Drowning

Drowning. Many people say they would like a peaceful death. So they think that drowning would be the best way to go. I heard TW’s mum say it once and he said he doubted that was any kind of peaceful. I suggested that the way my Great Grandma passed, at night in her sleep, next to her husband, from liver failure, was probably more peaceful.

If you have never experienced a near drowning or never been revived from drowning then I think TV and movies do make drowning look far more peaceful than it is. They muffle and slow the sound. It is implied that at a point you are gently lulled to sleep. Softly, softly, without a care or fear in the world. I love a bath as much as the next person, probably more. A nap in the bath is not uncommon for me, though not at all safe the way I do it. Baths are peaceful, though I still wouldn’t want to die in one, drowning is not.

Have I drowned? No. Nearly, well that is debatable. I have had two incidents in the backyard. One as a 5-year-old and one at 13 and another which was much less like drowning and a lot more like having an undiagnosed chest infection while snorkeling.

Drowning – The third time

The third one, we were in the Cook Islands. When I say we I mean TW and I. We did a cruise tour of Aitutaki. It was a great day. I wasn’t in the water much but TW convinced me to swim to the other side of the lagoon pass wall.

The pass is where the water from inside the lagoon rushes in or out of the lagoon depending on the tide. We were at low tide so the ocean was lower than the lagoon. Water was rushing out through this pass with a decent current. The pass river wasn’t too wide but I felt it was too far for me. TW encouraged me so I swam over with him.

When I got to the other side however, I had used all of my energy. Every last bit of it. We had to get back, relatively quickly so that we could get all the way back to our boat before it left. That is when it hit me. I had already used all of my energy. I tried to swim back but I just couldn’t move. So I floated. All I knew how to do was float. The issue with that plan was the current. It was slowly edging me towards the rocks and the reef that made a broken wall between the ocean and the lagoon.

I closed my eyes and resigned myself to the fact that this would be my last moments. I would eventually be at sea and there was nothing more to be done about it. My brain wasn’t working great because ALL my energy was gone. At some point TW angrily told me to hurry up, I didn’t respond. I couldn’t talk. He yelled out something again and I mustered up an, “I can’t” and kept floating away. He grabbed my foot and dragged me over and then yelled at me some more for not telling him I was struggling.

In reality, I think I did expect him to get me but I couldn’t call out. I didn’t have the energy to call out. Even though I was floating and not swimming, I had lost 5 kilos due to overexertion. It didn’t make sense to TW. On one front was how could I not call for help. On the other was how could I be so totally drained of any energy. A few years later he got pneumonia and it made a bit more sense to him why and how I had struggled so much. We didn’t know I had a chest infection at the time. I went to the Dr the next morning but if you have had a bad one or Pneumonia you probably have an idea of what happened to my body.

We still had to get back to the boat, it didn’t seem possible to me, but I am here so I made it. My mind wasn’t at peace, it was racing but my body couldn’t speak. I was getting annoyed that TW wasn’t turning around to look. How could he go so long without hearing me swim and not checking on me? Why is it taking so long for him to realise I am not coming. Is he really going to have to tell my parents, family, friends that I died in the Cook Islands because he didn’t turn around and I floated out to sea?

The water was peaceful around me, apart from the current and waves crashing on rocks that loomed ever close. I, on the other hand, was not.

Drowning – The first time

The first time was more of the traditional water in the lungs almost drowning. Really it was more of a choke on water. We had one of those blue clam shells in our back yard, the kind where one half gets filled with water, the other half with sand. The ones where they always lay open, the only time it is ever closed as a clam is when you open the package and take one side out from inside the other and make it a clam. Then the two halves sit on different sides of the yard, never to be clam-like again. Though they have shell ridges, so you know it means to be a clam.

Anyway, we had one of those. We had just moved states so I was probably 5, my sister 7. She had fallen into the one with water and I was standing with my mum. Mum ran over and I walked over laughing at her. Coughing and spluttering. Idiot, all she did was trip and fall in. My mum rushed her away, so now they were behind me but I was still walking towards the clamshell with water. Laughing, pointing, being a real dick of a kid basically and well, that shell was closer than I thought because I tripped backwards into it and you guessed it – breathed in some water.

Neither of us turned blue, I think my sister had been worse than me. I was coughing and choking and trying to get air back in my lungs. It was a pretty good lesson in compassion actually, I couldn’t understand how a harmless body of water could cause my sister to cry and my mother to run. But here I was, now feeling something similar to what she had. Realising, that well, it is actually scary. It doesn’t feel great. All it would have taken is an extra second, the inability to use my arms and push up out of the wate, and it all could have been over.

Drowning – The second time

This time we play for real. The time that makes my chest pull tight thinking about it. Remembering the feeling, the sights, the sounds. I don’t break out in a cold sweat, but if I could I might.

This time I was in high school. We had again just moved states. I was 13. A good 7 years of swimming lessons between me and the blue clamshell and 5 years of a pool at home.

Our new house was nice and high at the top of the mountain. Not a snow-capped mountain but higher than a hill. 56kms away but given the road, we were on a dirt road, about an hour away from the country town with all the resources. We had a small town – a village really, 2 petrol stations and a pub, was about 15 minutes away. We had a slightly larger town 30-40 minutes away. If anything happened, a snake bite, broken leg, an ambulance was far away. The town 40 minutes away did have a hospital but it wasn’t a large or fully stocked hospital so if you were needed emergency care you needed to get to the city. An hour away.

Our new house also had a pool. It was an aboveground pool. For some reason, it was slightly sunken into the ground. Then a deck built out from the back of the house ran along two sides of the pool. With a nice gap between the deck and pool wall for some unknown reason. I guess so they didn’t need a fence around it? I am not sure. It was odd then and it still is now. The deck had space enough for the ladder, the traditional above ground pool ladder, to touch the ground in its A-frame shape without reaching to the deck. It was a sizeable gap. My guess would be about a one-meter gap. More than half a meter for sure but I have never been great with space or distance.

Standing on the ground the pool came to about shoulder height. Standing on the deck, the pool would come to about mid-thigh height. You couldn’t measure properly because of the gap. The pool was taller than the deck and the deck was 3 house steps higher than the ground. We were on a hill so the far side of the pool was about head height from the ground.

If you wanted to stand on the deck and get something out of the pool, you would lean about mid-chest with your feet still on the deck comfortably. If I had done that lean more often, I might have mastered push ups but I would walk down the deck stairs to the side of the pool, around the back of the pool and then between the pool and the deck and into the pool from the stairs. Every now and then I might do the big step reach from the deck to the pool stairs. Depended on the day really.

We moved during school holidays. During a 2 week break, not the long summer holidays but one of the short semester breaks. I had started the new school, so we are looking at about 2-4 weeks after our move. Now, I don’t remember if we moved at the start, end or in the middle of the holidays but I had been attending the new school for a maximum of 2 weeks. I feel like it was one week but I was at school. So I was the new kid at school part way through the year. Which isn’t a great place in school life. We were new to the state, area, town, house and then I almost drowned.

It had been hot the days before and I woke up at about 5am remembering I forgot to put a water bottle in the freezer. The morning was cool, it had been down to somewhere between -2 and -4 (Celsius) overnight but these heatwave days seemed to come with cool nights preceding them.

The first day of school I hadn’t had a frozen water bottle but I learnt quickly. It was nice to have something cool in my bag, my school had no lockers. Plus, it was keeping my lunch fresh. I prefer to drink cold water. Not that the water would stay frozen until lunch. I would eat my lunch in the first break, recess, and snack at lunch or eat nothing. So, I really just needed it to melt slow enough that it wasn’t warm within a few hours. But it needed to start from frozen for there to be any hope of that.

I launched out of bed and ran the whole length of the house to the kitchen. The water needed as long as possible in the freezer so I had no time to wait. Barely awake, I find my water bottle and stand at the kitchen sink filling it. I look at the clock, it was about 5:30am. The sun was still asleep but there was light out. That early morning light before the sun breaches the horizon.

My eyes were adjusting, to being open and to the light, as I stood at the sink, mindlessly staring out the window. They focus. I see a goanna in the pool. I think wow, he is getting in early. It is meant to be 40 degrees C later today but right now it is freezing. I start to notice the ice on the water top. Around him, I can see a thin sheet of ice that has cracked where he fell through and is disrupting the water but at the other end, it is still intact. My heart sinks. I don’t want him to die in the pool but I don’t want to get attacked either.

I don’t remember if I turned the kitchen tap off or not. But I do remember screaming for my mother and run to the lounge room sliding door. My brain has processed the image more clearly. I need a closer look. This isn’t a goanna, I think this is our adolescent joey. The one we brought interstate with us but legally weren’t allowed to. The one we hide and had concerns about the entire drive down while moving. Was he ok, would we get caught?

There were people who could adopt him and care for him in Queensland but all the people we knew had a habit of killing them somehow. Given he wasn’t old enough to release he came with us for his own safety and now, he is drowning in the pool. Is it him or a goanna. I don’t want it to be either but one thing I am sure of is that something is drowning in the pool and it looks like the water is freezing.

I throw the doors open, screaming for my mother again. Where is she? I have managed to run from the kitchen to the lounge room, surely she is at least down the hallway by now?! Where IS she, I don’t know what to do. She is going to be the one most devastated if this is the joey and he drowns. Muuuuuuuuuhm!!!! HURRY!

Oh crap, shit, crap, oh my God, crap, whaaaat. Noooooo! It is the joey. His tail is pointing towards the kitchen and his head is facing away. I think, I hope, I think if I reach in, I can grab his tail and pull him out. Lucky for me he is facing away and not side on, this might be easier than I thought. Much easier than saving a goanna. Which I was about to do but didn’t want to do but was about to do because I didn’t want it to die in our pool. This guy knows me. He won’t slice me to shreds.

I haven’t been watching long, I wasn’t filling the water bottle for long. It wasn’t a 50l bottle. In all likelihood, it was probably a 300ml bottle. It has been moments, seconds, not minutes or an age thought it did feel like eons had passed. I had watched the energy drain from his body. He wanted to keep swimming but he just no longer had the energy to kick to keep his head out of the water. Tears are now running down my face. I scream, one more time, for Mum as I run to the edge of the deck and flop on to the side of the pool to reach in and get him.

After that, no more calling out. I am too focused on the task at hand. Our little joey is giving up and for some, unknown reason, I am still the only one here to rescue him. I reach into the water. My arm pangs from the pain of extremely cold water bursting my cells. I feel my arm freeze. It is almost as though I can feel each cell that is freezing, freeze. I touch his tail but all I manage to do in my rush is, push him. The gush of the water pushes him down and away.

I slide forward on the pool ledge. Thinking to myself, lucky the pool has such a fat edge otherwise I would be getting cut in half right now. I stretch my arm out and move more slowly. One arm is holding me steady on the side of the pool and the other is gently reaching for the tail. He dips down, not from me this time but from his lack of energy. I shimmy forward but now, I am at my hips. My arm needs to hold the inside of the pool edge. I almost have his tail, I am starting to feel some relief. He is still trying to swim, meaning he is still alive and I almost have him.

He doesn’t bob back up this time he dips and dips again. I am so close. I shuffle forward. I’m trying to get his tail – not the tip which is almost at the bottom, my arm is wet and burning, it is burning from the cold so much that it is almost numb. I am reaching for the spot closest to me that is half an arm’s length under. It is going to be the same distance away and I can pull him straight back where if I go for the tip, which would look closer on a 2d drawing, I will be basically diving under the water myself and it will tip his head under water when I bring it back.

As I shuffled forward one last time, I got his tail. I managed this because I was no longer cantilevered on the edge of the pool but I was now top heavy and plunging into the pool myself. On my way down, I catch his tail. I push my arm up to try and get his head out of the water. My eyes are open. I never swim with my eyes open. I had just been screaming for my mum, I almost had him and now I am falling into the pool. Great I think, now we are both going to be floating bodies, whenever it is that my mum finally gets here.

I was looking down when I fell in. Watching the water rush at my face, no blinking. Not flinching. Not having the reaction I probably should have. Shock crept in and survival did not. I raise my head to look up and the joey, I want to see if I have his head out of the water. I am still falling into the pool. It wasn’t very deep but I am head first and it feels like this fall is taking forever. This was an eon. He is being pushed up, he no longer needs to swim but is his head out, is he breathing. I can’t see.

And then snap, I swing back towards the edge of the pool. I am head first, holding a kangaroo and my feet are caught on the edge. I am half submerged, falling in head first right at the start of an inhale. There is no air in my lungs. I am holding my breath. I am stressed, burning, cold, confused, wet, crying under water and trying to save a life. Fear. Pain. Sadness. I can’t hold my breath, I can’t hold my arm up, I can’t rescue the joey and myself. I am stuck. The bottom of the pool feels so far away, I thought it would be my respite. I thought I will have saved the kangaroo with my frozen rigid arm but I would be at the bottom.

I remember the sound, the deafening muted sound of water rushing around my ears. Pop, crackle, snap and silence. I could taste my heart beat. I felt it in my throat, in my chest, every limb throbbed with pain with each heartbeat. My lungs, they felt like they were collapsing in on themselves and then hoping to pull apart but the two sides that should never meet were now attached. Aching at this new closeness, aching at the required separation that would never come. My eyes raging with pain from the icy cold and chlorinated water. My blood felt thick and palpable as it rushed to try and keep my vital organs warm. I was no longer me.

Every part of my body was now a separate beast, I could hear it all, feel it all. I watched my tears roll into, yet stay separate from, the pool water around it. My fear made everything look green and the carbon dioxide building in my lungs made everything start to fade. The sounds under water were muffled, muted, deafening. Every thought you have ever had can be heard in those moments. Every fear, every concern, every regret, every thought, every single one, can be tasted. You don’t get to peacefully float and remember all of your happiest times. You are in the midst of the single most traumatic event of your life, something has gone horribly wrong for you to end up here. Sheer panic, panic so intense you can literally hear, feel, smell and taste on a molecular level.

My skin is burning but my lungs hurt more, my brain is telling me to breathe. If I breathe I die, if I don’t I pass out and automatically breathe and then I die. I am stuck. I have nothing in the pool to grab on to, I am at an awkward angle. My feet, my legs, I just can’t get back to the edge, I can’t fall in properly. I am drowning without a drop of water in my lungs, yet. At least the kangaroo got to fight for his life. I am just falling to my death without any hope. There is nothing. My feet are stuck at such an odd angle they may as well be a torture device.

I tried to pull my body back but I was just making the angle in which my head was facing steeper. It made it harder to hold the kangaroo up. My abs were not to the standard where I would be able to pull my now wet, weak, cold and tired body out of the water by my feet that were stuck on the lip of the edge of the pool. I am not sure if I know anyone who could have done that. The water level of the pool was a foot or two below the edge of the pool. Evaporation from the heat of the day before. So even pulling my body back to the wall, I would still be face first, at an odd angle, in the water. I might be closer to land but I would be closer to drowning the joey.

I decide, if it is the last thing I do, and likely it will be, I need to get the kangaroo to the edge so he can hang on or be pulled out. As I start to focus my efforts on the closest edge to his little arms, my vision fades. My body is about to force me to breathe. I was never great at holding my breath for a long time but we are at well over 30 seconds submerged. I twist my body so that my arm points the joey to the edge of the pool.

In doing so, I got one foot free, with that I could pull my body back and get the other foot free and fall completely into the pool. Finally, I no longer faced down, head first. When my legs touched the bottom of the pool, I remembered they existed. There was something between my arm and my feet. It wasn’t until they hit the ground and scraped on some dirt on the bottom. Pain, intensified by the glacial temperatures. I sank. Knees hitting first, then the side of one leg and my butt. I was now falling back and sideways. Being mindful to keep my arm outstretched but failing at times and dragging his poor body with me.

My eyes were bulging. I felt like they wanted to escape my body. Burning, almost frozen open. I don’t remember blinking, though I am sure I did. I remember the fading of the world around me. Not just the colours as I was on the verge of passing out but all sounds. Time had stood still and accelerated. I could have been there for a year and believed it. Everything moved in slow motion. Ever new goosebump on my skin, I could feel and hear it pop up. The hairs on my body reached for daylight and warmth, like a sunflower following the sun.

I could feel it all. I could feel everything freezing. Every part of my body, freezing. I was drowning and freezing and drowning. I was shaking uncontrollably. Everything was shaking, in an attempt to get some kind of warmth. My legs were on the ground but I didn’t realise instantly what they were or what they could do. I had been struggling face first for so long, I almost breathed a huge sigh of relief to be free from that angle. Now I had freedom. Freedom from thought and logic. I was sitting, shaking, freezing, dying, on the bottom of the pool and my mind was wandering.

There was no sound around me, a train could have been running right past the pool. I wouldn’t have heard it. My heartbeat was all I could hear. I had collapsed on the bottom of the pool in stillness. Silence. All of the noises I could hear were on a biological and molecular level. They were within me, from me, around me. The water. Each bonded atom bumping into the next. Taunting me. There was oxygen so near but so far. I was numb and in intense pain. Everything hurt, I felt nothing.

We were three but we were one. The pool water, the joey and me. My hand clenched his tail, now frozen I didn’t know if I would be able to let go. Even if I tried. The water surrounded me but it was begging to be part of me. I hadn’t yet let any in my lungs, it was desperate. My lungs were still clinging together, sides touching like they never should. Hoping for something to separate them, something other than CO2. Telling me that maybe water would help. Just let a little in. You need to breathe, you need to do something. You can’t stay here and not let the water in. Just let the water in. Everyone let the water in. It will all end, if you let the water in.

Be it stress, physical, mental, emotional or the lack of oxygen to my brain but it took me more than one moment to realise just what my legs could do. That moment was a glorious moment. I was no longer in the drowning, dying phase of this mishap but the survival phase. It is still going to be a hard slog because I cannot hold my breath any longer. My body is contorting trying to trick me into breathing. Not just shaking from the cold but violently reminding me I need air.

I started choking, I have to breathe in. My body wanted me to gasp for air. It was going to do it whether I wanted it to happen or not, under the water or not. I used my free hand to hold my nose and cup over my mouth and pushed from the bottom with such gusto that you would think a rocket had just launched from our pool. I was standing. My head was out of the water. The joey was in the air. I kind of threw him in my escape. My hand had kept some water out of my mouth as I had gasped for air on the way up.

As I stood I pulled the joey to my chest. We were both freezing. If the water hasn’t yet killed him the cold might. Right then, my sister and dad arrive. I don’t know what kind of scene they were expecting or if their eyes were working yet. I think it is the last thing on someone’s mind that early in the morning. A kid going for a swim with a kangaroo.

Mum finally arrived, I handed the joey over and desperately tried to climb the ladder to get out of the pool. Mum started swimming the joey, she held the base of his tail and just swang him forward and back like a pendulum. I was yelling, I didn’t go through all of this for his skull to be cracked. The ladder seemed insurmountable. The cold, I was so cold, I was so acutely aware of how cold I was now, had taken all of my energy. I felt like any cold blooded animal must. I just wanted to sit back down. This ladder was too much.

I got some help to get out of the pool. Mum caught the joey and it appeared to clear his lungs. And then I got ready for school. I was told to warm up, I tried a warm shower. It burnt my skin like hot oil does when it jumps from the pan so I turned it to cold. The cold water still stung, every drop of water from the shower felt like an ice dart hitting my skin. I felt every drop. It didn’t warm me up, it tortured me. My aim was to wash the chlorine smell out of my hair, it was no longer about warming up.

When I said to mum that I had called for her three times, yet she was the last to arrive. Her response was, “I thought your dog had died”. Followed by an awkward stress chuckle. The chuckle that everyone who has ever been extremely stressed and made an inappropriate comment has done immediately after the comment.

It was a rough start to the morning, I probably had mild hypothermia but I went to school. It did get to over 38 and I was in a tracksuit all day. I was still cold. Well, it sure wasn’t one way to win friends and influence people. They all thought I was a weirdo, that is ok though, I wasn’t much of a fan of them anyway.

I did ask for the day off but we were new to the school and it was a public school. I had been in a private one before we moved. Actually I was a border so if anything like this had happened I would have been gauranteed a day off there. But, I wasn’t, we weren’t. Mum said there are tuency laws and things in NSW and she didn’t want me to start a new school and be labelled as a bad kid.

I wasn’t temped too much to argue because the joey was still on death watch. If I didn’t go to school I would spend all day watching and waiting for him to die. At least, at school, I didn’t have to see it. And in reality, at school, in town, the big town with proper hospital, was probably the best place for me. If I was going to have a turn myself, it would be better to be in town than at home, an hour away from help.

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