When My Son Was Three He Almost Drowned

PICT0175Etani will be seven in October. He swims on his own now but this summer he still wanted to wear a lifejacket at the water slides. He likes water but he’s not a confident swimmer.

I wonder if his lack of confidence is because four years ago, when he was three years old, Etani almost drowned.

We had a pool. I didn’t like the idea of a pool but since the average temperature in Niamey, Niger—where we were living at the time—is well over 90 degrees, most rental houses come with pools.

That morning I asked Pierre, the pool guy, if he knew how to swim. Etani was beside him, watching Pierre use a vacuum hose to clean the bottom of the pool. James was in the office paying bills.

“Très bien même,” Pierre answered cheerfully.

I left for work.

When I called later to check in, James said in a very quiet voice, “We had a really bad scare this morning.”

Pierre had gone to turn the pump motor off, leaving Etani alone by the side of the pool. Etani accidentally dropped his change purse into the pool. He grabbed a wooden stick to try to fish out the purse. The stick slipped out of his hand. When he leaned over the edge of the pool to try to retrieve it—or perhaps to watch it sink—he fell in.

One friend, who works in pediatric emergencies, asks rhetorically: “What’s the sound of a child drowning?” Then she says nothing for several seconds.

There are no shouts for help. There are no screams of pain.

There is no blood.

Children drown in complete silence.

But Pierre heard the sound of the splash. He rushed back and hauled Etani out of the pool. Etani was only under for a few seconds. Drenched and scared, he spluttered and coughed, a wet choking sound. James heard it and came running.

When I lived in Niger years before a toddler fell in the pool at his house. His nanny didn’t hear the splash. He drowned.

The first thing we did when we rented that house was to repair the iron gate around the pool. We kept it locked at all times and the kids knew they were not allowed near the pool without a grownup. But we made the mistake that morning of allowing Etani to watch Pierre from inside the pool gate.

My father likes to say that 95% of parenting is keeping your children alive. I used to think he was joking.


We only have one son.

He only has one life.

“You okay?” I asked Etani anxiously when I got home. He was lining up pieces of scrambled egg on his plate.

He gave me a mischievous grin as he squeezed the egg between his finger. Then he looked sad for a moment.

“I almost drowndéd,” he said dramatically with wide eyes, lying his head on my shoulder.

“I’m so glad you didn’t.” I gathered him in my arms, wanting to hold him forever to erase the terrible possibility from both our minds.

He squirmed free.

“Here comes the truck going over the bridge!” Etani cried, zooming a piece of egg into his mouth.

Then he cocked his head to one side and grinned, the way he does when he’s going to do something he knows he shouldn’t.

I wrestled the chunk of scrambled egg away from him, just as he was stuffing it up his nose.

Related posts:
On Missing Niger
Bad Mommy Moments
When a Six-Year-Old Cries
The Great Crayon Cookie Project
No Tears in the Tub

A version of this post first appeared in the Ashland Daily Tidings.

Etani was three, Athena six, and Hesperus seven when we lived in Niger

Etani was three, Athena six, and Hesperus seven when we lived in Niger

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