The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - GE­OFF SHAR­ROCK

ON Aus­tralia Day, my four- year- old nearly drowned in the neigh­bour’s pool. Doz­ing while our baby sleeps, I am wo­ken by the phone. An am­bu­lance is out­side, and in the back yard the adults look stricken as my daugh­ter coughs and wails, wrapped in a sod­den beach towel.

It had taken no time at all. Two par­ents in the pool, three kids, my girl on an air mat­tress while the boys played at the other end. She had slipped her float­ies off both arms, then slid off and un­der without a sound.

When the adults looked back she was face down and still; no breath at all when they lifted her out. Then with some mouth- to- mouth re­sus­ci­ta­tion, she came back.

And now no time to talk. The am­bu­lance takes my girl and her mother away. I leave my boy watch­ing tele­vi­sion and go back to see to the baby. Af­ter an hour the call comes: she’ll stay overnight. I pack her favourite things and ask next door if our boy can stay a while longer.

‘‘ Sure,’’ they say, then ask if he has any al­ler­gies. For a mo­ment I imag­ine their fear, that a peanut but­ter sand­wich may re­new the cy­cle of alarm, and that two near- deaths in a day may not look good.

At Mel­bourne’s Box Hill Hospi­tal, I wheel my baby past peo­ple on trol­leys, busy staff and anx­ious fam­i­lies. I recog­nise the de­fi­ant wails as we ap­proach. In tears, her mother holds her while they at­tach an in­tra­venous drip to her hand and an oxy­gen tube to her nose. ‘‘ I don’t want th­ese on! I want to go home!’’ she cries.

I lift her on to my lap and hold her tight and growl in her ear that she has to have the tube in, to breathe the good air. She stops fight­ing. And did she fall un­der and couldn’t breathe and have a big scare? ‘‘ Yes,’’ she wails piteously. ‘‘ I couldn’t breathe and mummy didn’t come!’’ My poor girl, mummy got you out in time and you’ll be OK. You’ll be fine.

And now again no time to talk. My wife takes the car keys and baby and bag of wet things and goes. I lie on a trol­ley hold­ing my girl, her oxy­gen cylin­der hang­ing off the back as they wheel us into an am­bu­lance. ‘‘ Now we’ll have an ad­ven­ture,’’ I whis­per on the free­way. ‘‘ And I’ll be with you all the time.’’

At the Royal Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal, I sit and watch her num­bers rise and fall on a screen. I give her some juice, then some food, and when she fi­nally sits up I call home. It is four hours since the ac­ci­dent and we can breathe. We move into a ward with other chil­dren, all clearly in for the long haul. Fi­nally my girl sleeps. I spend the night by her bed, lis­ten­ing to the ma­chines and alarms and night staff.

In the morn­ing we watch the death- de­fy­ing feats of Tweety and Sylvester. My wife and boys ar­rive, and at lunch time we are free to go home. The kids slip back into week­end mode; ex­hausted, we veer be­tween bless­ing our luck they are safe and well, and be­rat­ing them for Never Do­ing What They are Told.

Next door the next day, the Girl Who Lived jumps in the pool, goes un­der and pops up laugh­ing, strapped in her safety jacket.

Our news rip­ples out. Lit­tle waves of sym­pa­thy flow back with other tales of nearmisses, haunt­ing losses. We have joined the ev­er­last­ing fam­ily of par­ents who fear that all their pre­cau­tions may one day fail.

Yes, we tell our twins it’s good to have a spare,’’ my boss quips.

Know­ing this, we add to our list of risks and rules, urge our kids to be care­ful and fi­nally, help­lessly, hope. And we prom­ise them they’ll be OK. They’ll be fine.

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au For This Life guide­lines, go to www. theaus­tralian. com. au/ life­style.

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