Few parents are suddenly forced to make cremation arrangements for 6-year-olds. But my wife and I recently found ourselves in the dusky light of a mortuary conference room discussing ashes and urns.
We used to adore Fridays. That was before Roxie Mirabelle Forbes — our only child — drowned in the Altadena Summerkids camp pool on Friday, June 28. It was the last day of our lives as we knew them. It was also the first day that a colossal body of misery moved into our home without any intention of leaving.
Our new script reads something like this: Wake up to pin-drop silence. Wait for the rapid pitter-patter of a little girl’s footsteps toward our bedroom door. Realize that the imminent euphoria will soon be consumed by the chaotic drumbeat of despair.
Then comes the shaking to the bone. Then the wailing. Then the deep breaths to mitigate panic. Then the silence. And then the cruel, constant reprise of agony.
Before we’re able to open Roxie’s bedroom door each day, for a millisecond we wonder if there is any possibility she might still be on the other side. Maybe she’s carefully clicking Legos into place. Crafting odd, Cubist-like drawings that made our hearts sing. Staging plays with a cast of plastic characters on whose behalf she whispers a range of delicious voices.
But Roxie is never there. After all, this is real life, and real death. Her trucks and stuffed animals and books and pencils and shoes and hats and sunglasses no longer have their favorite companion. A once infinitely animated space is now without a trace of oxygen. That’s because Roxie gave all the air she had left to the unforgiving waters of a summer camp pool.
No more burgeoning friendships at San Rafael Spanish immersion school. No more Go Fish battles with “Gramma.” No more sublime visits with any family, any friends. No more milk moustaches. No more bike rides to feed ducks. No more birthdays, holidays, Mondays or Fridays. No more quiet conversations about how the world works. No more firsts.
No more “Momma.” No more “Daddy.” No more hourly “I love yous.” No more parenting.
Roxie landed on us like a mini-meteor in 2012 — seven weeks early and sub-three pounds. My wife and I like to think it’s because, after three miscarriages, she was hellbent on finally getting the party started.
That party, however, was rudely and repeatedly interrupted by eight battles with pneumonia within four years. Diagnosis: rare immunodeficiency disorder. In fact, her gene mutation was the only one of its kind on the planet. Oh, and she had a couple holes in her heart too. But they eventually closed on their own. Roxie said it’s because she had superpowers.
Despite all that and a slight motor skills delay, Roxie did what other kids did. She ran, jumped, danced, sang, traveled, played in pools, learned to read and drove us nuts with her willfulness. Normal stuff. Growing up stuff. And she was funny as all get-out … like pee-in-your-pants funny.
Best of all, she loved to love. In fact, she lived to love.
Interactions were far more important than stuff. Hugs were her favorite currency. And man, was she the best hugger. Over and again, everyone who knew her — for minutes or years — reminded us that she was a little girl who did, in fact, leave the world a better place than she found it.
We always sang and read to Roxie before bedtime. But on June 28, we did so by the side of a lifeless vessel. Her heart pumped at the command of tubes and drugs. Her once bewitching blue eyes were half-open yet vacant. Her skin cold, colorless. Lovely little limbs were bloated beyond recognition. Her body smelled of metal. Gorgeous blonde locks hung stiff, straw-like.
Parents send kids to camps like Summerkids to live big, not die small. Roxie needed to be with children. She needed to explore within a safe and nurturing environment.
However, according to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s report, Roxie died of nothing more than a “near drowning,” which means she died at the pool, her heart was restarted 20 to 40 minutes later, but her brain and body could never recover.
A homicide detective investigating the drowning said a lifeguard (actually a counselor) who was in charge of Roxie’s area was “distracted” and “a counselor leading a different group outside of the pool area noticed Roxie floating face down in the pool.”
So, we know the truth. And now we know the consequences.
Camps like Summerkids — regardless of their reputation or duration — lack critical oversight. In fact, California is one of only 13 states that allows day camps to operate without a license, which equates to extremely limited oversight. Summerkids is also not accredited by the American Camp Association, an organization that affords vital operational guidance.
How can we regulate day care providers but not regulate far more rigorous day camps that care for thousands of children? This is unconscionable.
My wife sobs uncontrollably. I now tremble without pause. Three lives ended because a camp did not honor a basic promise — to keep our baby safe. What couldn’t possibly happen to us did happen to us.
Our foundation will end this senseless, ceaseless battery of preventable near-drowning incidents and drowning deaths, the leading cause of injury-related death in US children ages 1 to 4 and the third leading cause of unintentional injury for those ages 5 to 19. We will also support pediatric health initiatives through Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For now, hug your kids. Tell them you love them.