‘Lathered in sunscreen, poolside, I suddenly realized my son wasn’t with me. My eyes hit the shallow end. I spotted a toddler completely submerged in water. The world stopped. I plunged in.’

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“This past winter in New England was long and unforgiving. Every time we thought we were in the clear Mother Nature came and dumped another foot (or two) of snow on us. The temperatures dipped well below normal for longer than normal periods of time. My children were scaling the walls by April and I was more than ready to trade in the cold temperatures and bulky winter coats for t-shirts, baseball hats and warmer days. I missed scooter riding and the sound of bouncing basketballs in my driveway. I missed my daughter’s sidewalk chalk drawings and my toddler’s excitement over blowing bubbles.

In mid-June, school was finally winding down and like most kids, my children couldn’t wait for swimming season. We don’t have a pool but my mom who lives just a two-minute drive away does. The same pool I hosted pool parties at as a teenager. The same pool we celebrated graduation parties and birthdays around for the past 25 years. The pool in the back yard of the house I grew up in. A house that feels just as much like home as the house my husband, children and I live in now. In a place that feels so familiar it was easy to let my guard down, to assume my children and I were safe no matter what. I made one bad move, one error, one horrible decision that could have changed my life forever.

Mother and father stand in pool smiling with three kids one of which almost drown
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

It was a hot and humid Wednesday in August. We were lathered in sunscreen, poolside and swimming by around 9:30 a.m. Some friends joined us soon after which increased the child count from three to six. Andrew, my agile happy toddler, is 2 years old. He was the only little non-swimmer that day, but with his Puddle Jumper on he is a confident pro in the water. I have been amazed several times this summer at Andrew’s bravery at the pool. He figured out how to swim from the diving board to the pool stairs about 10 feet away. He would climb the three steps to the top and toddle to the diving board over and over again. He would stand with his little toes right on the edge of the pool almost curled over the front. I recall making note of the tiny splash the water would make as his body would disappear momentarily under after a jump, and how he would emerge giggling and squealing to the surface. ‘Again, again,’ he would proclaim. He has kicked his way to every corner of that pool as siblings, cousins and friends have swam around him all summer. This was a place of happiness and joy for him. For all of us.

Toddler who almost drown once smiling with floaties on in pool
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

Just a few minutes before noon that day I saw Andrew growing tired and the older kids getting hungry. My friend and I had made plans to order pizza. I got out of the water and wrapped myself in a towel from the pile of linens I had shoved in my bag last minute that morning. Andrew came out of the water behind me and asked to join me on my lap. He started to pull at his Puddle Jumper asking to take it off. At that point I had already picked up my phone to call in the pizza and was sitting on hold. I removed his Puddle Jumper but rather than returning to the spot on my lap he chose a chair directly next to me. The pizza shop came back on the line and told me it would be a 60-90 minute wait for delivery. That’s way too long I thought, thanked them and ended the call.

I remember turning to my friend and asking her if she wanted to just order from somewhere else. I recall staring at the silver tin of discarded watermelon on the table in front of me from a snack the kids had and mentally noting the small spots of red left on the rinds. I remember my older son emerging from the stairs and walking to the pool area after getting my wallet to pay for the pizza. I recall hearing all the older kids yelling and swimming and laughing at the other end of the pool. I suddenly realized Andrew wasn’t with me. Where did he go? When did he leave? I jumped from my chair and turned towards the pool. The water, alive with a small wave of movement from all the activity of the kids playing. As my eyes hit the shallow end, I immediately spotted my small fragile toddler completely submerged in the water. He was not fighting, or kicking, or even moving. In that moment, in those seconds that I plunged into the water to grab him, my heart stopped. The world stopped. Everything stopped.

I thought, if he was alive he would be kicking, fighting to make his way to the surface. Why wasn’t he fighting? I heard my older son screaming his name as I lifted him up. His eyes were closed and he wasn’t responding. Fingernails pink, skin pale, lips discolored. ‘ANDREW, Andrew come back to me. Andrew, please Andrew!” I pleaded. I pulled him upright onto the cement next to the water and thrusted my hand against his back and he coughed. He coughed and coughed and then… he cried. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t do anything but stare at the color returning to his skin. His white knuckles gripped around my neck, the shakiness in his cry. Tears streaming down I was paralyzed with the what if’s. I was not the mother that made this kind of error. I was not the mother who looked away, the mother that didn’t pay attention. I wasn’t the mother that wasn’t careful. I stood in the water with my bathing suit cover up floating around my waist and held my child’s beating heart against my own and I prayed.

The minutes that followed were terrifying for me. I had read a blog online just a few days prior about a mom who lost her son to secondary drowning. She pulled her son from the water and thought she got to him in time, but he still died. He took in too much water and his lungs failed him that evening in his sleep. Even though Andrew was here and breathing I didn’t feel safe. He laid exhausted and groggy against me. Was he tired because it was his nap time or was it because water laid dormant in his lungs? I questioned his breathing pattern, his skin color. I watched his chest and stomach move with each breathe as he fell asleep against me. My normal confidence as a mother was shaken. I had no ability to properly evaluate the situation. I called the pediatrician, but they were on lunch. Do I take him to urgent care? Do I wait for his office to reopen? Do I let Andrew stay sleeping? In this moment I felt I had no authority to judge. Time felt like it was moving in slow motion. After the longest twenty minutes of my life I woke Andrew up and offered him a popsicle. He sat, still tired but satisfied eating a freeze pop, pink droplets dripping from the popsicle wrapper to his thigh. Was he acting normal? Was he ok?

Toddler who almost drown once sits on side of pool with floaties on eating bag of chips
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

When we arrived at the doctor’s office, the nurse practitioner checked his lungs, ‘Clear,’ she said, and his oxygen, ‘100%.’ Pleading for her to tell me I had nothing to fear I kept repeating to her, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’ She did say several times, ‘He is good Mom, he is ok,’ but nothing could change this hollow space that had taken residence in my stomach or the deep aching still consuming my heart.

‘It was an accident,’ my husband assured me when I called him. ‘He is ok, everyone is ok.’ He was right. But until now the word accident referred to the Lucky Charms that still lay spilled all over the floor of my car from my daughter the day before. An accident was my son dropping a bottle of ketchup while carrying it to the dinner table the previous week. This was a different type of accident, one that could not be cleaned up or reversed. This accident could have been life ending. The little boy who loves farm animals and puzzles and school buses and stories right before bed. This innocent little life just starting, almost ended because I removed his Puddle Jumper and I looked away.

I laid awake in bed that night still emotionally reeling from what happened that day. Andrew laid snuggled against me and I watched his chest move up and down. I wrapped each one of his tiny baby curls around my index finger and rubbed my thumb over his slightly over grown fingernails. I marveled at the single freckle that had recently appeared on his forehead and softly kissed his cheeks for what felt like hours. I listened to his rhythmic breathing patterns and laid and cried and called on a God I hadn’t spoken with in some time. I asked him for forgiveness and thanked him for his mercy.

But still, I couldn’t escape the image of Andrew’s tiny body lying there. Not fighting the water. Not trying to alert us. He was totally unaware that the same body of water he had been splashing and laughing and playing in all summer could be so dangerous. Had a pool raft floated in front of him, had I looked at the other end of the pool for him first? Had I been distracted by something before checking for him, this day would have ended differently. I will be haunted by this experience for the rest of my life. But it shouldn’t take a brush with death for a parent to know they are one distraction away from a tragic accident.

Child who almost drown smiles in chair outside
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

My sister always says, ‘Accidents are not planned.’ She is right. But if I did what I knew was right, this accident would not have happened. I am ashamed of myself. I am embarrassed and so disappointed for not thinking and for not being careful enough. I assumed in this happy, familiar place that we were immune to danger. That this would never happen to my family. I am a loving, attentive mother with independent, strong, capable children. Of course we would be fine. Right?

Andrew is here, he is ok. I am lucky, but not all mothers are. The night of the accident, in bed, I googled how long it takes for a toddler to drown and the answer… astounding. It can take as little as 20 seconds… 20 SECONDS. Not enough time to check an email, not enough time to scroll your Facebook feed or answer a text, not even enough time to say the alphabet at a mediocre speed. Not enough time… Just not enough time.

I urge everyone to watch their kids near the water. Children that can swim and children that cannot are both at risk for swimming accidents. Drowning statistics are alarming and scary. Why was I so lucky? I won’t ever know. But I do know what the articles I read mean when they warn that in most cases, children that are drowning make no noise. They slip silently into the water and leave us, sometimes forever.”

Close up of toddler's face who almost drown
Courtesy of Adrienne Anzelmo

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Adrienne Anzelmo of Massachusetts. Submit your story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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.’

‘Are you mom?’ I nodded, ‘Yes.’ He ran along the canal for a mile. He saw the farmer pulling her out of the water. Our sweet girl had bumped into this farmer’s leg.

‘Quietly, silently, quickly. My daughter almost drowned. We were all there and none of us saw her slip under the water, but it still happened.’

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