My son, he is floating away. He can’t swim, he’s only 3. The water is cold, my hands are numb. I’m not sure how long I can hold on. I’m afraid we are going to die. I may have just killed my son.
I’ve relived this nightmare in my dreams more than I care to remember. Every time I get near open water with my children it starts rushing back and paralyzes me. You would think that even though it happened early in his life that my son would have no recollection of it but he reminds me of it every time he sees a canoe which makes it much harder.
August of 2008. We spent a weekend in Canada at a friend’s cabin on a lake I didn’t know. My wife and I went out with Adam in the canoe, circled once around the island and came back. On the other side of the island is where it got choppy and windy. Luckily, with both of us in there we made it back.
When I suggested another time around my wife bailed (this is why she is the smart one) and I continued on determined to keep the fun going. I wouldn’t say that I am generally a risk taker. What I was trying to do was create a lasting memory with my son. I learned the hard way that sometimes we need to not force a memory.
When we passed the island, the wind was too much for one person. It kept pushing the canoe in the opposite direction and we started to drift. I worked at trying to get back but it was no use. My arms were tired, the wind was winning and I tried to readjust myself in the canoe.
That’s when the canoe tipped. I had no life jacket but Adam did. I saw Adam floating away and reached out.
When I was younger I was a camp counselor and we did some canoeing. We used to teach the campers to tip the canoe in the pond and get it back to shore. This memory came back to me as I reached out and grabbed the back of his life jacket and wrestled Adam back into the center of the canoe while it swamped.
I tried to keep him calm, telling him to hold onto the boat. I grabbed the far side with my arms on either side of him. Then I just prayed. I prayed someone would hear me screaming for help as we drifted further out into the lake.
No matter how hard I kicked toward the shore, the island got farther and farther away. I prayed for God to keep us safe and to protect Adam. I prayed that Adam would be safe even if it meant I didn’t make it. My arms were waning, the water frigid, my hands were becoming numb. I didn’t know how much longer I could hold on. Was I going to die? What would happen to Adam?
I could only hope someone back on the island would realize that we had been gone too long. I am not sure how long we were out there or when exactly my sandals, the paddle, and my seat cushion floated away. I scanned the water for someone, anyone and spotted a boat to my left and tried to flag them down. But two heads bobbing in the water is hard to see in a fast moving boat and they went right past us.
I continued to talk to Adam while trying in vain to scream for my wife. The wind was too strong and we were just too far away. Every time I screamed so did Adam and when he was screaming “Mommy!” and crying it broke my heart over and over again. I tried to reassure him as he sobbed inches from my face. I told him that it would be okay and that we would just wait for Mommy. No one could hear us. No one could see us. No one was coming.
I was tired after holding onto the boat to keep him inside. My hands were aching and numb, like holding on to an edge and you know you can’t let go. What seemed like forever finally came to an end when I heard boats in the distance firing up. I saw a boat on the horizon that seemed like a speck canvassing the water. I took my red baseball hat off, the only thing that didn’t float away and waved it in the air as high as I could reach trying to get their attention.
Bobby, my wife’s friend, came to our rescue after 10 minutes of searching, he spotted us. He pulled Adam and I into the boat and back to shore with the canoe in tow. I felt like the worst dad in the world. I had almost killed my son.
Adam was traumatized and shivering and all I could think of was whether it was God who answered my prayers or just the common sense of my wife and her friends that we were gone far too long. It’s a memory that I would rather not relive but every time I see a canoe or get near open water, my mind gets the better of me.
While we were trying to warm my son up, I attempted to lighten the mood by remarking how much of the lake was in his swim diaper. That’s when my 1-year-old daughter rolled off the bed and knocked her head on the ground. My wife and I just looked at each other and shook our heads. That’s when it hit me that anything can happen with kids and that it was part of life to deal with tough times.
We don’t really talk about it anymore. Adam now says “Remember the time you tipped the canoe? and we can laugh it off because we survived. I try not to think about it because it gives me a terrible feeling in my gut to this day. It was every parent’s worst nightmare come true and I lived to tell about it.
I’ve been much more level headed since then, maybe too careful at times because when I think about the possibility of something going wrong, this comes to the forefront. I make it a point to always wear a life jacket which admittedly was beyond stupid. I’m lucky to be alive.
Part of overcoming my fear has been to get out in boats again with my son, though that fear is still there for me. Trying to overcome that mistake has been a long road for me but I am trying not to let it define me because of a bad decision once when he was little. I thought I was in control. I thought that I was being an awesome dad.
No one is infallible when it comes to making decisions. You must consider that sometimes things will be beyond your control. Not letting that fear control me is the hardest part but sometimes I remind myself that I just need to get back in the boat.
A version of this first appeared on DadNCharge.