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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21 thoughts on “When My Son Was Three He Almost Drowned”

  1. My eldest almost drownded when he was five. I’m not a strong swimmer, but when I saw him floundering (my back had been turned for *seconds* and he fell off his noodle in too-deep water) the adrenaline took over. You never know if you’ll have the strength to save someone. I can assure you that when it’s your kid, yes you can. He was a hesitant swimmer for years; now he body boards in the ocean confidently. And I still worry.
    .-= Kris Bordessa´s last blog ..Lilikoi Gingerade =-.

  2. So, so scary. Thank goodness the splash was heard by Pierre. When my son was about 5, the same kind of thing happened when he was standing on a dock and reached for something. My cousin dove in instantly and got him out. We’ve never forgotten that. A split second can make all the difference in the world, and that’s what is so frightening about small children being left alone near the water.
    .-= Sheryl´s last blog ..5 Simple Steps to Better Health =-.

  3. Oh Jennifer. I am so glad he was ok. We’ve had our share of scares with our kids too and you never really forget it or the sheer terror associated with it.

  4. So glad Etani was OK!

    This very important article made the rounds on FB a few months ago.


    “Drowning doesn’t look like drowning.”

    Scared me to read it, but it’s important.

    I also fell in a pool when I was 2, and I am not a very confident swimmer. I do think I retained the memory of that somewhere deep inside. Our children have all (except for the baby) learned to swim quite early, and I always feel slightly better once I know they would be know how to at least stay afloat for a little bit should they fall in.
    .-= Christine @ Origami Mommy´s last blog ..End-of-summer sewing =-.

  5. That must have been horrifying!I’m so glad that Etani is okay. Thank you for sharing this. My youngest niece has had two near-misses at different pools and your post is such a good reminder of the dangers of pools to kids.
    .-= Jesaka´s last blog ..You Know You

  6. I love that photo at the bottom!!!!

    But, oh, what a story! It gave me goosebumps. My daughter-in-law, in LA, wants a pool. I know how dangerous they can be. I hope they do not get their pool.

    I know this remark will be really out there, but I think I drowned in another life. I have never been a good swimmer and do not feel comfortable in the water. I think that when you have had this experience, as Etani did, you remember it somehow in your unconscious. It’s a feeling of suffocating. So, if he is hesitant near water, remember why, and give him extra time …
    .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..Pearls =-.

  7. Why are young humans so helpless and incautious about water? Why did natural selection not force us to evolve a better way of surviving around water?

    When my daughter was five, we were camping with friends at a site with a funky little old concrete pool with stairs that led down to the ‘shallow’ end. I chatted with the other mom by the poolside while my daughter put on her goggles and started confidently down the steps. As I watched, she stepped down off the last step on to the bottom, which was well over her head. She looked up at me through the water with a puzzled expression, then started mouthing words. Before I could react, my friend reached down and hauled her out with one hand. “Thanks,” my daughter said. I asked her what she was trying to say to me. She replied, “I was saying: ‘Dad, it’s too deep!”

  8. When I was 20, a friend of mine drown in a rock quarry. He said he knew how to swim, but I later found out he had recently learned. He didn’t dive off a cliff or anything. He just swam out to the middle and then slowly sank. My friend dived after him and brought him to the surface, he couldn’t be resuscitated.

    It was scary because it happened to an adult, and no alcohol or any reckless behavior was involved, it was a sunny afternoon. The paramedics said that adults drown easily if they aren’t strong swimmers. They can become overwhelmed and confused…

    So scary Jennifer! I cried after reading this post. Thanks for the reminder. My eight month old is all over the place now, and I need to remember to keep the 5 gallon bucket of detergent tightly closed now!

  9. My parents lost their first son to drowning (in the backyard pool) when he was three years old. It happened before I was born but it haunts me every day of my life, even more so now that I have children of my own. “95% of parenting is keeping your kids alive” That is so true and so scary. I did not know true fear before becoming a mother.

  10. My son “drowned” a month before his 2nd birthday. I say “drowned” because he survived. I found him face-down and lifeless in his grandparent’s pond one spring afternoon. We were all outside doing yardwork…4 adults and him. Everyone assumed he was being watched by someone at all times. Never make this assumption. When we found him he was blue, completely unconscious, and his heart had stopped beating. Thank God my father-in-law who is an Emergency Room physician was there was able to revive him, otherwise I wouldn’t have my sweet boy today. He was trasnported to the nearest hospital and didnt’ regain complete consciousness for over an hour. He was hypothermic, and they think this is what saved him from having brain damage. He is now 3 years old and afraid of water, although he has no recollection of the event. Thank God. My heart goes out to any mother who loses a child. I felt that pain, and would never wish that upon my greatest enemy.

  11. My then 18 mo. old almost drowned at a childs pool. It had life guards (thank goodness) and they saved him. I turned my back for *seconds* and was watching my oldest child to make sure he was safe. I heard a splash and a lifeguard came up and handed me my lil’ boy. He was RIGHT beside me. I have never felt more worse then that day. My baby could have drowned right under my nose. He is only 2.5 now and he does not know how to swim but we plan to put him in lessons when he is old enough. My son doesn’t seem to be hesitant from his past experiences and I think he’ll do fine in the water.

  12. That is so sad Celia. Part of this story that I left out was that before my good college friend was born, her older brothers were walking home from elementary school on a snowy day in Ithaca, New York. Knocking snow off the maples with sticks and chasing each other through the trees, they took a short cut across the ice. But the ice wasn

  13. That is so heartbreakingly scary Adriana. I’m so glad he was okay and that your FIL was there to help. When I lived in Niger when I was in my 20s (years before I dragged my family there) a tow-headed toddler fell in the pool at his house. Unlike Pierre, his nanny didn

  14. That is so scary, Christina. I often get anxious when I am right there, since I know that these kind of accidents can happen so quickly. Thankfully he was okay. One day in Niger when the kids were swimming in a friend’s pool and the grownups were chatting, my friend Dina jumped into the pool fully clothed. Her son was under the water and she thought he was drowning. He was perfectly fine and puzzled as to why his mother was all of a sudden by his side. But you can never be too vigilant. My kids love to swim and I love water, but it also really scares me.
    .-= Jennifer Margulis´s last blog ..Big Island on a Budget =-.

  15. So sorry for your son’s scary experience and your family’s and the pool man’s fright. And for your friend’s family’s devastating loss. And for all who have experienced this loss or near loss. I live in Ithaca and your friend’s sad story resonated a little more deeply from that coincidence. My sister and I almost drowned together in the ocean ~8 & 6, respectively. We were trying to get to the “blue” water at low tide and stepped off a shelf. I was in distress but my sister was really going under. I remember trying to help her but I really couldn’t keep us both up, struggling as I was. I was able to keep screaming intermittently – she could not – and finally an adult came and got my sister. The woman took my sister in – maybe after getting me firmly on the shelf again? – so I guess I was OK, more in jeopardy from trying to help my sister. I honestly can’t remember how I got in. It ended well and I’m a decent swimmer now, but I’ve never gotten comfortable keeping my face in the water. I will never leave my twin boys, now 7 yo, in or at the water alone. The drowning piece that was linked was frightening to read, but so important to know. I know I am more informed and alert for my own children and others (kids or adults) whenever I’m around water now. May we keep our little ones safe while we nurture them and encourage their independence.

  16. Thank you so much for sharing your story. My oldest child, now 13, “drowned”(at 20 months) in the bath tub which I had forgotten to drain after she had been full dressed and I was on to making breakfast. It is horrifying how quickly daily routine can turn into disaster.

  17. In Alaska we used to have so many drownings until the “Kid’s don’t float campaign” that offers loaner life jackets tons of lakes and other bodies of water along with a huge PR campaign to get kids into life jackets. With so many subsistence activities being on the water and in boats is a matter of survival for villagers in many of our communities. The water is so cold even strong swimmers can succumb quickly. This campaign has saved many lives. I’d like to see it nationwide. Thank you for the story it is a message that needs to get out for our kids future!

  18. These are all chilling stories – I never knew until this summer that drowning happened so quickly and silently. We spent so much time unsupervised at family/friends’ pools growing up that after reading through these comments, I wonder if it’s a miracle my friends and I are still alive.
    .-= Casey´s last blog ..GUEST POST- Duck Hunting- Eating My Religion =-.

  19. So glad to be beyond that stage/age where kids have to be watched like hawks in the water. Totally nerve wracking. Where I grew up, in Oz, kids learn to swim well and very young because there is water, water everywhere.

    I love that quote from your dad: 95 percent of parenting is keeping your child alive! Words of wisdom from the generation ahead of us.
    .-= sarah henry´s last blog ..New School Food Study- Victory for Alice Waters =-.

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