When people say they aren't afraid of death, they usually aren't talking about it as though they've experienced it. It's a distant and far-off fear, one that they never expect to have to worry about, one that they never think they'll have to deal with. I've dealt with that fear, so I can honestly say that I'm not afraid of death. I already have walked across that desert, and it holds no concern for me. Twenty years ago, I stared down death and forced him to look away. I met that spectre at the bottom of a swimming pool, and fought him for every last breath.
I was in the second grade when I died. My small suburban Brownie troop had voted to visit the indoor swimming pool at Central State University for a bit of fun on a hot summer day. I went along with everyone, trying not to let everyone know that I was shaking and hoping like mad that I wouldn't embarrass myself. I was afraid to tell my troop leader that I didn't know how to swim. I couldn't do more than float, and even that required staying close to the side of the pool, within arm's reach of the tiled edge. But even at that young age, I couldn't admit to anyone that I didn't know how to do something everyone else could do, and I wasn't going to miss out on the opportunity to spend the day with friends. In addition to my stubbornness, I was suffering from an ear infection that affected my balance. I never mentioned it to anyone, not thinking that a little inner ear pain could potentially kill me.
Everything seemed all right at first. I stuck close to the edge of the shallow end of the pool, confident in the water as long as my feet could touch the rough bottom. Then the other girls began daring each other into jumping from the side to see who could get furthest out. I could hear the laughs and the screams of "Cannonball!" as each ponytailed little girl dove into the pool. The wave action of fifteen shrieking and giggling girls jumping into the water caused me to lose my grip on the side and get pushed away from my spot of surety. I was only a few feet into the pool, able to stand and still mostly dry from the waist up, so I attempted to make my way back to the edge. I walked slowly and carefully, pushing against the resistance of the water with each hand. I pictured myself as Moses parting the Red Sea, and was even able briefly to grin at my predicament. Then five or six of the girls, my friends and troopmates, decided to make a concerted effort, and all jumped in simultaneously. The water rose up and shoved me out into the deep end. I watched my safe spot recede and felt my feet leave the bottom. My ear infection kept me off balance, unable to determine where I was in the water or how close I was to the side of the pool. I was floating free, and I was scared out of my mind.
I couldn't think, I couldn't move. The water kept pushing me further and further, and I tried to scream. The waves leapt up and I swallowed chlorine. A few feet across the pool, there was a woman facing away from me. She held her baby gently, bouncing it up and down in the swells. She was a dark-haired woman with a happy, playful voice, and my entire world narrowed to the two straps of her black bathing suit. I tried to reach for her, tried to get her attention, but her back was turned to me, and every time I opened my mouth, I swallowed more water. The world turned turquoise blue, and I made one final attempt at a scream. I took another mouthful of water, and then the world turned black.
Later, I was told that the Scout troop leader did a headcount about two minutes after I went under. She managed not to panic when she came up one Brownie short. Ordering everyone out of the pool, the gathered troop saw me on the tiles lining the pool. Someone called an ambulance, someone else called my parents, and someone pulled me from the bottom. My troop leader started resuscitation, crying because she couldn't get me to breathe. She thought she'd killed one of her girl scouts.
Perhaps, I returned to consciousness briefly in the ambulance. I don't remember actually waking, and I don't remember feeling anything in my body. The scene in my memory is unreal, like a grainy short movie, filmed through a soft strip of gauze. Red and blue lights flashed around me, reflecting off the metal walls. High-pitched and angry, the sirens screamed as the ambulance shoved its way through traffic. Someone pushed a tube down my throat; someone else pounded on my chest.
"We're losing her!"
I didn't want to be there.
The lights around me pulsed and faded.
"She's too young!"
The medic's fist landed on my chest, as he attempted to force my heart into stuttering and jumping.
"She's gone, she's gone!"
The siren dropped away, and the red and blue lights went black. The light strip of gauze became a thick wool blanket, and I disappeared into oblivion.
I woke up in Greene Memorial hospital, in the pediatric intensive care unit. At first, I couldn't open my eyes. Someone stood over me, holding my hand. She said my name, over and over, a hitch of pleading in her voice. "Carol, honey, do you know who I am? Carol, can you hear me?" I struggled to form words, trying to remember how to operate my voice. I knew who was speaking, a woman. Some woman, someone related to me, but who was she? Not my mother. My mother wasn't the one talking to me. My mother wasn't there. She'd been delayed, she couldn't get there in time. I remember the searing pain at what I thought was the ultimate betrayal - my mother was not the first one to welcome me back. Tears leaked out of my eyes, and I heard someone else say, "She's awake!" The hand holding mine gripped tighter, and the voice got closer as the woman leaned over me. "Carol, honey, do you know me?"
The blanket over my senses was pulled free, and I knew her. My father's sister, my aunt Candy. In my confusion, I was unable to give her name, and instead responded with a nickname she'd gotten rid of years before. "Acid tongue," I said, probably convincing any medical personnel in the room that I was delirious or brain-damaged. My aunt tried to laugh and cry and scream all at the same time, succeeding only in making a choked noise. I still couldn't seem to see clearly, couldn't look past the water that kept undulating before my eyes, but I could feel the tubes and wires attached to my body, the machinery that had been chaining me to life for six hours.
When the doctors determined I was stable enough to be moved, I was transferred to the hospital on Wright Patterson Air Force Base, the base where my father served as a staff sergeant in the supply division. Confused and scared, all I wanted to do was sleep, but I was woken up every couple of hours by the nurses. The next morning, a kind woman came to remove the water I'd swallowed in my attempts to catch any breath. She ran a long thin tube down my nose, commiserating with my tears of fright, but adamant that it had to be done. The first attempt failed as I choked and gagged on the plastic of the tube. She gave me a box of juice and told me to sip on the straw. As I swallowed, the liquid helped her ease the tube into my stomach. With a giant syringe, the nurse pulled two gallons of water from my stomach. The water was a pale, thin white from the milk in the cereal I'd had the previous day. Thin bits of something small and tan were floating in it. As it turned out, my entire body had shut down from the shock of drowning and death, and I had not even digested my breakfast. It was years before I was able to face skim milk or corn flakes without revulsion.
From time to time, I could hear the doctors discussing my case with my parents behind the curtain around my bed. I heard phrases like "system trauma" and "not sure how long she was unconscious". I even heard "brain damage" and "technically dead". My parents never let me know their fear and concern, and I never let them know that I knew what had been said about me. I wondered what parts of my brain had been damaged, which parts would never get better. I feared losing something indefinable. (I often wonder if I'd be able to do calculus if I hadn't lost some brain cells in the drowning.)
Not everything about my hospital stay was scary or upsetting. Over the course of the next few days, I collected a menagerie of stuffed animals and get well cards. Balloons and flowers fought for space on the small table next to my hospital bed. My parents knew what would keep me from getting bored, and brought me several books to read. One of these was Jack Prelutsky's new poetry book, The New Kid on the Block. I got caught up in the bouncing rhymes and infectious fun, and began reading the poems out loud, to hear the words dancing. My roommate overheard me reading the piece, "Homework, Oh Homework", and started laughing. Confused, I stammered to a halt, thinking that she was laughing at me. She noticed my anxious face, and explained that she was laughing at the words, not the way I read them. She needed a poem for her speech class, something to read in front of the other students. She was sure the rest of the class would read great dramatic pieces, monologues from Shakespeare, or nineteenth-century verses, and she wanted something different, something that would amuse both the teacher and her friends without getting her into trouble. I gave her the book and chortled quietly as she read the poem into a tape recorder. When she thought I was asleep, I could hear her practicing, testing out different voices and attitudes. A few days after her release from the hospital, I got a card from her. The poem had been a great hit, and she was ever so thankful I'd loaned her my book.
After a couple of days, I was released from the hospital, my body restored to sound condition, if not my mind. I returned to classes and to my Brownie troop, but I never returned to the pool. To this day, I find it difficult to be around a large body of water, especially one with a lot of rapid movement to it; quite possibly this is one of the reasons I have never gone to see the ocean. I have never learned to swim, despite the evidence that it would have saved my life. Twenty years after I drowned, I can still do no more than float or tread water. I am incapable of putting my head below the surface without wearing goggles and Olympic-class noseplugs, and I cannot bear to get any kind of liquid splashed into my face. Any water that unexpectedly gets into my nose will cause me to panic, shaking with the effort of forcing myself not to scream. (I distrust drinking fountains for that very reason.) I even have to hold my nostrils closed when in the shower, just to make certain that doesn't happen. I'm not afraid of death, but I am afraid of the water.