I’ve written about having been with a family when their daughter drowned, before. I’ve written about the guilt I carried for not being aware that the child had gotten into the water–the same water I was in with her parents. I’ve written about the guilt I carried for having told the parents that I would offer a prayer to their god for her life. I haven’t ever written about the guilt I carried for not having been a hero, or for having been so disgusted by what happens in death.
***Fair warning that what follows might be considered graphic***
As it went, I was in a hotel swimming pool with Y’s parents, very late at night. Her mother (M), and father (F) were facing the deep end and I, without my glasses and being blind as a bat, was facing them, toward the shallows. It was dark and strange, and a man was passed out on a lounge chair to the side of the pool. Their little boy was playing on the poolside behind them, and Y had been running up and down the sides of the pool. F and I noticed how quiet she had gotten at the same time, and I was asking, “Where is Y?” when F started to scream.
I turned and could see the dark blur at the bottom of the deep end behind me, and I started after it. F, who couldn’t swim, beat me to her and somehow–I honestly don’t remember how–we both got her out of the pool. M had started to scream, and the little boy had started to cry because his parents were screaming. The random man sat up and stared at us, while F laid Y out on the pavement and I tried to convince him to let me start CPR. He couldn’t move out of my way, though, so I yelled at Random Man to call 9-1-1 or go get help.
F and I flailed around and he finally grabbed Y up and ran into the hotel lobby with her. I was trying to tell him how to do CPR, or to get him to let me do it, chasing after him. I was pretty useless in the face of fear and grief.
F tossed Y’s body onto the hotel check-in counter, and the clerk behind froze. I yelled at her to call 9-1-1. Somehow, as F started CPR, I ended up on the phone with Emergency. And while I was on the phone, I noticed that Y had lost her bowels, and I knew she was dead. And I was disgusted. And I was angry. I was furious. I wanted to hit people.
I was telling Emergency what had happened when the air F had forced into Y’s lungs brought up a rushing tide of pool water, and with it two ears of undigested corn. Water and bile, and kernels of corn flooded the front desk, Y’s little body, the desk clerk, and F’s beard. And I wanted to heave. Then, he begged me to do CPR on her because he couldn’t do any more.
I didn’t want to touch her then. She was covered in sick and dead, and I was angry and afraid, and I didn’t want to touch her.
I did move, though, and I was going to do it. I had just pinched her nose when the paramedics arrived, saving me putting my mouth on hers, and I have never been more thankful. I would have done it. I didn’t want to do it.
And there was the guilt. I felt shame and mortification for years that I did not want to touch Y, that I did not want to perform CPR once she had been purged, and that I was disgusted by what I saw. I hated myself for not wanting to touch her, and I thought I was a horrible person for even hesitating the moments that I did. And hated myself for the disgust I felt.
I don’t hate myself for that anymore. I am not ashamed of myself anymore. There was nothing in my experience, and nothing in my frame of reference to prepare me for the situation. I didn’t run away. I didn’t lose my head–except to yell at people who weren’t moving fast enough for my liking. I didn’t refuse to help. I tried to help. I just didn’t enjoy doing it. And there is no shame in not enjoying death. There is no shame in being disgusted by vomit or the loss of bowels. There is no shame in not wanting to put your mouth on that.
I stayed with the toddler while M and F rode with Y’s body to the hospital. They revived her heart once, but let her go. She had been gone before we got her out of the water–she’d been under for a few minutes. None of us knew for how long.
Last night, I couldn’t sleep thinking about it. It’s one of those things that could easily drive a person crazy if they dwelled on it. I realized that it had been 20 years this month. 20 years.
She would be 23.