by Nicole Hughes
If you have experienced tragedy then you know about the thin line that divides your lifetime: the Before and then the After. It is a heartbeat, a split second that marks the moment when your life changed forever.
In my Before, I worried if tragedy was waiting in my future. But, I didn’t truly imagine it would be my son.
Until on a seemingly normal Sunday evening the world ended, and despite my pleading, it didn’t take me with it.
My thin line is the moment I stepped onto a beach house balcony. One breath, one moment of glancing over the balcony edge, sent me barreling into my After.
In June 2018, we traveled to AL for our annual beach vacation with friends. Our first full day was coming to a close, and we were waiting for darkness, so we could go crab hunting.
Several kids piled together on the couch, wearing matching bright yellow crab hunting shirts, laughing, and watching TV: the perfect snapshot of a happy childhood.
Our Levi was one of them.
I split a brownie and surprised Levi by putting half in his bowl. He grinned with delight, I ruffled his hair, and then I turned to finish cleaning up after dinner.
I wasn’t drinking or on my phone. We were not swimming or even within direct sight of the pool. All day, Levi had worn a puddle jumper in the water, but now he had already taken a bath and swimming was finished for the day.
How was our son within a moment of drowning and we had no idea?
Somehow, in this minute of me cleaning up, Levi slipped off the couch, out of a room filled with people, including both his dad and me. He made it out the door, down a flight of stairs, and into the pool.
One minute he was safe on the couch; in the next my cries pierced the sky as I peered over the balcony and saw my son face down in the water.
I pulled him out, begging to trade places with this boy who still had so much life left to live.
My half of the brownie was still in my mouth; that’s how fast drowning stole my son’s life.
My husband and five other physicians were on the trip; Levi received immediate medical attention. But, despite this care- and despite our desperation- we lost him just hours later.
In the first days of After, grief paralyzed us. We went through the motions, each painful moment breaking our hearts anew: telling our daughters that their baby brother was gone, driving home without him, planning his funeral, packing up his room.
When we discovered the horrific statistics on childhood drowning, we questioned how did we not know? Drowning is the #1 cause of death in children 1-4, a toddler can drown in 30 seconds, and at least 69% happen during a non-swim time, just like our Levi.
How did we not protect him?
As they always do in the After of tragedy, the “how”s and the “why”s relentlessly pulled us from the present and into the past and future.
How did I not see Levi get off the couch? How would our five and 9-year-old daughters survive? They had watched from the balcony as their father, a doctor who could usually fix anything, fought to bring their adored baby brother back to us.
They had seen me, dripping wet, begging for time to reverse and give me back one minute.
How would we find the patience and strength to be the parents they needed?
Levi was gone.
We sat in the darkness that his absence left behind, trying to make sense of the senseless.
Our son died from a preventable tragedy when we were in the room.
Did we even deserve to live? What future was ahead of us?
“We cannot go on,” we whispered to each other.
We can’t. How can we take another breath when our precious son who depended on us to keep him safe will never take another?
I write these next words from the depths of vulnerability. This is one part of our story I have held most sacred but now feel compelled to share:
My husband and I discussed taking our own lives.
It wasn’t just a casual conversation tossed out in a moment of exhaustion and irrational thoughts. Rather, we held a purposeful and clear discussion. Selfishly, we just wanted the pain to end.
There was also the hope that we could be together again in death. But, nothing compared to the torturous guilt of outliving one of our children.
We laid our hearts bare in that conversation, leaving nothing back.
Was it even possible to survive? Would it not be easier to end the pain?
Our heart was leading us one way and our heads another.
Ultimately, even though the pull to follow Levi was powerful, we realized we could never leave our daughters, and we didn’t want Levi’s legacy to be one of despair.
So, we chose to live.
Then, my husband said something that has become my anchor, almost an unspoken mantra, as I navigate life after child loss.
He said: “We either die now or we live. Since we are choosing to live, we must LIVE. We will refuse to die a thousand small deaths every day. We will not let his death slowly kill us over the rest of our lives. We will live.”
I even remember nodding, accepting this agreement, a contract of sorts.
It has been heart-wrenching to watch Halloweens and Christmases arrive without Levi here to yell “trick or treat” and tear open his stocking. His 4th birthday came and went without him, and unbelievably, his 5th birthday looms soon.
Hundreds of nights have passed where I have not kissed the head of a little brown-eyed boy. His childhood was snatched in seconds, and the permanence of our loss still weighs heavily.
It has not been easy or pretty, but we have survived 20 months. We are fulfilling that promise we made to each other, and we are LIVING.
As anyone who has experienced loss can attest, it is far easier to be sad than to permit yourself to find happiness. But, in those moments where guilt and sadness threaten to win, I purposefully redirect my thoughts toward the path of living.
I never expected I would share about this private conversation. Yet, the last 20 months have revealed to me that as humans, we are meant to be connected, and words are meant to be shared.
Maybe these words resonate with you now, and your heart is hammering in your chest as you relive your deciding moments from your After.
Maybe you have allowed thousands of small deaths to pierce your heart, holding you back from truly living.
Unfortunately, I now know that none of us are immune from loss. How I wish nobody else would have to know this pain, but tragedy does not play fair. So, maybe these words will find their way to someone’s heart who may need them in the future.
I have met many families grappling with loss from suicide, another tragedy like drowning that is surrounded by inaccurate stigma and misunderstandings. I would never imply that mental health is as simple as making a decision.
But, for our situation, we knew the choice was ours to make.
I can never go back to my Before and keep Levi safe. I cannot trade my life for his, even though I would in a heartbeat. I am choosing not to let his legacy be one of only despair.
As I navigate my After, I owe it to my son to choose to live.