It was a beautiful sunny day at Horsefall Beach on the Oregon coast and I was drowning. I was five years old and I was drowning. All I could hear was water stuffing my ears like pillows. All I could see was a wobbling blue sky through a foot or two of sun dappled ocean above me. On my back I submerged, surfaced, submerged again. Another wave washed over me, pushing me further down. I stretched my arms out in an attempt to stabilize myself but my knees locked up. My legs pointed straight down from my body. I might have looked like I was pinned to an invisible crucifix. I didn't swim or struggle. So much for the "Minnows" card I got from the local municipal swimming pool. Thankfully I forgot to breathe. I slowly floated up to the surface. Another wave. My bobbing view of the sky went white with ocean spray, but my eyes were wide open.
My dad came running from the beach. He wore black swim trunks and a handlebar mustache. He high-stepped through the water, legs pumping furiously until he reached me. He sunk his arms into the water, lifted me out, and carried me back to the beach, his expression deadpan. Our black Labrador, Edgar, trotted alongside, tongue lollygagging out of his mouth, just happy to be here, folks. My mom's hands were clamped together in a fierce prayer, her eyes wide, unblinking. From that moment on she adopted a new parenting philosophy, one with a zero tolerance policy for dangerous living: "Don't do that again, son, or you will die."
Or you will die.
That became the universal threat of punishment for anything I did that made my mom nervous. "Son," my mom said, "hold my hand when we cross the street, or you will die." "Quit climbing so high in those trees or you will die." "Is he jumping his bike off a ramp again?" she said to my dad. "That boy is going to die." She'd shake her head and go back in the house. My dad handled all the spanking duties, so when my mom said I was going to die, it was never going to be because she raised a hand against me. She just expected a five-year-old boy to somehow grasp the concept of life and death. She expected me to fully comprehend mortality and all it entailed. Over the years, as she doggedly repeated that mantra, she desperately needed me to understand the tangible fear she had that day on the beach, the day I nearly drowned: the day my mom almost died.
"You can't help me," the boy said to Commander Shepard just before inching back and out of reach into an air duct. Those words stuck in Shepard's head immediately, you could see it in Shepard's face. It's only ten minutes or so into Mass Effect 3 before a child, maybe only seven or eight years old, informs Shepard in so many words that, while the intrepid commander just might save the galaxy, he won't save everybody. It's a message that the developers at BioWare have been trying to drive home for years now, since the first Mass Effect, but only made wildly apparent at the close of the trilogy. Sometimes losing the battle, but somehow winning the war; that's Shepard's business model, and one that frequently mirrors my own daily child-rearing agenda.
One boy belly flops into the above ground pool and a chorus of ohhhhh's issue from the other kids. It's hot. It's southern-Oregon late-August hot. We're at a friend's barbecue, nothing but fields of grains and vegetables between the backyard and the two Table Rock plateaus in the distance. The bees steadily work the floral scene, buzzing from flower to flower, staying out of direct sunlight as much as possible. The bees scatter for a moment from the belly flop's splash, and some of the water sprinkled my then one-and-a-half year old daughter. She stepped sideways and back, putting some yardage between her and the pool. Baths were okay, wading pools were okay, sprinklers were perhaps iffy, but above ground pools just got blacklisted by my daughter. Not cool, her expression said. She even used a bit of sign language we'd taught her--tapping her two index fingertips together--to indicate that she was in pain. "Ouch?" I'd asked. "Ouch," she affirmed. I knew, of course, she wasn't in pain from a splash of water. It was simply the only word she had at the time to describe how much she disliked the water. I guess I didn't push her back toward the pool. I have my own reservations against water, though they reside in that haze of bygone childhood. Most days I don't even know why I don't like water. That sunny day, long ago, on the Oregon coast, didn't even occur to me. I let my daughter wrap her hand around my finger and we instead went over to a short, bubbly, brightly-colored slide.
"Clementine will remember that you could not save her." Those words stuck in my head immediately, you could see it in my face. I was an hour or so into The Walking Dead game before a zombie busted through a door and clawed after Clementine, a young girl under my charge, maybe seven or eight years old. I'd slipped and fallen. I was woozy. Couldn't focus. I scrambled around the screen with the mouse pointer, clicking on everything and nothing, and couldn't find anything to fight off Clementine's undead attacker. Thankfully another character stepped up and took out the zombie. Clementine lived, but it was a heartbreaking defeat nonetheless to be told by a single line of narration that I couldn't rescue a child I'd sworn to protect...and that she'd remember I wasn't there for her.
I can't protect my kid from every danger. I'm learning that now as I hurtle into my mid-30's, a precocious curly-haired two-year-old daughter in tow. I have to check myself when we're at the park so I don't overprotect her and prevent her from climbing perfectly safe playground equipment. Everything is brightly colored and plastic with round edges. The ground is blanketed with tumble-friendly woodchips. Everything's fine. Turn off the helicopter parenting instinct, I tell myself.
"I'm climbing!" my daughter yells. "Good job, kiddo!" I yell back. I shift uncomfortably on a wooden bench that feels too far from the action. If she falls, I'm nowhere near close enough to catch her before she hits the ground. I picture her bouncing back and forth, like Plinko in the Price Is Right, thumping her way down the triangular bars on the eagle's nest before she lands face down. It doesn't happen, but I feel that tug in my gut, waiting for her footing to slip. She's naturally cautious, however. Sometimes disappointingly so. I want to cheer her on. Go get 'em, girl. Jump this. Climb that. Fall off then brush that dirt off your shoulder. Yet, the moment my dad radar detects the invisible line she's crossed when climbing some piece of (again, perfectly safe) playground equipment, I feel my stomach drop. I scan the layer of woodchips on the playground floor. I pat my hand down on the woodchips, trying to calculate its damage absorption rating from a 25 - 30 lbs. toddler dropping from a height of approximately two feet. I recalculate for a bouncy, Plinko-style fall.
Calm down, Randy, I tell myself. She's not going to die.