Suddenly, with great clarity, I realized that this was the end. I was about to die.
Summer holidays, when I was a kid, always started with swimming lessons. Looking back I must have been a sight on those early mornings, trudging up the hill to the public pool in my swim suit, my long unwieldy curls half tucked under a bathing cap, my towel dragging behind me, and I skipping or chasing a stone, oblivious to the world around me. We had a pool in our backyard, so our mother insisted that we be trained in technique and safety.
As far as I can remember, those lessons involved a lot of time shivering outside the pool awaiting my turn to demonstrate a particular stroke or technique. The instructors were young, and often not very patient, especially as some of my peers protested at each step. What I do recall was watching the more experienced swimmers in the diving well next door. I was fascinated by their lack of fear as they twisted and flipped their way into the deep water below. Even after the lesson was over, I would stop and watch through the chain link fence enclosure, studying each move so that I could go home and practice.
At nine-years of age, I was a fish. Diving into the cool, refreshing water cleared my head and made me feel fully alive. I imagined myself as a dolphin, or seal, and was forever challenging myself to break new records: how long I could hold my breath under water, how many somersaults I could do, and so on. Sundays, when my father was home, he would goad us into racing him, which he always won, making me even more determined to improve. My younger sister and I had tea parties on the bottom of the pool and practiced talking to one another, emerging with great gulps of laughter.
Summer was my favourite time of the year, and water my element. It was only fitting that I should die here.
I didn’t have many friends in the neighbourhood, as the school I attended was on the other side of town, but occasionally a girl from across the road would accept my invitation to come for a swim. I only asked her when no one else was around, because my mother wouldn’t let us swim alone. One particularly hot summer day, I called her over. She obliged happlily.
Full of myself, and my newly practiced diving tricks, I decided to show off.
“Let’s dive!” I suggested, knowing full well I was breaking family rules. No diving without an adult present!
“I don’t know how.” Her mother had not forced her to take swimming lessons, it was obvious.
“I’ll show you!”
I demonstrated a simple stance and thrust into the dive, assuring her it was easy. She tried but didn’t tuck in enough and landed on her belly. Near tears, she stated that she wanted to go home.
“Just one more dive!” I insisted. “Watch this one!”
I turned my back to the pool and eased myself backwards, toes perched on the edge, then bending my knees slightly, I launched myself, but in that last second something went wrong and I didn’t have time to pull out of the plunge before hitting my head on the bottom of the pool and feeling my neck snap back.
The paralysis was instant and my body sunk, lifeless, and there I was lying on the bottom of the pool looking up towards and the surface and realizing that I wasn’t going to make it. This was it.
And, yet, I felt no panic. Instead, my eyes were drawn to a blinding white light that shone on me from above. Wow the sun looks really cool from here! my nine-year-old mind thought, and at the same instant I realized that this was not the sun, and a profound sense of peace filled me. I was not alone. In the stillness of the moment, I was surrounded by the most angelic music and the sudden awareness of voices that spoke as one: a heavenly chorus.
“You can stay or you can go” was the invitation offered, “but know that if you stay, you will have to be strong; it will not be easy.”
I am strong, I thought. I can do this.
“Remember that you are never alone,” was the parting message, and then the next thing I knew I was on the ladder, dragging myself out of the pool, with no one in sight. My “friend” had bolted when she thought I was dead.
Dripping wet, and smarting from the aftershock, I traipsed through the house to my parents’ bedroom where my mother had been bedridden for months.
“I need to go to the hospital,” I told her. “I think I just broke my neck.”
I couldn’t see my mother’s response, because she had the curtains drawn as usual, but she did fumble for the light and tell me to get dressed, and we did go to emergency and I had x-rays, and then she sent me with my older sister to the movies to get my mind off of it, and when I got home she was all in a panic because the doctor had called with the results, and I was not to be moving around, and it was a miracle I hadn’t drowned.
I just smiled calmly and said, “It’s okay, Mom. Today wasn’t my day to die, the angels told me so.”