Cold. The water was cold. It laced between my fingers and toes, curled through my hair and raced down my spine. I opened my eyes into the abyss below me, desperately clawing at the water to find the surface. An orange disk lingered above me, daring me to find that sweet, gasping breath of oxygen. However, the cord tangled around my wrists bound me like a prisoner, too stubborn to give me the option of life or death. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was ten, dressed in a bright orange shirt that matched the melting popsicle in my hand. My mother stood behind me, brushing and braiding my hair as I dug my feet into the sand. Her gentle nurse’s hands skillfully maneuvered the plaits in a way that calmed me, reminiscent of the tender waives that hit the shore line. The blue pop-up awning above us billowed slightly in the wind, and the tents slanted slightly toward the water. Lake Powell is a beautiful place, full of twisting coves and secret swimming places. In the eyes of my ten-year-old self, it was damn near magical. My older sister knelt beside me, building a sand castle and decorating it with Skittles. She hummed as she skillfully sculpted the roof to the tower. My baby brother sat in the play pen next to mom, smiling up at her as she cooed his name.
“Do you want to go swimming?” My older sister asked me as she handed me my life jacket and mom tied the last rubber band into my hair. I hesitated. I’ve never liked swimming.
“Come on. Dad and Uncle Russ are taking the boat. We’re going to swim by the dam.” Shaunna pulled my hand until I followed her onto the boat and we sat waiting for the others. She sloppily helped me rub sunblock on my face, something I always hated. I was jealous of her olive skin, dark curly hair, and brown eyes—how she could spend hours in the sun and never burn. She got it from my mom and her Cherokee Indian heritage. I, on the other hand, took after my father’s Scandinavian side. Pale, freckled, blue eyes, and stick straight auburn hair.
My mother climbed aboard the boat with my baby brother, Kelton, in his car seat. She secured him safely to the seat beside her as he giggled and drooled. The six of us set off to find adventure, though I squeezed the arm of the seat until my knuckles turned white. I tried not to look over the edge of the boat as we stopped, in fear of not being able to see the bottom of the lake. My dad pumped up a gigantic orange disk that was extremely intimidating in my eyes. The side of the tube read “Big Mabel.” I watched with horror as my sister climbed onto it and drifted a ways behind us until the rope pulled taught and pulled her safely behind us. She laughed freely as dad sped up, bumping and jumping over all the waves. I was horrified, but oddly jealous. I wanted to try.
I bravely climbed aboard the bright orange tube and my mother sat behind me since I was still too young to go alone. The dam almost seemed to bloom on the horizon, rising up to meet the clouds and baby-blue sky. I reached out a hand for my mother. My life jacket was almost as tight as her arms around me. I held tightly to the black rope handles as my uncle drove the boat. I did not laugh. I did not smile. It suddenly was not fun anymore. The lump in my throat nearly made me stop breathing.
We went over a large wave and the wind caught us mid-air, flipping us over.
The water was cold. Too cold for such a hot day.
I was trapped under the orange tube, staring down into a black abyss where a few large fish swam peacefully below. I wondered how long it would take before my lungs burst, before I needed air so bad I substituted it for water; the end of the suffering. My wrist was tangled in the handle, and my buoyant life jacket pinned me against the underside of the tube. I couldn’t swim out from under it.
But something switched in my brain. I was suddenly numb and more scared than I had ever been in my life. The water holding my body was cold, but my lungs burned as if they were home to the heat of one thousand fires, as I was never good at holding my breath for longer than thirty seconds. How strange it felt to be suspended, to float between the bottom on the lake and the surface. In the midst of all the terror, I found myself thinking of space. Is this what the astronauts felt like without gravity? Weightless and insignificant against the endlessly unknown? A few giant cat fish swam below me, and I liked to think of them as earth’s version of shooting stars and the eruption of bubbles from their gills as supernovas.
This moment of bliss was interrupted by shooting pain in my rib cage. The edges of my vision went dark, and I realized that this must have been how grandpa felt after losing his vision in Vietnam. I thought of him with his cane and sunglasses. I didn’t want that to be me. I pulled down on the rope that was trapping me and it suddenly snapped as if it were a single strand of hair. When I broke the surface I cried out, desperate for my mother, or anything else that might resemble safety. I wanted out of the water more than I had wanted anything else ever before.
Warm arms circled around me. My mother yelled my name as she pulled me to her. I saw the fear in her eyes and knew she was in a panic to find me as soon as the tube tipped over. I cried against her as the boat circled around and my dad and uncle pulled us on board. Adrenaline was still coursing through me—enough that I was too wired up to blink. I stared at my sister as we drove back to shore. She looked as scared as I felt.
I later learned I had only been underwater for just over a minute. My child mind toyed with the theory of time stopping underwater since the accident had felt so much longer than that. So desolate and lonely, dark, and deep.
Once we were back to safety, my mother, who is a nurse, doctored me up. She listened to my lungs with her heart pressed against my chest to make sure I had not breathed any water. She bandaged my wrist where I sacrificed a few layers of skin and a few drops of blood to be able to break free from the rope. I was bruising all the way down the left side of my body where I had smacked the water upon impact.
I paid no attention to this. My hair was in my eyes and it was poking at my neck. I asked my mom if she would stop bandaging my wounds and braid my hair again. She laughed with relief and hugged me once more.