I am sure that he wasn’t trying to drown me.
We weren’t even in grade school yet, so a playground beef wasn’t the reason he pulled me under the water.
I think it was out of play. Pure and simple. He could swim and wanted a playmate to go into the water.
That day, I was chosen.
I am sure the day that cemented my fear of drowning started like any other day, the summer of 1988, possibly 1989, I don’t remember.
But what I am certain of, now that I have a daughter that is close to the age I was then, is that it started by my “having” to gather at least 10 stuffed animals (babies), my backpack, and other assorted toys for the endless fifteen minute drive to “town” from my childhood home.
My daughter needs her backpack, her mess-free car crayons, paper, magazines, books, doll, blocks, drink, snack, “shadow” (a.k.a. car seat blanket), Holy Grail, skis, snowsuit, change of clothes, overnight bag, flashlight, and pillow. This is just to go to the corner store, so you can imagine what “long” trips look like.
Bless my mom for having such patience and for passing it, along with humor, onto me.
So the day at the beach with my mom’s friend Lydia and her son Kevin began like any other. He and I both tow-headed little kids ready to take on the world and find whatever adventure awaited us that day.
My mom and Lydia headed into the water with us, and after a while the standard mom directive of “stay where we can see you” was passed onto me and Kevin.
We weren’t far. We couldn’t have been. We were three feet tall.
But Kevin was a natural swimmer. As we grew older, I anticipated him going into something like marine biology as a career. He didn’t. He’s an engineer, but I know he still loves being on the water.
I felt his small hands around my ankles.
Then, I was being pulled.
I don’t remember the entire event, but I do remember freezing and just looking up. I was looking through the clear water and seeing a birdless blue sky.
I didn’t panic. But I didn’t engage fight or flight either.
I was silent.
Then, all of a sudden, there was my mom, lifting me out of the water as I coughed water out of my mouth and sure as I sit here today, snot and gross from my nose.
I don’t know if I cried.
My mom and Lydia made a big deal about it and told me what a great job I did and they clapped and cheered for me. Instead of panic, they both made me feel like I’d done something right.
I don’t think I went back in the water.
For years. Probably a number ending in “teen”.
When I was sixteen years old, I took swimming lessons that summer at the high school one town over. One, my high school didn’t yet have a pool, and two, I wanted to take swimming lessons without people I knew. I ended up in a swimming class for senior citizens.
It was magnificent!
I was in a safe place without judgement and with people that I found interesting. (I like stories and my classmates loved to talk.)
For a while, I could swim with an “okay” rating.
But my biggest fear is, and always has been, drowning.
People find it strange that as a Michigan native, I “can’t” swim but I love being near the water. Not in the water.
At eighteen, I went to Myrtle Beach with a friend on their family trip.
We all bought “boogie boards” and I thought: “Huzzah! I can’t fail, I have this awesome floatation device!”
I met a rip current.
I had my board tethered to my ankle instead of my wrist. I have no idea why I thought that was a good idea. None.
As the Atlantic Ocean kept pulling me further out, I desperately tried to get my board off. Time after time, I reached for my foot only to topple over again and again, like I was in a giant washing machine.
I could get my head above water just long enough to see my friends yards away, and before I could make any noise, my head was underwater again, and there I was, silent.
They say that drowning is silent.
Nearly drowning is too.
I finally got my board off my ankle and tried desperately to put my feet on the ocean floor. If I could only stand, like I did in 1988, or possibly ‘89, I could be fine. I could look up at the sky and just walk toward the beach.
But I couldn’t find it. I was stuck in a rip current.
And the whole time, it was silent.
But I could see, through the inverted kaleidoscope. Sun. Darkness. Depth. Distance. Sun. Darkness. Depth. Distance.
And with every pull, the quiet increased. Like the waves were playing Aerosmith on mute. You knew it was ear splitting but no one was aware.
Would I see the beach again?
It was getting darker and I finally figured out fight or flight. I fought all wrong. Thumbs out in a fist fight kind of wrong.
“Dear God…. please tell my mom….”
I was on another rotation when the sun righted itself.
I was lifted from the water and being dragged(?), pulled(?) toward the sun. I could see sun!
My friend’s youngest brother (fifteen at the time) pulled me from the riptide that day.
He pulled me to shore and effortlessly carried me out of the water to safety.
He said we were nearly a mile from the spot I’d entered the water. And I have no way of knowing if it’s true but it makes him more heroic, so I choose to believe it.
“Dude! That was fricking amazing! Meliss! You should’ve seen you! Ass over elbows all the way to Greenland!” He said, pulling a towel, beautifully warm, from the sand. “Why the crap did you let go of your board?” (Which was never recovered.)
“Tethered…..(cough)…..Foot……(sputter)…… Stupid.” I rasped out.
He laughed but I threw my arms around his neck. I closed my eyes and didn’t say anything as I hacked and gagged and I’m sure, had a gross nose.
His mom asked if I was ok and if I wanted to call my parents or go to the hospital.
Hospital? No. Mom? Dad? Yes.
I bet I downplayed it, and there’s a good chance they still don’t know the whole story.
I had a few days left in Myrtle Beach but I didn’t head back into the water.
I sat on the beach and watched the water, knowing it wasn’t silent. Only I heard it that way. I felt like the ocean and I had a pact. I’ll tell you stories, so long as you listen. Completely listen. In silence.
The next time I saw the ocean was 2016. I was pregnant and my best friend made one of my dreams come true.
We went whale watching and I got to see a pod of dolphins. They laughed and jumped. I think they showed off just for me. “Hey lady, this is how you ocean, not on some stupid board.”
I wasn’t afraid.
I was on the water, and it wasn’t,