In about my fourth lifeguarding shift at a new pool, I looked into the deepest end of the water, and I saw a person sunk deep, motionless with her arms and legs spread out. Just moments before, I was recalling in my head the story of a near-drowning that I had heard.
This isn’t that ironic, though. It’s like when you think of a song and it comes on the radio at the same time. It’s serendipitous, but you probably forget all the times the song doesn’t come on. In retrospect, I anticipated swimmers drowning every guarding shift I worked, before and after this.
In the story I was thinking of, a guard always insisted on looking directly down the side of the pool, and, because of this, they spotted and pulled out a physically disabled woman who had slid along the pool’s side to the bottom.
For the first time, I was guarding a very busy area with many splashing kids. I was thinking about this story, I looked down, and I saw her. Blood rushed to my head; no one knew her.
I dove in and focused on my t-shirt dragging my arms. I covered the woman’s mouth and pulled her up. Another guard was with me in the water, and she found no pulse and no breathing. The woman’s lips were blue and her face was pale. I looked back at her face twice while we pulled her, and I thought, “I killed someone.”
I only remember bursts of moments afterwards. We brought her to the shallow end, other lifeguards lifted her out; a swimmer, not a lifeguard, actively performed compressions on her chest; I held the defibrillator, and two guards yelled to put it on; I pressed the pads on the wrong sides of her torso, and the helping swimmer pulled them off and corrected them.
I was helpless, incompetent, weak, stupid, and useless.
I looked back at her pale face twice while we pulled her, and I thought, “I killed someone.”
I remember, afterwards, I stepped into my dad’s car and cried a lot. I rode home with my parents and I felt numb; when we arrived, they went out to do plans, probably because I implied that this all didn’t affect me much. Our house was huge and most of the lights were off.
I thought about a short while in my life, around when I felt a powerful, general numbness. For one period, it was all I could think about; one night in particular, I couldn’t sleep for hours because of it. I didn’t tell anyone how I felt, though. I didn’t want to burden them, or even accept it.
There in the house, I turned on many lights, and my hand shook the phone against my ear. I tried many, but could only reach one friend that night. He listened to everything I had to say, and it didn’t matter that he didn’t know how to respond.
Days later, a local newspaper released an article about the incident and how Jane, the woman, had survived. It hailed the swimmer who helped in the pool, implying that if he wasn’t there, she would have died. It didn’t mention the six trained lifeguards also involved.
In the following weeks, I met with another friend, a fellow lifeguard. We talked about this, and her own incidences, when she felt guilty, shameful, scared, and incompetent. I would shake and cry, but I spoke about it. And going forward from there, I found many generous people who wanted to give me their attention, and talk about their own personal stories.
Talking about this now, my pulse gets stronger, and I feel waves of guilt and shame.
But after that time, three years ago next month, I promised myself that my feelings would always have weight, that I would always have weight, and that I could change.
I also promised that from then on, if anyone needed me to be, I would be the one listening on the other end of a phone or the other side of a table.