The Day Our Son Didn’t Drown — Family Stories

Two children play on the steps of a condominium pool in Miami Beach in 1985 with Atlantic in the background. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Peter and Christina at play on the steps of the condominium pool in Miami Beach. Photo by Jon and Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, August 30, 1987

Peter’s body was limp. His eyes were open — wide, dark and blank. They stared, pupils dilated, into a brilliant, cloudless Florida sky.

My husband lay our little son on his back and breathed into his mouth. I pinched his nose closed.

We were swimming in a pool designed for the adults who lived in this Miami Beach condominium. At its shallowest, the pool was four feet deep.

Peter was 4 at the time. Christina was 2. All that week they had played and splashed on the wide steps leading into the pool while Jon and I took turns watching them, catching Christina each time she fell off the steps into water over her head.

That morning as I swam laps at the far end of the pool, Jon ventured away from the steps toward me, carrying Christina on his shoulders. I interrupted my swim to wave to her.

Jon heard noisy splashing behind him. “I almost didn’t turn around,” he said later. “I don’t know what made me look.”

A Boy Face Down in the Pool

What he saw was a frantic Peter, several feet from the steps, face down in the water, thrashing his feet and windmilling his arms, getting nowhere.

The noise stopped. Peter sank to the bottom of the pool.

“Get Peter!” Jon shouted. He began what turned out to be a long walk to the other end of the pool.

I swam to the edge of the pool and ran around it, shouting for help.

Jon fought to reach Peter, who now lay on the bottom of the pool. He willed his legs and body to move faster, but the water was deep — up to his chin — and it resisted him.

Father and 4-year-old son in a condominium swimming pool not designed for children in Miami Beach in 1985 with Atlantic in the background. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Father and 4-year-old son in a swimming pool used mostly by retirees. Photo by Barbara Newhall

He had strayed farther from Peter than he had realized, about 20 feet. He had not reckoned on how difficult it would be to get back to him through deep water holding Christina.

At last, Jon had one hand on Peter. But Peter’s slippery, 40-pound body was limp, dead weight. Jon could not raise him out of the water with one arm.

He dropped Christina. Christina sank. A bystander who had heard our shouts was there to grab her and carry her to safety.

Jon rolled Peter onto the deck at my feet and breathed into his mouth. He paused to let me check for a pulse and breathing.

Peter turned on his side and moaned.

He was alive.

He began to cry. I cradled him in my arms and stroked his head and body. It was 100 degrees in the shade in Miami Beach on that August day, but I held Peter close, trying to warm the life back into him.

We looked around for Christina. She was safe.

Once again I felt mild surprise at her very existence.

The odds had been against Christina from the beginning. It was unlikely, the doctors had told us, that Jon and I would ever bring a child into this hazardous world of automobile traffic and swimming pools.

“I don’t like to give odds,” the infertility specialist had told us.

Jon and I pressed him.

“Well, you might have at best a 20 percent chance of conceiving a baby — if you have the surgery.”

“And if we don’t?”

“Well, nothing is impossible, of course . . . ”

I had the surgery. We waited. We waited some more.

‘Children Aren’t Everything’

“Why don’t you just forget it?” friends had asked. “Children aren’t everything. There are other things.”

Of course there are other things, none of them children.

A friend spent a year in the South Pacific. She brought back a fabulous collection of native art work, paintings, baskets.

But a trip to Bali and mothering a child do not compare. If my children failed to be born, I thought, part of me wold never come alive.

We adopted Peter, and from him I learned that I had been quite right. There is nothing in the world that approaches the love between a mother and her baby, between a father and his son or daughter.

Two years later, Christina was conceived, beating the odds.

The first time I saw her, she looked like a polliwog. She was a wriggling, five-week-old embryo, detected by a sonogram and projected onto a video screen.

Toddler girl Christina in the adult pool at Miami Beach condominium, not designed for children. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Toddler Christina on the pool steps. Photo by Jon and Barbara Newhall

She was alive.

Now, she had only to be be born

Two weeks before she was due, I sat beside our neighborhood swimming pool, reading. Looking at my fat belly, I realized that I hadn’t felt Christina move since — when was it? This morning? Yesterday?

I drove home to call the doctor. Fear surged through my body. I felt weak, then angry.

Could she die now? Just before her birth? She had a name. I had bought new sheets for the crib. She had wriggled and pushed against the confines of my body for months.

Yes, she could die.

My friend Mary’s baby died at birth.

My husband’s sister had been killed by a runaway truck when she was 12 years old.

Two Children Who Didn’t Go Down the Drain

Christina, for reasons I do not understand, did not die.

She lived to be born and to gaze up at me with smiling eyes.

The Florida sun was scorching, but Peter was chilled. He wanted only to lie down. We put him on a chaise and covered him with a heavy towel.

For a long time, I sat and watched him breathe.

Finally, we went back to our condominium. Peter was alert, but not his usual boisterous self.

“Are you OK, Peter?” Jon asked as we waited for the elevator.

Peter shook his head no and murmured, “I’m scared.”

Mr. Rogers sings a happy song for children, reassuring them that nobody — not even a child — is small enough to be swept down the drain with the bath water.

“You can never go down, never go down, never go down, the drain.”

He was wrong. You can.

© 1987 The Oakland Tribune. Reprinted by permission.

More family stories: Our son Peter survived to see his wedding day, an event that presented a sartorial challenge for this mother of the groom. And, as my friends promised, I did indeed go on to discover interests beyond motherhood — my weedy but gorgeous little garden, for one. Not to mention the writing of a book, “Wrestling with God.” Catch a glimpse of the grown-up Christina at Cinefix Now.





  1. Connie Dugger says:

    Told so beautifully. What a scary happening.

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