughing up water like people do in the movies, I reared back my head in despair. When I opened my eyes and looked toward the ocean, I saw a patch of rainbow, its bright colors sketched vibrantly against the darkening evening sky. There was no light anywhere in the expanse of gray, except for these gleaming colors – smeared and incomplete, like a child’s finger painting.

My eyes locked onto this rainbow as time paused around me. The world had just cracked open and proven to me that life can change – that it can end – in an instant. I assure you that when you are standing on the precipice of life and death, things that seem to matter, like money and material goods, do not surface. Instead, an epiphany revealed itself in full clarity, as if it had been waiting patiently for me to discover it. Every other thought in my mind blurred except for this realization: Relationships Matter. More than anything else in this lifetime, people and connections with others matter. This split second of peace passed as quickly as it arrived, but not before etching itself into my soul.

Photo by Ben Taylor

These treasured friends fought like hell to save our baby. Levi regained a weak pulse, was airlifted to the hospital, but died hours later. I can never do justice to the pain that is walking out of a hospital room, without your child, with the knowledge that you will never see him on this earth, again. We handled it the only way we could, the way we have handled it for the last year: one step, one breath, one second at a time.

My husband and I had arrived at the hospital separately. When I walked in and our eyes met, he told me: ‘We are still a family.’ It set the tone, and we have fought every day to live intentionally despite this tragedy. We are determined to still give our daughters full childhoods and equally determined to spread this awareness we wish we had known.

Drowning. It is hard to allow our minds to venture into this painful of territory. So, we find the loophole for why this will never happen to our child. Our culture treats drowning as something that happens to neglectful parents, so we mentally check it off our list of worries. Because of this (incorrect) stigma, drowning is seen as a punishment. We think: ‘Kids can drown. Parents need to watch their kids when they swim. What else is there to know?’

Plenty, I promise.

Exactly one week after we lost Levi, my husband discovered these drowning statistics:

  • Drowning is the #1 cause of death in children ages 1-4.
  • Drowning is the #2 cause of death for ages 5-14.
  • 69% of drowning happens when children aren’t even expected to be swimming, yet they slip away – just like our Levi.
  • A toddler can drown in 30 seconds. Levi didn’t know to hold his breath or fight. He would have gasped and immediately breathed in water.
  • For each drowning death, FIVE TIMES as many children are hospitalized, many with permanent brain injuries.
  • Drowning peaks again for teenagers, usually in natural water and happens to ‘strong swimmers.’
Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

Drowning is a leading killer of children (and adults), yet discussions on drowning are deemed irrelevant.

Trust me, I know how people think, because I used to be that person. Well, Levi drowned in a matter of seconds, during a non-swim time, in a pool that was not ours. We have to break the barriers. We have to talk about drowning, because it is an epidemic that snatches nearly 1,000 innocent lives every year.

Once I discovered these statistics, I was furious at this monster that snatched my son when I didn’t even know how to protect him. I knew I had to fight back.

As a person who believes in a shared human experience, I could not sit back all summer and watch as more children drowned. I had an idea that I believe would have saved Levi. It is a tag that someone wears to designate that person as a Water Guardian. The laminated card serves as a reminder to the Water Guardian to watch the kids EVEN when they are not swimming. (www.levislegacy.com). If one of these Water Guardian tags had been hanging in our beach house on June 10, I believe my story would have unfolded differently. Levi would never have reached the water alone, our family’s hearts would never have shattered, and Levi would have many birthdays ahead of him.

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

I never imagined myself in the role of drowning prevention advocate. I just want 30 seconds back on June 10th. But, I will never get that time back, will never get a second chance to save my son.

I cannot change the past, despite my desperation. But, I know I can help change the future. We are put on this Earth to help each other, to find the connections with others, to leave this world a bit better for the next generations. So, here I am, a broken mother, yelling from the rooftops: DROWNING HAPPENS. It happens to real people; it happens in seconds; it happens when you are not expecting it. Please believe me.

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

Drowning prevention requires multiple layers of protection. I now know Levi had zero barriers between himself and the water.

  • Install a 4-sided fence that goes fully around the entire pool.
  • Make sure the fence has self-closing and latching gates.
  • Utilize pool and door alarms.
  • Supervision: Designate a Water Guardian anytime there is access to water, even if the children are not swimming.
  • Enroll your child in quality swim lessons that lead to water competence. All swim lessons are not created equal. Progress should happen in weeks and months, not in years. Lessons should provide your child with the skills to survive if they were to fall into the pool. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends swim lessons can begin at age 1. These lessons should focus on self-rescue and teach your child how roll-to-float or how to get to the side of the pool. I firmly believe that swim lessons would have saved Levi, and I will carry this regret for the rest of my life. Do NOT put off swim lessons.
  • Remove toys from the pool when finished swimming.
  • Learn CPR (drowning CPR requires rescue breaths).
  • Don’t let your child rely on puddle jumpers or flotation devices when in the pool. These create a false sense of security. Levi wore one in the pool just hours before he died.
  • However, ALWAYS wear life jackets when on natural water (lakes, rivers, oceans). Natural water is dark, deep, and has currents. It is not the same as a pool.
  • Children can drown in 2 inches of water and in 30 seconds. Be aware of buckets, toilets, irrigation ditches, ponds, baby pools, and bathtubs.

Some days I have confidence that we will survive this loss, that we can be happy, that Levi has forgiven us. Some days, the pain is brand new and I’m the mom looking in horror over the balcony and into the pool.

I never would have imagined surviving this long after losing a child. Yet, we are and we will. We are determined that Levi’s legacy will not be one of anger and bitterness – but of love and shared connections and hope.

Put in layers of protection to prevent drowning. Love each other. Choose to live a purposeful life.”

Beach Shutters Photography
Courtesy of Nicole Hughes


This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Nicole Hughes of Tennessee. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her website.Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more powerful stories about drowning safety:

‘I ran to the laundry room. Something told me to put my hands in the washing machine. I resisted. No way. Are you kidding me? Of course he is not in the washing machine.’

‘I’m so sorry. He fell into the swimming pool.’ He was found with a blanket he would put over his head, and his little bicycle.’: Mom’s heartbreaking plea to use pool nets because ‘freak accidents happen’

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