As he slips below the water, I kick off my shoes. Tucking my socks inside them, I think, “Saving him will be the easy part.” Fully clothed, no towels, I don’t want to get wet. I did not want Caleb to go swimming, but here I am at the end of a stranger’s dock on Long Lake in the middle of April about to dive in after him.
“Come on honey” I plead with Caleb one more time, hoping to stay dry. “You know how to swim. Come to me.”
Sputtering for breath, he manages, “I can’t swim, Mom, my shorts are too heavy.” Perplexed, I watch him slip below again, fighting just to keep his lips above water. Suddenly, I am terrified.
Later I would feel ashamed to remember emptying my pockets. The car keys, a folded tissue, a tampon and a couple of chicklets land safely inside my shoe. My plan is simple: get in, retrieve my 7 year old, and get out.
Rory told Caleb it was okay to swim, but he did not stay around to supervise. In this horrific moment, I am angry at the man who saw a vacant house on the lake, trespassed with his wife and kids, said “yes” to swimming and walked away. I should have protested. I should have stopped him. But I didn’t. I ordered the oldest to watch the youngest on the beach and make sure she didn’t go in past her knees. I delighted in my middle child’s enthusiasm as he tore off his sandals and then ran the length of the dock, pulling off his shirt on the fly. I see his face lit up, joyful. I see him hop up to the diving board and leap toward the water wildly, arms and legs churning in the air.
Now I am watching him drown. Shoes off, pockets empty, it’s time to be the hero.
Confident that a rush of adrenaline will fuel me, I dive in and feel the weight of the nearly frozen lake breaking over my head. A raw chill encases my body. There is no adrenaline, no palpable heartbeat, only numbness and a kind of deep shrinking. My rubber fingers clutch my son’s rubber shoulders. He feels strangely relaxed, completely trusting me. I hold his immobile body close, yet feel tangibly separated, incapacitated by the cold.
I think, “We are both going to die. They will find us, fetal, mother wrapped around son, frozen at the bottom of the lake.”
Where was the super-human strength I was supposed to have to save my son? Why am I so human? So… regular-human, so… not-super-human, so… weak-human?
Emptied of breath, a desperate voice escapes my clenched teeth “kick.”
Caleb says, “I am.” He is not moving. He is still trusting, relying on me.
The 8 feet back to the dock looks like a mile. Beyond the dock, some movement catches my eye. It is my husband running down the hill to our rescue. Moments earlier I would have been glad to welcome my man and watch him work while I stayed dry, but now an angry resolve strengthens me. I kick with force enough to drag our bodies through the heavy water myself.
Caleb is taken to the hot tub to melt away his misadventure. I need to thaw more slowly. I am in shock. Who is this cape-less, shoe-less, belt-less, power-less “hero?” I see myself as from above, lying alone on the dock, translucent and more fragile than I ever imagined. The warm wooden dock holds my shaken frame. Through closed eyes, I see the sun. Tears leak out and run toward my ears. In that moment, I reluctantly accept my secret identity. I am (pause) only human.
I am only human, and today, that is enough.