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Alistair, now 5, visited the Milton-Freewater city pool earlier this month.

There’s something I haven’t told you, and it’s taken two years for me and mine to get far enough away from the horror to put it into words.

Last week there was a Facebook post, written by a heartsick mom in the Indianapolis area. Maribeth Leeson’s 5-year-old twin son drowned July 20 in a pool full of adults who were watching the child bob up and down. What they saw as play was a child desperately struggling to reach air. Not until her son was pulled from the pool, his body lifeless and his skin gray, did people grasp the reality. Yet, by divine power and human intervention, the boy was brought back to life that day. Three days after that Maribeth found the words to write about the mistakes made, the heroics deployed and how this terrible instance was preventable. 

If you haven’t read it for yourself, I hope you will — the story is everywhere now —  even if you never anticipate being in a pool with a child for the rest of your life.

While I wish this hadn’t happened to Maribeth’s family, it gave my own family a chance to tell you what happened in ours. 

Two summers ago we headed to Harris Park outside of Milton-Freewater. Everyone was excited; the Portland crew had rented a little cabin in the campground, and we were hauling in the grand beast of RVs. My son’s family planned to come from town and spend much of each day at the park before taking reluctant youngsters home to their beds. 

Menus were made, groceries purchased. Games and day trips were scheduled. S’mores night was to be a highlight. Our people don’t specialize in reunions, but here we were with a genuine family gathering!

We discussed safety. A lot. MoMama’s babies were 3, Macalicious only 5. My son’s youngest kidlet was just 2. We talked about campfire precautions, adult oversight at the playground, the Walla Walla River that makes Harris Park so special.

In the very first hour, the unthinkable happened. 

Everything was finally set up. The RV was leveled and its awning rolled out. The cabin had been claimed by sleeping bags and children’s toys. Picnic tables were covered with sheets and anchored by barbecue utensils. Folding chairs awaited our tired bodies. MoMama could finally think about going potty. She asked a teen in our group to keep an eye on the kids zipping about like lightning bugs let out of a jar. She was gone five minutes.

Meanwhile, some of the children had boarded the Little Tykes wagon we’d brought along and were circling the camp at breakneck speed. Between the chairs and picnic table then around the back of the RV, over and over. Shouts of delight bounced off trees as 10-year-old grandboy Bo made the wagon into a full-steam locomotive.

In this span of moments, no one noticed when the train lost one little passenger. It wasn’t until MoMama had returned and asked “Where’s Alistair” that we realized a 3-year-old twin had de-boarded.

Alistair, as you recall, is diagnosed as autistic. While he’s verbalizes a little bit now, two years ago Ali was virtually mute. Which mattered not at all most of the time. This was not one of those times.

For long seconds, it seems, we were too unaware to be frantic. Maybe he was wandering over to the tempting playground, or had run off to find his dad in the tiny cabin. We sweetly called his name.

My searching eyes didn’t find what I was seeking, but in that moment I could finally hear the tumbling Walla Walla River in the background.

We’d been there so little time no one had yet done a proper reconnaissance of the area immediately outside our camping spot. No one had yet noticed how close the river was to us. What I’d thought of as a quarter mile away was in our own backyard. 

No. Surely not. In the slow-motion expanse of a dream sequence, Bo and I locked eyes. “The river,” we said in unison before reality unlocked our limbs.

We sprinted, not a function my knees can normally perform. Bo yelled and I screamed. “Alistair! Ali! Where are you?”

The 10 year-old reached the river before I could but we both heard the tiny cry. “He’s here, Grandma” our hero shouted.

There was Ali, fully in the rushing water and clinging onto a rock. Bo scooped him out to my waiting arms with a strength of the young adult he’ll become.

As MoMama arrived through the trees that had hidden the river, I commanded blankets — Ali was soaked up to the very crown of his head, a 5-inch dry island. I don’t remember exactly how we all stumbled, sobbing, back up to camp, but I do remember how Harris Park has zero cell or phone service. 

Which normally is something I endorse but on this day it meant every adult there was horrified by the taste of tragedy and helpless to get advice on what to do next. 

For surely there was something we should be doing.

MoMama and I worked fast, buckling Ali into his car seat and heading down the long, dusty stretch that connects the park to my town. Yet when we got phone service several miles down, we were unsure who to call or what to say: Ali was very much alive, thank God, but was there a hotline for guilt we could dial?

It was overwhelming, how close we’d come to a moment that would’ve haunted us for eternity. Five grown ups on hand and we’d still nearly lost a child. Ali, who didn’t speak, had silently wandered to the edge of death and dipped a toe in. How much longer he could have held on to that river rock is a fool’s guessing game, yet some nights I relive and wonder. It’s torture, and I deserve to endure it.

My little grandson is fine. He loves water in every form, save getting his hair shampooed. He’s a happy, happy boy and he talks a little more week by week.

Brave Bo, too, is fantastic. At 12, his helpful nature foretells the upstanding man we expect to emerge. MoMama is true to herself. In this stage of her life, there’s no time to nurse past what-ifs. Yet I can see Ali’s lack of a sense of danger sits more fully on her radar. On everyone’s.

Like Maribeth Leeson in Indianapolis, we don’t need judging. We’ve done plenty of that to ourselves. But if sharing Ali’s story helps your family not experience a drowning, then here. Take our pain, take our blessing. 

And take the lesson.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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