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I was a young lifeguard, but I’d already learned how quickly kids could drown

(for the Globe and Mail – August 2, 2018)

My first official job was as a lifeguard. I was 14. Even then, I’d questioned the wisdom of being in charge of 25 young lives at such a young age. Bob, the camp’s other lifeguard, was also 14. We were proud new graduates of the Bronze Medallion lifesaving course. We worked at Camp Tillicum on the south shore of Lake Nipissing, near North Bay, Ont. All of us, children from the nearby military base, spent a week here each summer.

As I sat in my tower, I scanned the waters diligently and prayed that no one would get into trouble. I knew how quickly they could go down, the little ones in particular, whether they knew how to swim well or not. I felt a rising panic whenever one of them moved close to the invisible line, beyond which I knew their feet could no longer touch the lake bottom. Every time a child moved closer, I’d calculate how long it would take me to reach them: Two seconds to climb from my tower, two seconds to cross a few feet of sand. And then I’d need to swim. Fast.

I’d already carried out my first rescue years before. My only wish was that I would not have to carry out another.

He was 5, my little brother, when it happened. We were at the YMCA pool in Port of Spain, Trinidad, West Indies. He’d just mastered a new skill – how to float on his back and kick – and he’d make a glorious splashing sound. His head would dart in random directions with the effort of his pumping feet. Then he’d stand, jumping in the shallow water, wiping chlorinated water from his eyes and nose. He did not yet know how to swim, so I looked to see if the lifeguard was watching him. She was about 14, sitting with her back against the concrete pool house, scanning the waters. I caught her eye, then looked at my brother. Her gaze did not follow mine, her head moving slowly up and down the length of the pool. Then, my brother was on his back again, head definitively pointed toward deep waters, and he was kicking hard.

I knew that in seconds he would be vertical, his legs trying to touch the pool bottom. When he moved to stand, I saw the look on his face as the lack of ground beneath him registered. He flailed. I swam – the fastest front crawl that my eight-year-old self could muster. As I reached him, he grabbed me around the neck and squeezed, his legs curled around my chest. I could not breathe and we both sank below the surface.

When my feet touched the pool bottom, I pulled at his arms as he unwittingly strangled me, and pushed off the pool’s cement floor as hard as I could. I would repeat this desperate routine – pull his arms from my neck, jump, breathe in, sink, pull his arms from my neck, jump, breathe in, sink. By now, my brother had manoeuvred himself onto my back, legs around my torso, arms still at my neck. Beneath my feet, I could feel the concrete slanting upward. I knew somehow that if I could push up on an angle, leaning in that direction, I could move us closer to the shallow end.

As soon as I could stand, I untangled his arms from my neck, and pulled him to the pool’s edge. He scrambled and I pushed and then he was on the deck, breathing rapidly, coughing and wiping his face. I looked immediately to the lifeguard, who again caught my eye briefly, then her head turned away, eyes unseeing as she continued to scan the waters.

My mother almost lost two children that day. In the 1970s, the Saturday-afternoon free swim did not require poolside parents and I realized, as she stood behind the chain linked fence that separated the pool from the rest of the grounds, that she, like the lifeguard, had not taken in our two- or three-minute drama. A pool full of splashing kids perhaps all looks like play to an inexperienced eye.

My brother and I were weirdly resilient and did not leave the pool area. He was soon back in the water, jumping bravely and holding on to the deck with one hand. But I stayed close, swimming back and forth across the pool’s width, instead of heading off to the deep end. I kept one eye on him and would occasionally give the lifeguard a harsh glare.

Drowning is quiet. It is the silent slipping away under the gentle sun, perhaps accompanied by a few splashes. As a newly trained lifeguard, this information had been drilled into me. I’d also been taught never to let a drowning person, no matter how small, touch me, that they would pull me under, climb on me and strangle me in their panic. I hadn’t yet learned this when I saved my brother in Trinidad that day. I’d done that part all wrong. But I also knew that I could never have been more right. He was my little brother, he was in trouble and I had to help him.

Children are too often taken from our world in pools, lakes, creeks, bathtubs and even puddles. Even adults will head out valiantly to cross lakes in canoes without life jackets because they already know how to swim. I can be careless, too. Last summer, I closed my eyes as I swam, enjoying the feel of fresh lake water on my skin and the sun on my back. I wrote poetry in my head as I front crawled toward shore: “Take me away in your immensity, as I live and drown and live in your countless streaming fingertips.”

The lake, a beautiful and powerful beast did just that and carried me hundreds of metres beyond my landing point. As a former lifeguard (and now dripping poet), I clung to a stranger’s dock with my respect for water fully renewed.

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