Some of you heard about this story and have asked me to retell it. I have a difficult time verbalizing it all, mostly because of the recurring nightmares and repeated trips back to trusting a kind, oh, such a Kind Providence for what may happen or what might have been.
I think I have known for a long time that life is a gift, meant to be lived freely, offered back with open palms to the One who gives it. I have said that the surest way to live impoverished is to live with clenched hands, keeping everything for oneself, holding tightly to control.
I have known these things in my head, but I never experienced anything like the raw terror and scrabbling to hold onto life like I did this past week. (edit: I wrote this a month ago.)
Any parent or child care giver knows that sense of responsibility that comes with wanting to keep our beloved little people safe from harm. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them. We would gladly shield them from struggle and heartbreak if we could. And especially, we want to keep them safe.
July 4th… It was the best weather and the best water for a canoe trip with friends, the river just thunderstorm-swollen enough to keep the canoes from scraping constantly on rocks. We arranged for babysitters for the smallest children and took the older ones along to the drop off point. Five children from two families and one mama, waiting with the canoes while the canoe trailer was hauled to the take out point, 12 miles downstream. It took a while. The children got bored, started splashing in the shallows of a small stream that joined the larger river just there. The water was about knee deep, and there was a rope swing on the far bank, where they were having fun swinging over the little creek.
Just as I was heading down the bank to keep a closer eye on their play, I saw the smallest girl, the daughter of our friends, swept off her feet in the current. I yelled for the others to help her up. Her big sister who can swim a bit, grabbed for her, but to my horror, I saw them both sweep out to the dark, still water of the river. The little girl was climbing up onto her big sister in sheer desperation, pushing her under. I tore into that water, swimming as hard as I could. It was deep, much deeper than I expected, and before I got out to them, they had both gone under the surface twice. The little one popped up right in front of me and grabbed me in a strangle hold around my neck.
I am not a strong swimmer, more of a doggy paddler. I have never swum with a dead weight hanging onto me. And I couldn’t find her sister. I yelled and yelled for help, frantically sweeping around me with my arms and legs, trying to decide what to do. Should I take little sister to shore, then try to dive for the other girl? Oh Lord, I can’t dive. Oh, Jesus, these girls are supposed to go camping with all their cousins this weekend. Jesus, help! In those moments, I thought that their parents would come back to find that I had allowed their daughter to drown.
Just then, she slowly floated up beside me, holding perfectly still, eyes wide open, just under the surface. She was too tired or too panicked to make any effort to swim. I grabbed her hand, but I didn’t have the strength to lift her head above the water, so I started the struggle back to shore, towing her under water. My son ran for the life jackets, tossed, missed, ran for another, tossed again, and somehow we caught it and she pulled herself up, gasping the sweet air. When we all staggered out onto the bank, I could hardly believe that the birds were still singing, the river was still sparkling, the children were all still breathing, alive.
We huddled in the brilliant sunlight, wrapped in towels, praising God for life, for breath.
I cannot shake the feeling of that near tragedy. I know my capabilities as a swimmer are not the reason we all got out safely. I don’t understand how that child could hold her breath that long, yet I don’t know how long it was… just long enough to hold all the terrors I ever felt. It was, pure and simple, not the day of death, but of life.
“I won’t die until it is my time to die,” as a teenager I said it glibly to my mom when she was concerned about my safety in traveling to third world countries. I know this in my head, but I have always struggled with the question, “What about tragedies? accidents? freak circumstances?”
Over and over this week I have heard the calm words of David from Psalm 31, when he was running for his life.
Fear is on every side;
While they take counsel together against me,
They scheme to take away my life.
But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in Your hand;
I have realized how tight my grip is, how invested I am, maybe not so much in my own safety, but in the safety of my children. I have felt how tightly my fists can clench onto life. I mean, one minute they can be laughing, splashing in shallows and the next they can be drowning. It haunts me. I have beaten myself up again and again for not being more aware of how deep the water was. I have realized, too, that life is full of terrors, of danger, of fearful things. I can live in fear and try endlessly to cover all the bases to make sure my children are okay. Or I can relinquish control and trust God to cover the bases that I am sure to miss.
I wish I could say it was an easy thing to learn, but it was not, and it continues, every day. Join me in giving our babies, all our dear ones, to the safekeeping of the only real safe place, the arms of the Father. And thank God with me, yes?