My 10-Second Nightmare

How long is ten seconds? When you are at a stop light, on hold, or in a doctor’s office, ten seconds is not long. When you are running to grab something falling, or to stop an accident, or to save a life, ten seconds can last a life time.

Ten seconds is how long my nightmare lasts.

I am not talking about a psychotic slasher wielding a chainsaw; or a cold, authoritarian government drilling into my brain; nor a toxic virus decimating society. No, my nightmare begins with a child. Not just any child, but Sierra Coburn.

Sierra was not possessed by demons nor did she bear the omen of evil. She was my student; one of my youngest students. She was perfect; brown masses of curly hair, a sprinkling of freckles, brilliant blue eyes, and sun-tanned skin. Her mother brought her to the pool where I worked years ago. I remember meeting her like it was yesterday.

I was finishing up a class with four preschool-age boys by talking to Bob the Whale. In other words, I was getting them to blow bubbles under water and get their hair wet. But don’t tell them. Between my conversations with Bob the Whale and my wiggling students, I saw out of the corner of my eye, a woman desperately trying to hold onto her squirming toddler.

“Hoooooowwwww Aaarrreeee Yoouuu, Boooob?” I crooned underwater, making sure I exhaled as I said this.

I came up for air. Two of the boys giggled and tried, one dipped his chin in, and the third tried his ear. In the background, the toddler broke free of her mother’s grasp and made a beeline for the pool. She jumped in and sank.

We were in the shallow end, near the steps, but even there, the water is too deep for a small child. I stopped what I was doing and lifted the tot for air. At the same time, Abinov, the lifeguard had blown the whistle and prepared to jump down. I didn’t see him, because I was busy keeping an eye on my four boys.

The mother made apologies and we handed the little girl up to her. I was dismayed to see that instead of tears, only smiles graced her tiny face. Sierra was not afraid of water.

So many children are. I have kids, all ages, who will not put a toe in the water. Some will spend a class clinging to the side of the pool or the steps. Then many who will get in the water, but cannot stand to have their heads under. Also, there are those, and most of them grow up to be adults, who have a fear of the deep. I suppose we all see this; a girl who can swim across the pool in three feet of water but then freezes up at nine feet. I see this as a good thing. It is our instincts keeping us alive.

With time I can help all of these children enjoy the water and swim. It is why I teach swimming. Also, I do not want them to lose what they came to that pool with: respect for the water.

I ended my class with some superheroes rescuing their classmates. In other words, the boys learned how to glide through the water. Then I grabbed my water-proof clipboard and called out the class and the names on the roster. Among those was Sierra, the tot I had just pulled out of the water.

“I’m Jessica Coburn and this is Sierra, who you already met.” Said the mother, “As you can see, she’s very comfortable in the water. She just needs to learn how to swim.”

I looked at Sierra. In her modest little one-piece swim suit, shifting tan lines, and sweet smile she could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. She also couldn’t have been more than two years old.

“We will work on breathing, kicking, and paddling, but she is a bit young to put it all together.” I told Jessica Coburn.

“That’s why we’re here. We have a pool at home and I’ve been working with her on all those things.” While she spoke, Sierra strained in her mothers arms to get into the pool.

“Let’s start by teaching her how to get in a pool, safely.” I suggested. Jessica Coburn let Sierra go, I showed Sierra how to sit on the edge of the pool. She sat down, and swung her round little legs before she plopped into the water. I plucked her from the shimmering depths again.

Her mother began lecturing her. “Now, Sierra, we need to listen to Miss,…” She looked at me.
“Miss Stephanie” I answered. Sierra was back on the side of the pool. I doubted the talk would work. Especially in the wonderful, wet chaos of a public pool. Most of the time using short, direct commands gets better results.

I gathered the other parents and toddlers in a circle, including Jessica Coburn and her daughter Sierra. “This is the Guppies’ Class. In this class you and your child will learn to be comfortable in the water, they will also learn to blow bubbles, get wet, kick, and paddle. However, I find that kids really do not start swimming; putting their heads down and gliding across the pool, until they are three years old. If you wait until your child is three to bring them to the pool; they may be too afraid to step in.”

I handed out floating animals to each pair, the kids immediately grabbed them. One gorgeous little boy stuck his in his mouth and began sucking, much to his father’s dismay. I continued my introduction. “Swimming is not all this class is about. ” I traded the animal for rubber duck, which he also put in his mouth. I assumed he was teething. “There is also pool safety; for everyone, not just the kids.” So the class began. I try to tailor the lesson to each pair, learning what the parent wants and the child’s abilities. It was a good class. The parents were relaxed; therefore the babies were happy.

Jessica Coburn and I worked hard with Sierra. She kept diving under the water. Her legs kicked like a pro and her arms flailing about, but her head sank beneath the surface. Once under water, she kicked furiously, reaching the bottom, rather than the side or her mother. She knew someone would raise her in time, because that was the way it always happened. And I hoped it always would.

I remember blowing bubbles with Sierra; her safely tucked in her mother’s arms and I in front of her. Next, I asked her what her favorite ice cream was. She smiled at her mother, as if expecting an answer. Her mom repeated the question.
“Nilla” Sierra piped. Her little hands, still slightly pudgy with baby fat hid her mouth as she giggled.

“All right! Let’s pretend the pool is filled with vanilla ice cream and we can scoop out as much as we want!”

Together Sierra and I formed little cups with our hands and passed them through the imaginary frozen dessert. Her eyes followed her hands in the water and then she gave her mother a radiant look. After that we scooped chocolate ice cream for her mother and Ube for myself. After a while I left Sierra blowing bubbles with her mother and showed a father how to play Motor Boat-Motor Boat.

At the end of the class, Sierra did not want to leave. I took this moment to ask about their pool at home.

“Is it fenced?”
“Oh yes. Our yard is fenced and we have another fence around the pool.” She assured me, before she added to Sierra. “Aren’t you ready to go home, Sweetie? You look cold.” And indeed, Sierra’s lips trembled through her grin.

“How high is the fence around your pool? Is it locked?” I pressed.

“Not locked, but latched. And it’s a good three feet high. Our dog can’t get over it.”

This answer did not impress me. Any enterprising toddler worth their weight can figure a way over a three-foot high fence.

“That is not high enough for safety. I would recommend installing a six-foot fence.” I suggested.
“Yes, yes.” She said distractedly, “Come on, Sierra, let’s go inside and get warm. The next class is starting.”

It took another few minutes to get Sierra out of the water. I backed down on the safety talk, shelving it for next time.

There was a next time, and a time after that. In fact, I saw Sierra six more times that summer. I wish I could say we made progress, and we did, of a sort. I got her to sit on the side of the pool until it was time to get in, and then she slid on her tummy. She also learned to hold on to the edge of the pool and monkey climb along the rim. Sierra exhaled under water, but more than often, she forgot and came up sputtering and coughing.
Not unusual for her age, Sierra had not started swimming. Another summer and I thought she would master the breathing, gliding, paddling, and kicking enough to make it possibly 15 feet. I know I had not achieved what Jessica Coburn wanted me to; I had tried.

Sierra still showed no fear. I couldn’t even use a kick board without gently holding her hands or arms. She would let go and try to swim to another location on her own. Instead of reaching her destination, her tiny form would sink like a diving ring. Her behavior was dangerous enough, that during the last class I brought out the life jacket.
I usually don’t use these until children are three years old. It works wonders in helping older kids enjoy the deep water. This time, I buckled one on Sierra and explained to the mother the importance of choosing the right one.

“It must be Coast Guard Certified, okay? Because, then Sierra’s head will be supported and it does not have the danger of flipping her over and pinning her upside down. Water wings will do that; please do not use them.”

At first Sierra loved the life jacket and bobbed happily around the shallow end until she figured out she couldn’t get her head wet. Then, the frustration showed. She did not like that! However, her mother’s eyes glowed with inspiration.

“Life jackets are not a substitute for watching children.” I warned.

She glanced at me and said, “No, no, of course not.” her voice lacked conviction.

As we wrapped up the class, I turned to her and said clearly, “You really should have a taller fence installed. Even when Sierra is three and swimming like an eel or even five and doing laps, that pool poses as real danger to her.”
Those were my last words to Sierra and her mom.

I wrote up the notes and even included my comments about pool safety in her report card. I wonder if her mother still has that card.

The summer ended and with it all the swim lessons. Even in northern California it is too cold during the winter for any but the hardiest of athletes to swim outside. I would return in May, with the rest of the staff for training and recertification, until then, it was back to smooth skin and manageable hair for me; chlorine is harsh on woman, especially as she gets older.

The next year I drove to the swim center one early morning in May. Fog threatened to coat the valley, frothing at the ridge like my latte in my commuter mug. I pulled in and parked, and entered the dank swim center. Decades of chlorine-streaked walls, mildewed towels, scoured bathrooms, and rusted out lockers put me at ease. I wandered over to my supervisor’s office; unusually tidy amid the chaos of floats, kickboards, rescue equipment, and handicap assist contraptions. He swiveled in his chair, gestured to another and repeated what he had said to me on the phone a day earlier.

“Glad you could come in. I wanted to show you something before next week’s training.”

He took off his glasses and cleaned them with a small square of blue fabric. Instead of speaking, he exhaled loudly as he replaced the frames to his face, then looked at his hand. Something in my stomach slipped down a notch.
“The Coburn Video has been making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube.”

The something in my gut sank like a diving weight in the deep end.
Carl sat back and interlaced his fingers; elbows resting on the armrests.

“You had a student last summer, named Sierra Coburn, right?” My heart broke in two. I nodded and my eyes met his. We knew why I was here.

“She was only two-years-old, not even three.”

“Yeah. The home surveillance caught the drowning on tape.”

Another diving brick joined the first one in the deep. I did not want to see that tape; I did not want to see that dear little angel die. I ran a hand through my short hair and leaned back.

“Have you seen the tape, Carl?”


Carl swung around and fiddled with his desktop. The City Seal appeared on the his flat screen. He opened a file and it brought up the video, running. We both leaned back in our chairs to watch.

The camera showed the sliding glass door at the rear of the house, a stone patio leading to a short black gate and fence and just beyond that a kidney-shaped pool sparkled. Floating toys, a life jacket (looked Coast Guard approved, but I wouldn’t be certain), and an inflated beach ball floated at the far end, just about out of range of the camera. A patio table and chairs were barely visible off to the left of the screen. In the foreground, shadows danced along the pavement from an unseen leafy canopy. A figure moved in the doorway; a beige blur against the darker background. My heart stopped for a moment, then recovered. It was the mother, Jessica. She walked by again, holding a phone to her ear, then stopped at the door, slid it open, and a small white dog pranced into the yard. The dog disappeared around the corner and out of range of the camera.

The scene continued, empty of actors for a moment. Then a movement at the door.

My fingers went to my mouth.

We could see her little hand pushed the glass door open. Sierra stepped through and onto the patio. So tiny, the top of her dark head didn’t reach the handle on the sliding door. It was hard to tell from the film, but it looked like she had put a swim suit over a dress. Fabric puffed out at the back between the straps and more ballooned around her bottom. She did not walk to the pool, instead she made her way to the table and chairs.
Sierra began pushing one of the chairs over to the black fence. Her curls ruffled in the breeze. There was no sound in the footage. Once in place, she climbed on the chair and stood on the seat.

I bit my nails.

She slid down easily to the other side and walked to edge of the pool, her toes on the edge.

“No.” I whispered.

Just like that summer day months before, she leapt off into space. Her brown halo of hair, almost black on the video, hung for a second in mid air before she disappeared over the side. There was a splash and after a moment, a smaller one, probably her hand making ice cream scoops. Nothing happened for ten seconds; for what felt like an eternity.
On the screen, a silent breeze ruffled the leaves and shadows danced on the pavement, but there was no life; not from the pool, the door, or the yard. Not even the white dog appeared.

Tears flowed down my face. I wiped them away with my sleeve, as I hadn’t brought a hanky.

The thought of little Sierra in the water was too much. I covered my eyes and wept.
Carl waited; it took a while for me to recover. He handed me a tissue from a cardboard box.
I asked. “When did they find her?”

“Forty-five minutes later when her mom went up to wake her from her nap. She searched the house and then the pool.”

I nodded and blew my nose. He continued, “Mrs. Coburn thought her daughter was in her bedroom on the second story in her crib sleeping.”

“I guess that is pretty common with backyard drownings.” I said. “Who posted it?”

“The father, Sean Coburn, I think is his name. Anyway, I guess he thought it would prevent other drownings.”

Carl and I talked of the lessons, my cautions to the mother, and we even dragged out a few “what if’s” and “could haves” but nothing changed. The world had lost a beautiful little girl.

Sierra Coburn and her family are fictional, but the situation is not. According to the Red Cross, drowning is the second leading cause of death for children between the ages of one and fourteen. Home swimming pools pose the greatest danger to kids one and four years of age. In most of these drownings, one or both parents were at home and the child was out of sight for less than five minutes. But it doesn’t take five minutes to drown. It only takes ten seconds.

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