My life is divided into two sections: the time before my son died and the time that has followed. The dividing line is a seemingly mundane moment. I glanced over the railing of a second-floor balcony and into a swimming pool. I always assumed that when tragedy happened — to “other people” of course — a trail of clues would lead up to it. Yet, a distinct line delineates the moment when my world stopped spinning. For, when I peered over the balcony this time, I saw my 3year-old son, Levi, face down at the bottom of the deep end.
Over a decade ago, during my husband’s medical residency at UAB, we became more family than friends with several other couples. While there, we began an annual beach trip to Fort Morgan, AL, which we continued when our paths took us to [six] different states. We have spent the last [seven] years in the same house, each year adding new babies into the mix. What started as a child-free trip grew into one with 17 children. Levi, the second youngest, was 10 weeks old on his first one. This year was his 4th, and he asked me constantly in the months leading up to it: “Mama, we going to the beach, soon? With our friends?”
Sunday, June 10, 2018, our first full day, was filled with swimming in the pool, eating gummy snacks on the beach, and slipping right back into the ease that comes with effortless friendships. That evening, we gathered in the kitchen to wait for the much anticipated crab-hunting trip. Levi, wearing khaki shorts and a neon yellow crab-hunting shirt, sat on the couch with the other kids, watching a silly raccoon on “America’s Funniest Videos”. Ten adults, including myself and my husband, were in the room; we were not on our phones or drinking. I gave Levi a bowl of Cheetos and part of a brownie, unaware that tragedy loomed only moments ahead. Somehow, (and even after analyzing these preceding moments countless times, I still only have the word somehow), Levi slipped out the back door without any of us seeing him. HOW did I not see him? The desperation to go back in time suffocates my every moment.
Levi was gone for such a short amount of time that we didn’t even know he was missing. I had split a brownie with him, and part of it was still in my mouth when I jumped into the pool. His bright yellow crab-hunting shirt had filled him with pride just moments before but was now a dagger to my heart. My mind reeled: You can drown when you aren’t even swimming? When you are sitting on the couch in khaki shorts surrounded by people who love you?
I ran screaming down the spiral staircase. I cannot remember the exact sounds that I hurled into the universe. Later, I would ask a friend, “What was I screaming? How did you all know to come running?” He would look at me, his eyes broken, determined to protect me in even this small way, and tell me, “It doesn’t matter.” But, even I could feel the echoes of the anguished cry lingering in the air afterward.
As I jumped into the pool and grabbed Levi, someone else grabbed his other arm at the exact same time. I had no idea who it was, but in that horrific moment that I am condemned to relive for eternity, I was not alone. Later, I would find out that one of our friends had rushed out the door, seen Levi, and hurled himself off of the second-floor balcony in a desperate attempt to save our baby. From the very beginning, I have not been alone in this journey. It was my first gift of beauty in the midst of tragedy.
Somehow — again, this word, but the meaning is so different here — somehow, my husband and our friends, [six] physicians, were all THERE, by the side of the pool, ready. I do not know how they got down the stairs in a split second, nor how they managed to keep their composure as they began CPR and fully intubated Levi. Despite my every instinct demanding differently, I GOT OUT OF THE WAY. If anyone could save my son, it was these experienced professionals who happened to be some of our best friends.
I hung onto the pool fence, literally gripping it as an anchor in the storm. With dripping wet clothes and my son just feet behind me, fighting for his life, I raged at the universe. ONE MINUTE. I just needed one minute back. Please. There is no desperation like that of a mother pleading for her child’s life.
In this most unimaginable of all moments, when Levi was not coughing up water like people do in the movies, I reared back my head in despair. When I opened my eyes and looked toward the ocean, I saw a patch of rainbow, its bright colors sketched vibrantly against the darkening evening sky. There was no light anywhere in the expanse of gray, except for these gleaming colors — smeared and incomplete, like a child’s finger painting.
My eyes locked onto this rainbow as time paused around me. The world had just cracked open and proven to me that life can change — that it can end — in an instant. I assure you that when you are standing on the precipice of life and death, things that seem to matter, like money and material goods, do not surface. Instead, an epiphany revealed itself in full clarity, as if it had been waiting patiently for me to discover it. Every other thought in my mind blurred except for this realization: Relationships Matter. More than anything else in this lifetime, people and connections with others matter. This split second of peace passed as quickly as it arrived, but not before etching itself into my soul.