When Drowning – Remember – Hope Floats

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 … “

I thought the poem below might be good for Penelope Trunk who writes her own poetry here and for anyone else struggling today.

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

16 thoughts on “When Drowning – Remember – Hope Floats

  1. Elizabeth, thank you for the post. My 10 year old daughter and I were playing in the San Marcos River last week, watching many dozens of tubers going through a rough patch of rapids. Most giggled as they bumped, hit rocks, and eventually made their way downstream to calmer water. But one boy–about 12–got caught in a corner near some concrete where the water looked still. Everyone yelled at him to stay in his tube and just kick his way out but he didn’t hear or didn’t listen.

    He flipped out and that was it. He didn’t come back up. The seconds ticked by, feeling like minutes. Many people attempted to rush to him but the current was too strong.

    In those seconds I realized how easily it would be to drown in that beautiful river. How easily it would be for a second person to drown if and when someone finally made it to him.

    By some miracle he finally popped out on the other side of the concrete having been sucked underneath it and trapped between it and the river bottom. He had clawed his way free–and his fingers and back showed what a mighty effort it had been to get himself free.

    That big boy fell into his mother’s arms and cried, refusing to move, wanting only to be held and reassured that he was alive.

    All of us that day knew he was dying but there was nothing we could do to save him–the water was too fierce, the time too short.

    It was an emotional experience for all of us and one we won’t likely forget.

  2. I love this post. I think everyone can relate either to the literal or figurative feelings of struggling to survive something. What a perfect poem to have handy on those kinds of days and to share with those who might need some encouragement. Thanks!

  3. I was deeply moved by this post–how true it is that our struggling frequently contributes to our distress. I agree that frequently people don’t recognize the signs of drowning but I think that often it’s not that people don’t recognize the signs of drowning (literally and figuratively) but that they ignore them. Saving a drowning person means taking the risk of being dragged under water yourself. The drowning victim must calm themselves to be saved and you must trust that they will calm themselves in order to take the risk of saving them.

    My husband heard a story from a friend about a group of people white water rafting. The raft flipped and someone was thrown out and trapped under the raft. A friend of the person telling the story jumped into the water to save the drowning rafter. He managed to save the victim but hit his head on a rock and drowned himself. He was in his mid-20s.

    I guess sometimes we recognize the signs of drowning but refuse to act because we’re afraid of what might happen to us in the process.

  4. Wow. That’s a powerful post. I read the article about drowning and I’m horrified! I’ve done the Red Cross course twice and they never told us about the instinctive drowning response. It totally makes sense, but even with training, it’s not what I was taught to deal with. My training was all for swimming pools, so I guess they assumed we’d get to the kid during the aquatic distress phase?

    I really like how you take life experiences and pull out their deeper threads and implications.

    Overall, I’m very grateful that Gordon was there and knew what to do.

  5. Great post. I have always been a strong swimmer, but people die around here every summer. I am always alarmed when I see kids over 2 or 3 who haven’t been taught to float. We were not allowed to have floaties or float rings of any kind – Dad insisted me learn to float and he was right.

    Figuratively, I am trying to float right now, and let God handle things. Raising teenagers is never easy…

  6. Hi Elizabeth,

    Thanks for stopping by my blog and I’m very glad you’re enjoying the music. The stories on your blog are so lyrical that they often evoke a sense of music themselves. And Philip Booth’s poem is stunning!

  7. Having rescued two people from drowning myself – both of them my siblings, one of them the summer I learned to swim aged 12, (neither of them could swim at the time) the near miss is pretty hard to handle for a youngster but nothing like the miss!

    I’m paranoid /a total pest about asking parents to teach their kids to swim, as early as possible and certainly not waitng until they are 12! I read about a toddler immersion apporach some yeaers ago in the sunday paper – very young children are put in the water and the premise was that they seem to have a natural ability to hold their breath and swim. If this is true, that’s the age I’d vote for them starting to learn. I didn’t know about these signs of drowning and thank you for those – my experience is that they are true.

    As for drowning metaphorically…it is so true that we often feel we are going under and no one seems to notice…and while its easy to say that as adults, we should learn to ask, and over come our pride to do so, it is also my experience that sometimes I don’t realise I am out of my depth or at the end ofy rope until I am already deep in the throes of drowning. I think this is human nature, and also it’ better to be pushed back for offering help that may not be needed than to not offer or reach out, and see the person struggle to stay ‘alive’.

    Very poweful post, E. xo

  8. Mariellen, so true–there are days when I feel absolutely overwhelmed–completely drowning and then I’ll get a grip and feel more capable the next day. It’s hard to know when to ask for help because all of us have had these moments, days, weeks of drowning and most of us have been able to emerge from them with little help.

    BUT, the more this happens the more others expect us to emerge from them with no help. It’s a real paradox that the less you ask for help the less willing people are to give it to you when you really need it.

    Have others found this to be true?

  9. Elizabeth,
    Thank you for seeking me out, as I did you. Loved this post and the comments, will add you to my blog roll.
    The metaphoric feeling of drowning, sometimes treading water, or sometimes BEING the lifeguard is powerful in all our cultural challenges. Juggling career, family, marriage is what I write about mostly. Rather than drowning I used the (control freak?) border collie routine as a metaphor in my book, The BlackBerry Diet:

    “It was just so much work to hold it all together, like I was the hyper border collie in those British dog herding competitions. The one that races around a flock of sheep, keeps them close together, gets them from the shed to the pasture, through a gate, up a hill, down a hill, back around, then finally into a pen, while all along at least one sheep tries to escape…”

    In case you did not find:


  10. What a beautiful poem.

    Have you seen this one by Stevie Smith?

    Not Waving but Drowning
    by Stevie Smith

    Nobody heard him, the dead man,
    But still he lay moaning:
    I was much further out than you thought
    And not waving but drowning.

    Poor chap, he always loved larking
    And now he’s dead
    It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
    They said.

    Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
    (Still the dead one lay moaning)
    I was much too far out all my life
    And not waving but drowning.

  11. My goodness, Elizabeth. Between the near drowning and the car crash, it’s a miracle you’re with us at all. A lovely post with so much symbolism. So many times I’ve metaphorically felt myself slipping under, only to have the Universe save my sorry butt each time. What a beautiful poem.

  12. Oh my. There is NOTHING I don’t deeply love about this post.

    Beautiful, all of it. Beauty and true wisdom here. Thank you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s