What should have been an uneventful afternoon at the beach the other day ended up being one of the scariest days of my – and Margaret’s – life. And it’s all my fault.
Margaret, Filumena and I got to Huntington Beach in the early afternoon. We parked off 14th Street and PCH, our “go-to” beach spot ever since I had lived on 14th street before I met my husband. In fact, as honeymooners, we conceived Margaret there, so 14th street in HB is extra special for us (Margaret goes nuts when we tell her that, it’s awesome). Margaret balked at planting our blanket near the lifeguard tower, but I insisted. HB has the best lifeguards in the country and although there were very few folks on the beach there (mostly a residential area), I prefer to play it safe. Worst case scenario, we’d be in the direct line of sight of the lifeguard is my rationale.
The girls made a beeline for the water and we jumped the waves together. They were hovering near the point where the waves began to recede back, so I took the opportunity to go sit on the blanket and watch them. I told Margaret to make sure she sticks with Mena, emphasizing that she is responsible for her sister. I ended up reminding her to stick next to Mena a few times over the next hour and a half.
Eventually, my mom called and we chatted while I watched the girls play in the shallow part of the water. I got up and walked over to be closer to them. The entire time I was staring at them but I must have become absorbed in the conversation because I got off the phone and almost immediately, Margaret started screaming “Mena! Mena! She’s gone mom!” I threw my phone on the sand, quickly scanned the area of the water where Margaret was standing. It was murky and I couldn’t see Mena anywhere. My heart stopped, I started screaming, “Mena!” and looked up at the lifeguard, about to run over to him when I glanced toward the blanket and saw Mena running back toward me. My heart began to beat again. I yelled “Margaret, Mena is right here!” Margaret was a complete mess. She was shaking and screaming unintelligible words. I ran to hug her and pull her to the blanket. In between dry heaving, she cried for Mena over and over.
Turns out she had dunked her head in the water, got pulled by the current, and yelled for Mena to help her out. Her eyes were covered in saltwater so she couldn’t see anything. When she finally could see, Mena was nowhere. She thought her sister had similarly got caught in the current and drowned. And because I had told her it was her responsibility to watch her sister, she thought it was her fault. She thought her sister was dead. And she thought it was all her fault. Why did she feel that way? Because I made the huge mistake of telling her she was responsible for something she wasn’t responsible for at all.
It took a few hours for Margaret to calm down. But I had to explain to her, over and over again, that her sister’s safety is 100% my responsibility, not hers. I also explained that this is why I had wanted to be so close to the lifeguard tower. Because although ultimately it is my responsibility for my children, it’s always safer to have an extra pair of eyes on our kids. Because we make mistakes by letting our minds get distracted and looking away for a few moments. Because we are human.
In retrospect, I should have been in the water with them, even though it was jumping tiny waves in the shallow part. Equally importantly, I learned a valuable lesson that day: I will never make Margaret feel responsible for her sister again. I’m so sorry my beautiful Margaret. Please forgive me.