Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Last Photo of Susan


I found this shot in with some old photos I’ve been meaning to scan. This really should have been the last photo ever taken of me.  This should be the picture that evokes, tears , regret and deep pain. Minutes after this was taken I should have died.
But I did not (as is evidenced by my writing this) Rumors of my death have persisted and appealed to my macabre sense of delight. And as with Mark Twain, they have been great exaggerations, but this one is not a rumor nor is it even known.

We were at my mother’s friend’s house for a barbecue. I could not swim and was told exactly where the shallow end ended and that I was not to venture any further. There was a little sea horses on the side tile and I was not to go beyond  it. I remember having this cavalier sense that the grown ups were wrong, as usual, and I was probably a great swimmer but just never had the chance to demonstrate this. After all I had taken dozens of baths and felt quite confident that my aquatic skills honed in the tub would prove to be sufficient for any other body of water.

I was wrong.

Grasping the side of the pool I did not think much of the fact that I was, indeed going beyond that sea horse. After all, I was hanging on to the edge in spite of the fact that I knew there was nothing to worry about. I was a fabulous swimmer but just to keep Mom happy, I did cling to the side. My Dad was sitting next to the pool talking to a male friend and now and then he would say, "Get back to the shallow end". I would but then I'd go back past that sea horse, making my way across the pool, sideways, like a crab.

I lost my grip.

I remember all of this very vividly. Right after going under and not being able to come back up something became undeniable: I really CAN’T swim. Who knew? Oh yeah, I guess they knew. Flashbacks of this moment stayed with me for many years and made me far less head strong than I might have been. Now I’m struggling and the worst of this is that I can hear my Dad who is supposed to be watching me. He’s talking about golf with another guy. They are sitting in chairs only a few feet from where I am drowning and I can hear them. Part of me wonders if he can’t see me and another part wonders if he doesn’t care. I got to the point where I was breathing water, in and out and it was painful and held no satisfaction. It was impossible not to, it was a reflex to breathe but it hurt. Then I felt somebody grab me and pull me up.

According to Mom, she had an instant flash, like she heard me mentally calling her. I think Mom gave me this explanation because it made her seem magical but my sister’s is likely more accurate. SHE saw me. Anyway they both did and screamed and a friend said she knew lifeguard techniques and jumped in and got me. 

The friend was Sandy Descher, daughter of Audrey who's house we were at. She claimed she knew what to do and she really did. She got me on the patio and began pumping the water out of my lungs.  It was just like in the cartoons; water was shooting out of my mouth like a fountain. I thought this was really embarrassing. My sister remembers watching and thinking “Oh how embarrassing for Susan.” Self conscious freaks that we were, we would have considered death over looking foolish. My brother, Larry was no different. He was caught in a rip tide as a teen and absolutely refused to shout for help. I've since gotten over that and actually seek ways to look foolish. I also remember being equally embarrassed over her taking me back into the water to make sure I wasn’t afraid of it. I felt patronized by this. Looking back, Sandy was really remarkable. She handled the whole situation with such expertise. I think she was only nineteen years old.

I loved Sandy even before she saved my life.  She was 16 when I was born and 19 when I began admiring her. She was always so good to me. She bought me my first heart shaped box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day. I loved her delicate features and her turned up nose. Sandy was not unlike most of the people in my world; she was also a child actor. I knew she had been in a film with Elizabeth Taylor which was very cool. She was in “The Last Time I Saw Paris”. This was very cool but not nearly so cool to me as another film she did, the  Sci Fi classic, “THEM”.  Now THAT was an enviable role. There was also this little number which I remember seeing on TV - "Space Children", most intriguing. 

Sandy, third from left, in a bathing suit no less!
Great Look!
Now that I’ve wasted loads of time looking her up on the internet, I would assume, from my findings, that my Mom and her Mom met on the set of Vincent Minelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful” where she worked with my brother, Chris.  They both had small parts. I especially like her look on this film.

Yes, Vincent Minelli was Judy Garland’s husband and Liza’s father. Liza used to come to the set and she and Chris would catch tad poles in the murky MGM swimming pool. Liza would often tag along for lunch and was known by my mother as “That homely little girl with all the nervous ticks. “Of course, in the years to come,  my mother would be amazed with how well that little girl turned out.  In fact  she made her a lesson. If we saw her performing Mom would say “You would never know she was the same person!  You wouldn't have thought she would ever amount to much and just look at her! She’s come so far! Look at her grace and poise! That just shows what hard work and dedication can do…” 

But my ADD digresses. I did not die that day but my father may have wished that he had. The guilt he felt over being right there and not realizing that I was filling my lungs with pool water must have been overwhelming. The thought of what might have happened plagued him. I would have an occassional nightmare about it where I could hear the water over my head. Dad would just get sick about it. Oddly enough I didn't ever go to the hospital just to get checked up. I mean I had water in my lungs but Sandy must have gotten it all out. Good job Sandy! 

Probably because of Sandy's wise insistence that I get right back in the water I was not left with any fear of it. I do, however, have a fear of fathers watching their children. I know it makes me sexist but I do think women are wired more strongly to see danger in everything and to be diligent. I don't think men worry as much - which can often be a good thing - but I also don't think they pay as much attention. My own parenting experience with my son's father verified my feelings a thousand fold.

Of course my little tale of thinking I knew better than my parents has been retold ad nauseum to my son. But it's the kind of lesson you really can't describe, you have to live through it. I'm glad I did.


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