I was afraid of the deep end of the pool for most of my formative years.
I never passed level 3 swim lessons because I wouldn’t dive into the deep end of the pool. I would sit on the end of the diving board, cross my arms over my chest, and cry while my frustrated coach stood on the sidelines, begging me to take the leap and try. After about fifteen deadlocked minutes, she would relent, and allow me to crawl back to safety, clinging to the wobbly board as though it were my last link to salvation.
I didn’t know what was down there, lurking in the 12 foot-deep, chlorine-rich water. The water was much darker than the shallow end. The waves from jostling limbs made the water ripple like taunting laughter. The dark blue water was home to a monster—I wouldn’t even dangle my toes in it. It’s an almost comical twist that years later, I became the manager of my high school swim team in a desperate attempt to rack up some extracurricular activities for my college applications after a knee injury sidelined my athletic career for good.
I was out in the lobby drawing up timing sheets for the new head coach, so I didn’t see what happened. I didn’t see our coach pull her limp body from the pool. After the initial commotion, I slipped out the side door to flag down the oncoming ambulance, shivering as the biting flakes of the first snow of the year landed on my skin. Steam rose off the water as the November air clashed with the steamy humidity of the pool deck. It settled like a fog over the linoleum.
I only looked at her once. Her arms spread out crucifix-style. Her lips had turned blue. Dark blue, like the deep end of the pool.
I didn’t know her. Maybe I passed her in the hall once or twice, her face drifting along amidst a sea of other faces. I can’t even picture her because the only time I ever saw her was when she was laying on the slick tile of the pool deck and her lips were blue.
I don’t know if there is some sort of standard regulation to follow when something like that happens – if there is some code to abide by, when death abruptly snatches a seventeen year old girl out of the deep end of the pool. I don’t know what to say to people who are sobbing over the loss of someone. Over the next few days the swim team struggled to understand how their sanctuary had become a tomb, how someone so young could be whisked away so fast, and remembered how excited the girl had been to start her first year as a member of the high school swim team, and wondered how it could go so horribly wrong?
They sent one of those standard pre-printed letters home with us the day after, about how grief counselors would be available for kids to talk to, and friends were welcome to attend a memorial service and would not be penalized for missing classes. My mom asked me if I was okay (of course I was) and if I wanted to talk about it (I said I was fine). Because what was I going to say? That I have the image of a girl’s dark blue, oxygen-deprived lips stuck in my head?
What do you say when you don’t know how you feel? When you know that it doesn’t matter how affected you are by some traumatic event, because the fact of the matter is, a girl lost her life – you didn’t know her, and others are grieving around you and you are useless to help then and you don’t even have the right to grieve a loss that isn’t yours.
I didn’t say anything. I went to practice the next day, put in the lane lines, sat in the lobby and did my homework, and wondered how long it would take for the monsters in the deep end of the pool to go away.