By Beth Price
I used to think I wouldn’t be that mom who would run her kid’s stuff to school because he irresponsibly left it on the kitchen counter. I thought I wouldn’t be that mom who absent-mindedly forgot appointments, or delivered her children late to rehearsals and practices. I didn’t think I would be that mom who would argue with her kids about something as trivial as the way they wanted to wear their hair. And I never, ever thought that I would be that mom whose child would die while in her care, because she wasn’t watching him closely enough in the moment that mattered most.
Seth was our third child, eighteen months younger than his sister Chloe and five years younger than his brother Jacob. He was our first who had colic, who wouldn’t sleep, who thought poop made excellent brown modeling clay. He couldn’t say his ‘r’s (as in wat-ee for water, show-ee for shower, ca-ee for car). He seemed unusually adept at running and climbing for a child so young, often leaving his older brother and sister in the dust. He was also our last baby, and was given all the spoiling and coddling that traditionally goes along with that place in the family. With his white-blond buzz cut and eyes the color of the sky, more than one stranger had stopped us to say how beautiful he was. We were all madly in love with him. Of all the accidents that are common in children, drowning was the one I thought could never happen to any of mine. After all, watched children don’t drown. How sure I had been of the bullet-proof nature of my parenting. How I had judged others who had made the same mistake that I would soon make myself.
When Seth escaped our fenced back yard one summer evening when he was two, it took him no time at all to find the neighbor’s swimming pool. We noticed his absence right away and began the search, called 911. Then, finally, my husband Steve found him. Steve is a physician, and was a good first responder. He felt a faint pulse briefly, but Seth’s heart had gone into a fatal arrhythmia. His blue eyes turned to blackness and I knew our baby was gone.
That evening, we were visited by a police detective and a social worker. They questioned Steve and me individually about what had happened. Seth’s death certificate stated the cause of death was accidental drowning. But five weeks later, we received a report from our local department of family and children listing each of us as perpetrators: me, Steve, and Seth’s brother and sister. The social worker concluded that Seth’s death occurred because of a lack of supervision by his mother. There, on the report, was the word “negligent,” written about me.
In the weeks that followed, I began to imagine everyone staring at me, judging me as that terrible mom who let her little boy drown. I began to doubt my ability even to put together a decent lunch for my older son, as leaving the house to get groceries seemed to be an insurmountable hurdle. Another problem was that Seth’s bedroom was right next to ours. For a while, we couldn’t go into it or even look inside it. When I finally ventured in, I never wanted to leave. His smell still clung to his things—his blanket, his pillow, his shoes.
Grief crept into every system of my body. Physical symptoms of chest tightness, shortness of breath, and stomach pain accompanied the mental anguish. I felt tired all the time, but instead of sleeping my mind ran an endless loop of video replaying the events of that day. Bargaining with God did nothing to change the outcome. Take me instead, I would beg. But each time it was the same: I was still here and Seth was gone.
During at least the first year after Seth died, social situations were awkward at best. People didn’t know what to say to us, so often they avoided us completely. Those brave enough to come around would fill the silence with words. Some of the words were meant to comfort but didn’t. “He’s in a better place,” may even have been true, but we were selfish. We wanted him here with us. Most of the words were meant to distract; talk of the weather, sports, celebrity gossip. All we really wanted to talk about was Seth and how much we missed him. We wanted to tell and retell the story of what had happened. Maybe if we said it out loud enough times, it would finally begin to sink in. We wanted people just to listen to us and not offer platitudes or quote scripture.
Occasionally a word or two would slip out that revealed something more of what was lurking beneath the surface: blame, judgment. One example: a neighbor reminded us (as if we could have forgotten) that Seth had run away from us across the street twice in the days preceding his death. Escaping had become his strongest ambition. On those two occasions, we had been right behind him realizing immediately what had happened. He was stealthier on the third attempt, waiting for that perfect moment when the entire family had let down their guard. The neighbor said, “Just think of it this way: you were there for him 97 out of 100 times,” marking down our score once for each of the escapes he had made. The fact is, we were there for him 100 out of 100 times, just too late that last time.
Learning to cope with the judgment of others like neighbors and social workers has been only half the battle. After a while, you learn to disregard the opinions of those whose agenda includes anything other than moving forward toward healing. As it turns out, the real difficulty has been in accepting my own part in Seth’s death and learning to forgive myself.
After group therapy, many tears, anti-depressant medications, and the support of family and friends, ever so slowly we all began to feel better. We could make small talk. Laughter came more easily. Our friends tell us it took about three years for them to recognize us again.
Though there were no charges filed against me, I am culpable in the death of my son because I was careless. While Seth’s death was never deemed a crime, there is judgment and there is indeed a punishment.
It’s true: I am that mom whose child died in a drowning accident. I am also that mom who knows bad things happen to the very best of moms.
While others may judge me, I am that mom who has learned to extend grace to other mothers like me who need it. I am that mom who, together with my husband, has held this family together through crisis. I am that mom who loves her children beyond all reason and takes nothing for granted. I am that mom who perseveres no matter what, drawing from the strength gained by enduring what I thought I never could.