My answer to What is the most heroic thing you have done?
Answer by Enna Morgan:
A drowning man may clutch at a straw…..or drag you under by your hair.
I was eleven years old, couldn’t swim to save my life! We were in a pool with family friends. One of which was a boy, who was developmentally delayed (sorry, I don’t know the current politically correct term, it changes so often!). He really should not have been left in the pool, but there we were! His sister, who was about 17 years old, was our chaperone and swim teacher, but she was off chasing her own objectives – showing off her breast-strokes (if you get my drift!), to the lifeguard.
The pool was shallowest at 2 feet, and deepest at 7 feet. It was the kind of pool that began at 2 feet, sloped gently to 4, and then right at that 4 ft edge, took a serious downward death-drop into 7 feet. I call it a death-drop because the average person is 5 ft. 5 inches, and not too many folks get up to 7 feet in height. So for most of the world’s population, if you stand on that edge and happen to lose your balance, well, welcome to some water snorting hell, hope you like chlorine, thanks for dropping in (literally)!
I am really not sure why I had stayed in the pool, I actually wanted to leave, being aqua phobic and all, but we could not do so until ‘The Madame’ decided it was time, or until her brother decided that he was done beating out his anxieties on the water.
He was older than me, by about 3 years, and taller too, so like most children I had a fascination for things/ people older and taller than me. I watched him from a safe distance, maybe out of awe, maybe out of curiosity; I am not sure the impetus behind just staring at him. Hey, I was eleven, at that age we are not required to have rational or justifiable behaviour.
I stayed at the 3.5 feet marker, just where the water came close to my panic zone – chest-height; anything above that and I go into full-blown panic: screaming, thrashing wildly, hyperventilating, you-don’t-even-want-to-se
e-it hysteria. When I was eight, my uncle used to throw me into the middle of the river and laugh maniacally as I gag, deplete the river by swallowing half its volume, and struggle my way out of it. He called it teaching me to swim. I called him Satan on crack! Anyway, I developed water-on-my-face-phobia.
o here I was, chilling on the safe side of town, watching this brave boy explore the length and breadth of the pool. He had started this interesting game of zig-zagging his way across and down the pool; I observed intently, thinking that perhaps this was a new way to develop one’s aquatic skill. The game started to get more interesting as he zigged his way over to the 4 feet end, as I knew that he would have to zag back to where it would be that teetering edge that will slide you down to where no non-swimmer like me would dare to go.
Sure enough, he waded expertly (well, more like a 600 pound gorilla at Mickey Mouse’s tea party), got to the opposite wall at 4 feet, and started to make his way back. I remember marveling to myself at his bravado, and thinking that I had no idea he was such a good swimmer. So now I was quite engaged at this show of machismo. His feet were not on the ground, so I was even more impressed – the boy was actually swimming!
Now, let’s back up a moment and clarify some things. Remember that I had no idea how to swim, this meant that I also had no idea what swimming looked like. All I knew was that the chappie was not touching ground, so in my mind, he was swimming. In fact, as far as I could tell, home-boy was now diving! So now I was quite mesmerized (clearly didn’t take much to impress me back then).
He went down in slow motion, and came up with nice strong strokes (at least I thought they were). He caught a breath of air, blew some bubbles, and went back down. Now we’re cooking! He stayed down a little longer this time, and I thought “Wow! He can hold his breath under water, too!”
But then he came up looking not so good. Yes, I guess holding your breathe can do that, understandably so! But just for the assurance, I thought I’d look around to see if his sister was noticing, as she would be my gauge as to if this was good swimming or not. She was nowhere in sight.
He was moving not so swift now, as he seemed to have lost his steam. And I was starting to wonder if this really was swimming. His strokes seemed erratic; some were panicked and some were lazy. I noticed that he gulped more than a mouthful of water and did not seem to know quite what to do with it. That action was so very familiar to me. Panic struck me hard, like a bad bass chord on audition night. It was as if I was having the experience all over again. Vicariously, my adrenal glands gave me a booster adrenalin shot, which popped instantly to my mouth – yum, gun-metal!
He went down a third time. It was like watching your pet gold fish pull its last gulp of air through weak gills, but flagellate with the futile effort of getting it back out. As with all things physics, what goes in, must come out, and out it would attempt to do – through the eyes. Then the fish would sink slowly to the bottom of the bowl, rolling over in the descent, hit the bottom, and float back up at a sloth’s pace; belly-up.
My heart began racing, I looked around to yell for someone, but there was no one around. I was alone, and this boy was drowning. Something in my brain just knew that his were no marvel strokes; he was taking in water faster than Flight 1549 in the Hudson. I started wading towards him, hesitantly, yet resolutely. I had one small problem, which banged in my head like a snare drum – I had no idea what to do. He was beyond my comfort zone, and I could not swim!
I tried grabbing his arm, but he was thrashing around so wildly that I could not reach him. I moved closer to the edge, I could feel my heart pounding fiercely against my not-fully developed breast bone, and the percussive beat in my head pounded out the signal: get out! I got another mouthful of metal as my brain prepared my body for flight; yet foolishly, I was preparing for fight.
I started crying (natural body’s response to trauma) as for the first time in my life, I was witnessing someone dying, and I was totally helpless to stop it; yet, I knew that I had to do something. I inched dangerously closer to the edge. The water circled and splashed dangerously under and around my nose, and the water’s weight combined with the flurry of movement tipped me backward. That was not good, at least not for me; for the boy, yes…..maybe.
At eleven years old, my hair was about 18 inches in length; lovely, thick, ebony, Pocahontas-like strands, which on the water’s surface, fanned out like a peacock’s fanfaronade in mating season. It floated aimlessly around me and towards the boy. I was too engaged in this life or death battle to be aware or concerned with this, but he wasn’t. They say that a drowning man would clutch at a straw, but they did not tell me about hair.
He snatched a handful of the ebony, silky life-line and yanked as if his life depended on it (and it did). My back arched, my head went back under the water’s surface, arms went up, in what may have looked like a rain dance of the Hopi Indians, and below me, one foot left the ground. I lost my footing. If I could have seen myself, I believe that I perhaps would be looking like Keanu Reeves in the scene where he had his first encounter with the forces of evil. I was now underwater, a dangerous place for me, both mentally and physically – panic city!!
I screamed a gurgling type of sound, the kind one makes when the throat is working overtime to keep water from sliding down into forbidden territory – the lungs. I flopped and flailed, as he held on to my hair to save his own life. I tried to knock his hand off, but his fingers were intertwined with my hair, and he was behind me. The water’s weight pushed me backward, as he pulled me further from the death-drop edge, and away from life. I had never before had to fight for my life. I had no such skills.
I have heard it said that when you are about to die, your life flashes before you. Well, either my life was too short to have any full length of flash-by scenes, or my brain was too occupied with survival to entertain any flashbacks. The only thing on my mind was maintaining balance on that one leg that was still on the precipice of hope – the death-drop edge.
My lungs were becoming belaboured as I was sucking air and water like an airplane toilet, and making that exact sound. The boy had meanwhile worked himself closer to me, and was consumed with wrapping himself around me. It was like a death battle between man and a monstrous octopus, quite similar to the opening scene of the movie Jaws, where the behemoth’s intention was drowning its victim while the victim fought valiantly to remain above water, flopping, gasping and beating at empty air, and innocent water.
Then somewhere amidst this death-smelling duel entered the sweetest of sound. It was music to my ears; the voice of an angel.
It was clear that I had kicked the bucket and was in Heaven, as through the clear blue water, I could see a rippling face, framed by the golden cascade of hair from a celestial being. It was a seraph. It was Susan! She had come back!
With the grace and gumption of Esther Williams, she dove into the water. And with just two swishes, and the lightning speed of a mermaid, she was upon the boy, grabbing him from behind and working on his hands to disentangle them from my hair. It took what seemed like eternity; he was not about to easily surrender the line that had supplied him life and hope in his darkest of moments.
Then suddenly the albatross was gone, and I was left frozen in an arched position, still hovering precariously at the water’s edge; alone. Yeah, nice people!
Not having my head pulled backwards was a relief, but I was still on pointe, on the toes of one foot (barely), struggling against the water’s might, to regain my balance and right myself to the safer side of life. Time stopped, my breathing ceased, my heart slowed, my limbs stopped flailing, and even nature observed the reverence of the moment; the water stilled. The battle was over.
With yogic calmness and reserve, I slowed all functions to meditate (intuitively, not cognitively). And ever so slowly, in a Matrix-like fashion, I purposefully lifted my body against the water, drawing on every nerve and sinew to attend to the task, and placed the other foot back on the pool bed. The rest was relatively easy. With the adroitness of a ballerina I brought my body erect, gained better footing, and feebly made my way to the sanctity of the wall (which I hugged for a very long time) to give thanks to the deities for this deliverance.
Or maybe I was just standing still to suppress the urge to find the boy and throttle him….or his sister, or someone! But somewhere inside I knew that the best use of my energy was to appreciate just being alive.
For days, months, years, even up to today, I look back and wonder why I had not called for help in those moments that I fought for my own life. I think that my body went into conservation mode, perhaps fearing that the slightest movement would upset the delicate balance. And given the fact that we were clearly abandoned by the chaperone, I think my brain (rightly so) erred on the side of caution where trust was concerned, and chose to concentrate all energies to the aim of saving myself rather than wasting it with screaming, thereby tipping me on the losing side of this tryst with death.
I learnt two valuable things that day:
(1) I realised that I needed to get past that aqua-phobia, and learn how to swim. And I did (check!) It took me some years, but I joined the YMCA and taught myself to swim (never learned the breast stroke though).
(2) I learned that when life hovers precariously on the brink of finality, we as humans (most of us, I believe) will endanger our own lives to save another human (or other life-form). The reason for that seemingly irrational act was (and still is) unclear, and I’ve pondered it since that day.
Interestingly though, not so long ago, I heard something that illuminates that predisposition. I often listen to talks by Tai Lopez, and in one of them he mentioned that (he read) it has been theorised that courage is not coincidental or accidental, but that it is genetically determined.
Specifically, according to Mr Lopez, “The likelihood that you will jump in a pool to save a stranger is genetic.” The good news then is that I am genetically engineered for courageous acts. The bad news? That’s frightening! Especially if I lack the skill in that particular area in which I may arbitrarily get a hankering to be the Good Samaritan.
Though it is nice to know that I will not just be an ineffective lump doing nothing when someone is in need, it is also quite scary to learn that I am prone to playing Super(wo)man. I guess then I must get to work on my superhero skills, right?
Great! I have more work to do. But first, let’s get our priorities right. I need a cape.