I've left this space alone for months now, but not because there was nothing to say. There was too much, and I couldn't find a place to start.
I've found a place now.
It was a hotel, one with an indoor water park attached. It was going to be the perfect mini-getaway for Emma and me, rolled into the long Fourth of July weekend. We needed a break, and we needed it badly.
We walked down what felt like the world's longest hallway to get there, Emma tugging my hand impatiently. I'd told her we were going to swim, and though she didn't know where the pool was, she was on a mission to find it. When we did, and pushed open the heavy double doors, her face lit up. It was all I could do to get her flip flops off before she darted for the shallow water.
I followed her, because I always follow her.
If she's in the water, I'm in the water.
There was a lazy river, a pool, and a play structure with stairs, water slides, sprinklers and hidey holes. Em bee-lined for the stairs, but hesitated at the top of the slide. I stood below, coaxing her down. Nothing doing. She turned away.
The next time, I held her hand as she came down. And then she was off. Pattern formed. She'd climb up-- pausing every time to duck down and stick her face in the sprinkler on the steps-- and slide down. The steps were on the opposite end from the slide, and I realized quickly that if I followed her up, I wasn't there when she came down.
So I found a spot where I could see her going up and coming down. She'd grin at me as she splashed past to go again. We were having a great time.
I watched her duck yet again, and she stayed down a little longer this time. I stepped forward, knowing I'd see her creating a traffic jam on the stairs, face in the water.
But she wasn't there.
I took another step forward, hurrying now, twisting to see the top of the steps. I ran up to see if she was at the top.
She wasn't there.
I ran back down, around the whole structure, checking every face I passed, searching frantically for the one-shoulder paisley swimsuit with the pink flower. I looked at the sitting area, where we'd put our towels.
And she still wasn't there.
The panic was choking me, and I was going to grab a lifeguard and start screaming, even though my throat felt too thick to form words.
Then I saw her, directly across from me. In the pool.
She can't swim.
I ran, and I jumped in, and I grabbed her to me, squeezing until she struggled free. My tears probably looked like the drops of water on anyone else's face. The water was four feet deep where she went in. She could touch bottom ... but she didn't know that.
Probably you've heard some of the news stories, right? The tragic stories about some of the autistic children who've wandered and then drowned? If you've read them, maybe you've read some of the commentary from people who say "their parents should have watched them". People who blame in the face of tragedy, because-- well, no, I don't know why. Does it make them feel like better parents to shame someone else?
Here's the thing. If you know me, I hope you think I'm a good mom. My friends-- yes, even the ones who have autistic children themselves-- tease me for tending toward overprotective. I am not the mom lounging in the sun at the pool while my girl splashes in the water.
If she's in the water, I'm in the water.
And this still happened. My phone was in the hotel room. I wasn't chatting with a friend. I wasn't half-watching from a chair. I was there. I was right there. And I still lost her. It was maybe 30 seconds-- the longest of my life, by far-- but it could have been forever. Change a few of the variables-- the depth of the water, how quickly I noticed, how quickly I found her ... and the outcome is the unthinkable that so many other families have already experienced.
It could have been us. It could have been Emma.
The moral of the story here isn't how lucky we were. It's how quickly it happened. How quickly it can and does happen. To good moms who are paying attention, even. I never read one of those stories and thought "those awful parents"-- I always thought of Emma's affinity for water, and how stealthy and quick she is when she really wants something. And now it will hit even closer to home, because I've experienced the threat of that same loss.
It could have been Emma.