Last summer, we packed our three kids in the minivan and hit the road to Michigan to spend a weekend hanging out at the lake with family. Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine how close we would come to driving home with only two children.
We were all staying in a small cottage right on Big Star Lake in Baldwin, Michigan. The boys had their own room with bunk beds while their dad and I slept on an air mattress out in the living area. For some reason, when I plugged in the boys’ clock the night before, their alarm got set somehow, so on our first morning of vacation, I woke up at 5 am to the blaring of their clock. Every mom has sprung out of bed like a cannon, whether it’s at the sound of a baby crying, a kid puking, or maybe just because they realized they left the sunroof open on the minivan and it’s now down-pouring. Not that I’ve ever done that.
On that morning, I tried to spring into action too quickly and stepped wrong on my foot, sending searing pain shooting through it. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had broken it. Within an hour, my foot bruised and swelled so badly that I was only able to slowly hobble around. Not exactly the ideal way to start a vacation.
On the other hand, I had the perfect excuse to set up my chair on the beach in the perfect sunny spot, put my foot up with a bag of ice, and send my minions to fetch me cold beers while I read my book and relaxed. You know, on account of the foot. When my kids came out of the cottage that afternoon with their swimsuits on, ready to play in the lake, I was realizing that my injury may have been the best thing that could have happened to a mom who really needed a break.
So there I sat. On the beach with my foot elevated and iced, while my two oldest played in the water in front of me and my youngest built sandcastles on the beach. Our cousin and his wife were also nearby, as were other adults. My swimmers knew they weren’t allowed to go past the back of Uncle Jerry’s boat or it would get too deep. My oldest, the rule-follower, proceeded to leap off the dock right at that boundary line over and over again.
My middle son, who was just shy of six years old at the time, is my creative kid who concocts epic battles in his imagination and plays them out in real life. As he splashed about in the shallows, he called out to me.
Mommy! Help! There’s a SHARK!!!
“Oh no!” I replied from my chair in my half-hearted, semi-enthused voice, “Don’t let the shark get you!” He would run away from “the shark” and pop up out of the water announcing he had captured the shark with his fishing net or something like that. I returned to my book.
After a few minutes, I started to feel nervous about this Shark Attack game. I would look up from time to time and see my kiddo splashing about in the water with his head under the surface, only to spring up and yell, “Shaaarrrrk!” before swimming away from the terrible predator and having the whole thing repeat.
Was I over-reacting? The kid was just playing a harmless imagination game, after all. He was having fun! But finally, I couldn’t handle the anxiety anymore and I asked him to stop playing Shark Attack.
We all know how it goes when you shut down a game that is epic fun. He didn’t go into full-on tantrum mode, but he certainly was upset that I had suddenly closed down his game. Like a typical five-year-old, he decided to push the boundaries a bit to see if I really meant it. I mean, it’s not like Mom could come after him, right? Again…THE FOOT.
I read a couple pages in my book, looked up, and there that kid was at it again. Now I busted out Mom Voice.
“Micah,” I yelled sternly. “I told you no. more. Shark Attack. Do you understand? And come closer to the shore. You can’t go out that far, remember?”
Brought to attention by the lower loud voice and stern tone, he stopped splashing and moved toward the shore. My eyes went back to my book as I adjusted the ice pack on the swelling bruise on my foot.
A couple more minutes passed before I looked up again.
“MICAH!” I hollered with repeated force. “What did I tell you? No more playing Shark!”
His hands were above the water, but his head was below the surface. It appeared for just a moment before it slipped back down below. His hands splashed against the water ever so slightly before his face surfaced again. I remember seeing his mouth wide open as he appeared and then he was gone again.
I wish I could tell you that my mother’s instincts kicked into gear immediately and I was able to run and save my boy. But that’s not what happened. It’s almost as if those moments passed in slow motion for my body while my brain was simultaneously in turbo drive. The instant my brain recognized that my son was drowning before my very eyes, my body froze and I panicked.
I couldn’t get to him in time. I knew I couldn’t. I could barely walk, let alone run down the beach and through the water to rescue him.
I yelled at my cousin who was on the shore and pointed to Micah while I struggled to get up out of the chair. He charged into the water and started to run as fast as he could through the water while my baby’s head disappeared under the water once again. Within seconds, he was lifted up out of the water in the arms of our cousin who then carried him back to shore. By the time he got there, I had hobbled to the water’s edge and my crying boy was handed to me. I wrapped him in my arms and couldn’t decide whether to hug him or holler at him.
That’s when he vomited all over my back.
It was mostly lake water. And pancakes.
The experience was terrifying for both me and for Micah. He was afraid of water for several months following that day and it took us a long time to teach him that the water wasn’t what was dangerous in that situation, but that he put himself in danger by not listening to his parent. By disregarding my instructions, he removed himself from my protection.
He learned a hard lesson that day that nearly killed him.
As for me, I learned how quick and quiet drowning can be. There were at least three adults on that beach looking directly at the two kids in the water and never did I imagine this could have happened that quickly. After experiencing how suddenly a child can be lost to drowning, my perspective has drastically changed on things like pool parties or playdates. I doubt I would feel comfortable sending my child to play at a friend’s house with a pool until I was 100% confident in their swimming strength.
We enrolled all three of the boys in swimming lessons this year to make sure they are taught techniques to be safe in the water. The Milwaukee area has tons of resources for getting your kids into lessons that could potentially save their life. We may not have our boys in all the sports and other clubs available, but you can be certain they will be taught how to swim so that the next time a game of Shark Attack springs up at the lake house, I can be confident in knowing my swimmer will prevail.
Oh, and I really can’t publish this post without taking the time to flat out say Thank You, in writing, to Matt whose quick response saved my child’s life. You’ve always been pretty close to the top of the list of our Michigan family, man. But that day, you made a solid push into first place.
I can’t say enough how grateful I am you were there. Thank you, Matt.