..is that you don’t want to admit that you did, or assume it, even if you know it’s true. Like doing so will put them at risk again, because who the hell are you?
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This time two days ago, I was on vacation in Cape Cod with my extended family. My parents have a house outside Falmouth and I’ve gone pretty much every summer of my life, first as a kid, now with my own family. It was our last day, our last afternoon, and my daughter really wanted to go for a final swim even though it was overcast and I’d already packed our swimsuits. I was totally not into it and tried to convince her to do something else, but the whining got to me and we went down to the beach, with my cousin’s daughter in tow.
When we got there, two of my aunts were already seated in beach chairs, getting ready for their daily swim, which they call The Ladies Swim. It’s another one of those longtime traditions, women of a certain age (now in their seventies) meeting for gossip and exercise together in the late afternoon. We chatted about how I was leaving the next day as the girls played in the sand, and then I got into the water to swim. A few minutes later, they headed out on their normal route.
It was still cloudly, but the water was nice, and I was thinking I was actually kind of glad I’d gotten dragged to the beach, even if my own kid was now whining she was cold and wanted to stay on the shore. I kept swimming around, about ten feet from the sand, alternately watching the kids and keeping an eye on my aunts, because we just do that there whenever anyone is swimming in the water.
After about fifteen minutes, I could see them headed back in: P. was in front, N. behind. I looked back at the kids, answered my own child when she shouted a question at me. Then I looked again out the in the water. I saw N. P was gone.
At first, I figured I just couldn’t see her. There were a few boats on moorings between us, and I assumed she was probably behind one of them. But I stood up anyway. When I did, I heard N yell, “P? Are you all right?”
I looked back at the girls. Still on the beach. Then I finally spotted P, or actually the slope of her back. She was facedown in the water, only that and some of her hair visible. N looked at me. “Sarah, she’s not swimming anymore!” I dove back in the water and started towards them.
I’ve been swimming all my life: I learned in those same waters, on that same beach. But I don’t have a great form by any means. Still, I hauled ass out there. N and I got to P at the same time. I grabbed her and rolled her over, so her face was out of the water. She was blue. I yelled her name. No response. Again. Nothing. Then I hooked my arm around her, making sure her face was turned up, and started towards shore.
My daughter and her cousin were still playing, obvlivious. I screamed at them to run for my husband and tell him to call 911. They took off, and I kept swimming, N. beside me, pushing P along. She was unresponsive, but I was talking to her, telling her I was there, it was going to be okay. We were about 70 feet out, and finally I felt my feet hit the ground. We dragged P up on the beach. She was still blue.
I have never taken a CPR class, only read a book about it. Everything I know about water rescue I learned from Baywatch. I am dead serious. But we were the only ones there and I knew I had to act. So I opened her mouth and breathed in, hard. Then I pumped on her chest, trying to remember how many times I was supposed to do it. Nothing. Another breath. More pumps. I looked up at the beach path, praying i’d see my husband or someone else who could handle this coming. No one. I breathed in again, then heard a soft gurgle. I rolled P on her side, and I saw her hand reach out to N’s leg to touch it. Oh my God.
Another gurgle. She was responding. I put my hand on her back and told her me and N were there, it was okay. She moaned, still reaching for N, who took her hand. Then, finally, I heard footsteps. My husband. An ambulance was on the way.
The next half hour is a blur. I remember leaving them there, running as fast as I have in recent memory to P’s house to scream for her husband and tell him what happened. Standing barefoot in my dripping bathing suit on our dirt road, waiting for the ambulance. The terrified look on my daughter’s face when I finally found her, and trying not to look scared to her. Following a paramedic down to the beach, saying, “I don’t even know CPR really,” and him saying, “Anything helps, and clearly you did.” Seeing P sitting up in a beach chair on the shore’s edge, shivering, her husband beside her as the medic strapped on an oxygen mask. Did she know where she was? he asked. The beach. What day is it? Monday.
When they’d taken her up to the ambulance, my aunt N and just stood there on the sand. The sun had come out: it was a gorgeous day, suddenly. We couldn’t stop talking, either one of us, about what had happened. I told her we were bonded for life now, and she laughed. It was good to laugh, finally. Then I went home, where my daughter and her cousin were watching Dora and Friends and eating Pirate Booty. Is P okay? they asked. I think so, I told them. They nodded, returned to their program.
I went into our bedroom. We had dinner plans, things to do, and I told my husband I’d take a shower and then get stuff together. “Really?” he said. “You don’t even want to take a moment after that? You saved her life.”
I shook my head. “I don’t even really know CPR or mouth to mouth,” I said. “I just wish someone else who knew what they were doing had been around.”
“You DID know what to do,” he said. Then he gave me a hug. “I’m proud of you.”
That was the first time I felt it. That weird disconnect, feeling like I shouldn’t take credit for something so big, much bigger than me. I was there, I did what I could. But it all felt very fragile, like if I even talked about it too much she’d be back in the water, facedown, punishment for making it about me. I honestly still feel weird, two days later, sitting here at my home in NC, writing this. Which also feels strange, and like I’m making it my story, not hers. But writing is how i deal with my world. I needed this, even if I don’t post it. Maybe it will take that image of her face when I first rolled her over in the water, blue and dead-looking, out of my mind each time I close my eyes. P is okay. She’s in the hospital, probably released in next couple of days, and that’s how I want to think of her. I am hopeful time will make it happen. I am good at revising, both on and off the page. If I can, I will clip that image, delete it, forget. But I will also take that CPR class I’ve been putting off forever. Because you never know.