On a Monday afternoon, late last summer, my eight-year-old daughter and I headed to Bronte beach after school. The ocean was wild, churning with whitewater, and more riled up than I had ever seen it. We decided to play it safe and have a dip in the ocean pool instead.
It was not its usual tranquil oasis. Waves crashed over the ocean side, sending out swells that spread across the water. We initially hung out in the deep end, watching mesmerised, as daredevil teenagers standing on the ledge between the pool and the sea held onto barrier ropes to see if they could withstand the force of the waves. None could.
We retreated to the shallow end, near the entrance. It seemed like one of the safest spots. We stood a few meters from the steps, submerged in the water, as we overlooked the dramatic view. We didn’t notice a huge wave break over the far end. It surged through to the back of the pool before receding in a powerful rip. We were standing directly in its path.
Suddenly, the wave lifted my daughter up and pulled her over the edge of the pool towards the ocean. She started shouting and tried to cling to a pole. I can still picture her suspended horizontally between pool and ocean as she held on. I was still on my feet and in that nanosecond, I miraculously managed to grab on to the back of her swimsuit. I was standing in the pool and was sure I had managed to stop her from going over, but in the next devastating instant, still clutching fast to her swimsuit, the rip dragged us both headfirst over the ledge, over the sharp rocks, and straight into the whirling ocean.
In the sea I lost my hold on my daughter.
We were churned among the waves and rocks. She was further out than I was. Her head came up above the surface and I prayed I could reach her before the next wave swallowed us. It was the only thought animating my whole body: I have to get to her. That, and the dank fear at the pit of my stomach.
My daughter drifted even further out to sea and as I was coming up for air, I heard a swimmer – I had no idea where he came from – call out to her from the ocean: “Don’t move darling. I got you, don’t worry. I got you …”
A few moments later, as I struggled to get back to the pool, a hand appeared for me. I was pushed back a few times by the waves, but I was hoisted back to the ledge by onlookers who had gathered to help us.
On the walkway ahead, I heard my daughter screaming out for me. She didn’t know if I had made it. I scooped her up in my arms, holding back my tears. Lifeguards arrived, ordered everyone out and closed down the pool. Our cuts and bruises were tended and I felt a quiet, stunned gratitude for the kindness of strangers. For days afterwards, the image of my daughter and I going over the edge returned relentlessly. But I was glad I had gone over with her, because seeing her pulled into the ocean alone would have been unbearable. I had been unable to save my own child, but at least I was with her.
We only realised how banged up we were after emerging from the water. In the ocean we were only concerned with survival. The whole episode lasted minutes, though I lost track of time.
In the weeks and even months that followed, we could not pass the pool without feeling a tremor of terror. Any turbulence in the water and my daughter refused to approach, her body tightening as she saw the waves break on the shore.
For now, each small step towards the ocean feels like a leap of faith, an embrace of the future. When I least expect it, the words I heard at one of the most vulnerable moments in our life, “I got you” return and wash over me like an unexpected gift – a promise.
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