He had a head full of hair bleached almost white from his days lifeguarding in the sun and long tanned legs covered with tiny hairs so blond they shimmered like a million curly threads of gold. You might not think this would be my overriding memory of the day I almost drowned, but it remains a strong image almost 38 years later.
I don’t remember names easily and have a variety of mnemonic devices I use when meeting new people, but I remember his name, the golden boy who was almost a man that summer who quietly saved me from drowning in a lake at summer camp. Other children splashed and played barely noticing as he dove into the water and made his way to me.
In the moment I saw him coming, I realized how badly I was struggling to keep my head above water having worn myself out trying to swim to a raft anchored in the center of the lake. There were older and bigger kids playing and resting around it and I wanted to join them and set off without thinking too much about the distance.
Due to lack of experience, I was not as strong a swimmer as the others and all my desire and belief in my ability couldn’t save me, but Gordon did. Gordie, as the other campers called him when giggling about his good looks came across the lake in a flash and gently flipped me over onto my back talking softly to me as I floated my way back to shore.
I remember feeling ashamed and slightly babyish worried about what the other kids might think, but no one really noticed. Another key thing I remember is that I never made a sound. No cries for help, no waving for someone’s attention … I just struggled in the water while life went on around me.
I read a post this morning about how easy it is to miss the signs of drowning and it occurred to me how often in life we may feel as if we are going under for the last time even when there is no water involved.
Sometimes it’s life that pulls us under and it can happen in sight of the shore surrounded by people we know. It can be difficult to determine when someone needs just a bit of assistance like the gentle guidance of Gordon that day or someone requiring full on resuscitation.
If I had only remembered what I already knew, I would have flipped over on my back and floated until I was rested enough to go on. Fear took over when I became overtired and I lost all sense of reason. Looking back now, I can see the larger lesson of that day.
Years later I saw a movie where Sandra Bullock’s character Birdie tells her daughter,
“Childhood is what you spend the rest of your life trying to overcome. That’s what momma always says. She says that beginnings are scary, endings are usually sad, but it’s the middle that counts the most. Try to remember that when you find yourself at a new beginning. Just give hope a chance to float up. And it will … “
Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-man’s
float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe me,
when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart and what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
starts, lie back, and the sea will hold you.
- Philip Booth