This story was written in 2001 and broadcast on CBC radio.
Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home,
Your house is on fire and your children are alone.
I have frequent visions of my kids teetering precariously on the edge of certain disaster. Two-year-old Cameron slowly picks his way down the basement stairs, each step almost as high as his waist, and in my mind I see him tumbling forward, head over heels, landing in a heap at the bottom. I imagine Colin, who’s nine, finally getting the chance to play shortstop for his Little League baseball team. The batter whacks the ball, Colin positions his glove to make the catch that will save the game . . . and the ball lands squarely on his nose.
Even when they are out of my sight, they are never far from my thoughts. Ambulances and fire engines screech by my office window and I imagine the boys trapped in a burning house.
As parents, we often feel that it is our responsibility to imagine that disaster is just around the corner. We’re afraid that if we let our guard down for one minute, our child will disappear from view, pulled into the void of a “terrible accident”. And we, inadequate parents will be left standing there, hopelessly guilty of not being constantly on the alert.
Then one day, something really happens.
I had brought Colin and Cameron to my friend Mary’s backyard pool for a swim. It was August and the oppressive summer humidity and heat covered Toronto like a damp and dirty pale blue blanket. A Sunday, in the city. It seemed as if the whole neighbourhood except us was somewhere else–somewhere breezy, maybe sipping a cold drink on a shady dock.
Colin was happily splashing in the pool, but Cameron refused to let me carry him in. He toddled around the water’s edge randomly. Mary was moving in a few days, and had convinced me to clip some ivy from her pool-side garden to plant in my own dusty back yard. I was clipping the ivy rather half heartedly, convinced that it would never grow in my garden’s wasteland.
Then, I heard a splash.
Actually, my first thought was that Cameron had fallen in to the pool, but at the same time I felt sure that he couldn’t have; that just as I’d only imagined him falling down the stairs countless times it really wasn’t so. I turned to look and at that instant, I realized that this time, my worst fear had become a reality. On the other side of the pool, I could see his little body under the water sinking slowly, gently, down.
Immediately all sense of normal time stopped, and a thousand thoughts occurred to me at once.
“This can’t be happening, it’s just too much of a coincidence. I read in the paper last week about a two-year-old that drowned, and now it’s happening to me. He’s used to being underwater at the pool where we go for swimming lessons. I’ve held him in my arms, and counted: one, two, three, and dunked him under, then lifted him up again laughing at his wide eyed look and open mouth, cheering when he didn’t cry. He’s fallen in and now I’m standing here like an idiot, remembering how I let him run around the pool on our holiday last month at that hotel. I must have been at least 10 feet away, on the other side of the pool, and I let him run! It could have happened then!
He was drifting deeper and deeper, and out of the corner of my eye I could see Mary on the other side seemingly also frozen, watching him. Colin was behind me, and I could feel him willing me to rescue his little brother, assuming that as his mother, I would rescue his little brother.
With extreme effort, I managed to drop the clippers and jump in. The water felt like jello, it took forever to struggle through, step by step, and then, finally, I could see Cameron’s shocked face, right below me, magnified by the water — eyes wide open, astonished just like when I dunked him in the pool. His arms were flailed out at his sides, he was face up, panic splayed across his baby features.
I grabbed him under his arms and pulled him up, up out of the water watching with crystal clarity as it flowed in rivers off his little body and splashed back into the pool.
Cameron yelled out, angry at the shock of the cold of the water and at the indignity of the fall. I wrapped him in a towel and held him tight to my chest. My heart was pounding and I felt like I should beg forgiveness for taking so long to pull him out.
Cameron, who never liked being cuddled when he was upset, struggled out of my arms, still dripping and wailing. I wondered, what if I’d been talking to Mary and hadn’t heard the splash? What if I’d heard it and thought that the splash was Colin playing in the water? He could have been under for a minute or more! He could have drowned!
At that point I just wanted to go home and hide with my boys in the relative safety of my own house, away from all the terrible possibilities that had suddenly become so possible, hiding from my own inadequacy as a mother who couldn’t react quickly enough when her child was in danger. How my slowness must have disappointed Colin!
Driving home later, Colin turned to me in the car. “Mom, I can’t believe how quickly you pulled Cameron out when he fell in.”
“What?” I said, “It took me forever to get to him!”
“Are you kidding?” He looked at me with pride in his eyes. “Mom, if there was an Olympic event for getting a kid out of a pool, you’d get the gold medal!”