A few weeks ago, my wife and her friend competed in a swim meet. They are members of the local Masters team. For those who aren't familiar, a Masters team is pretty much an organization of athletes that aren't directly affiliated with a school or professional team.
The team participated in a swim meet about 90 minutes from our home. We arrived at 6am and the events started at 7am. It was blustery and cold, but we were all jazzed about the event and having a wonderful time. People stood on the edge of the pool and cheered when friends swam, and congratulated the winners and other participants with equal fervor and enthusiasm. It was truly a competitive event with camaraderie unparalleled.
At noon, the Men's 50m Freestyle event was going on. There were eight heats, with the final heat being the top four swimmers from the previous heats. They swam and finished within 30 seconds. Blazing fast.
Off to the side, another man swam. Slowly. The announcer's voice emanated from the speaker. "Look at this guy go!" he would cry. He described the swimmer as an 89 year old man with Parkinson's. Truly an impressive feat. Over a hundred swimmers gathered around the pool. We cheered, we yelled, we clapped. Here was a man facing impossible odds and overcoming them. "Don't let anyone tell you you can't do anything you put your mind to," the announcer said.
Seconds later, the swimmer just... stopped. Two seconds later, four people dove into the water and began dragging him to safety. The pulled him out of the water. CPR commenced. The rest of us stepped far back, giving them plenty of room. The paramedics were called. A fire truck blazed through the parking lot and the first responders rushed over to take control of the situation. The police arrived. CPR continued. The rest of us watched, dumbstruck and silent.
Twenty eight minutes later, they took him away on a stretcher. They canceled the games.
Later, we found out he died. Possibly in the water, possibly due to complications later. Either way, he died.
Silver Linings (such as they are)
I cried as I watched. My dad called, randomly, and I told him about the events unfolding before my eyes. "It's tragic," he said. "At least he died doing what he loved."
I like to tell myself that the last thing this man heard in life was his friends and colleagues clapping, cheering, and supporting him in his favorite activity of over fifty years: swimming. The last thing he saw, I tell myself, was us smiling and waving happily.
I tell myself: that's how I want to go out. Doing something I love. Possibly not even knowing that it's all over.
Especially if I had a terrible disease like Parkinson's, where my quality of life was expected to only ever go down, with little recourse.
There's a term that I've been thinking about: survivor's guilt. It's the feeling that you didn't do enough. That you could have saved someone's life. That you could have handled it differently, and if you had just done the right thing sooner, everything would be okay.
I was crying by the poolside, not just because I was witnessing the end of a man's life, but because I could see others giving their all to save him, and I knew that they would beat themselves up for a long time. What if they had jumped in faster? What if they had been better at CPR? Could they have saved him?
I know logically that they did the best they could. They know logically that they did the best they could. But deep down, we all wonder: did we do enough?
Thoughts and Prayers
As I read the Twitter threads and AP/Reuters headlines, as I watch the TikToks and Instagram Reels, as I read the Reddit threads and NYTimes editorials, I think about the people being gunned down across America. The mall shooting in Allen, TX. The kids who died, the girl whose face got blown off. The family that was brutally murdered in Texas for asking the neighbor to stop making noise. A church shooting, a school shooting, a night club shooting in Florida.
And I think back to this man that died a few weeks ago in my presence. I witnessed death, and I witnessed other people, good Samaritans, trying to save his life.
I think about the first responders -- often untrained civilians -- who rush to help the victims of the shootings. And I wonder about them.
Do they beat themselves up at night, knowing that they survived and children died? That if they had just tackled the shooters, maybe fourth and second graders Daniela and Sofia Mendoza would still be alive? That if they had gotten there faster, they could have stemmed the flow of blood and saved Christian LaCour, the security guard in the Allen shooting, from bleeding out?
The damage to people goes beyond the dead. The families mourn, fear spreads, politics reign supreme. And the survivors deal with guilt and shame and embarrassment and trauma.
It's the Guns, Stupid
Humans like easy answers. We like to neatly categorize things into Good and Evil. We like to pretend that nuance doesn't exist. Either guns are good and right, or guns are bad and evil, and there's nothing in between.
But when I think about the survivors, I see a world of gray and pain. I see people who did the right thing, and now they have to deal with the consequences.
Republican politicians like to blame these on the mentally ill, even while cutting funding for mental illness treatments. They like to say it's all part of God's plan. They like to say that it's worth it -- if a few children have to be brutally murdered to keep the right to wield weapons of murder and death, then so be it.
And for many people, that's good enough.
But for the survivors, nothing seems good enough. We could have done better, and we didn't. We CAN do better, and we don't. That's shameful, embarrassing, and guilty.
Until we do something to effect change here, all we are doing is creating more survivors.