I’m an OK swimmer, good enough that I don’t worry about drowning, but no so good that I’m willing to venture far from the shore. I always told my kids not to go past where the water is above their belly, because I knew that when a wave came in it could be over their heads. I don’t exactly follow my own advice, but I do try to stay where I can easily touch the bottom, so that I’m always a short swim to safety.
One time when I was swimming in the ocean, my son pointed out that two teenage girls and a younger boy thirty feet past us appeared to be in trouble.
“Are you all right?” I shouted. The girls shook their heads. My son swam in to get a lifeguard while I swam out to the kids.
“He can’t get in,” one of the girls told me.
“If I take him, can you girls get in?” They assured me they could.
As soon as I reached for the boy, he reacted as I’d expected he would. He grabbed for my neck, pushing me under as he clung to me. I was surprised that the girls had been able to keep him from doing this to them. With a bit of struggling, I was able to swim in enough to be out of danger, where the lifeguard met us and took over. The two girls had also made it in safely.
Later, the boy’s mother found me on the beach and thanked me for saving him, but the credit goes to the two girls. If they hadn’t been there, the boy would have been pulled out by the ocean without me even knowing. I had assumed they were all together, that maybe the girls were his older sisters, and didn’t learn that they were heroic strangers until the boy and his mother came to thank me.
Drowning is a leading cause of death. It’s the number one killer of children age 1 to 4 except for death related to birth defects. Among children age 14 and under, drowning is among the top five causes of death. And for every child who dies from drowning, another five are treated for drowning related injury, some suffering severe brain damage and/or lifetime physical disability. In the United States, there are about 3,500 unintentional drownings each year. The boy I swam to shore with was very nearly one of these statistics.
I regret that I didn’t heap praise on the girls that day in Ocean City, NJ. In the unlikely event that they read this and recognize themselves, I just want to say that I’m grateful they were there, grateful that they held the boy afloat, and grateful to know there are caring people in this world. And I hope the boy, now a young man, realizes the gift they gave him and, in whatever small way, pays it forward.