April 21, 2024

Many moons, storms, and quarantine abbreviations ago, my family used to go on shared vacations with my childhood best friend’s family. Having been in the same preschool class, our parents regularly bonded outside the classroom’s doors as they waited for the final bell to ring. Even as we attended different elementary schools, our families kept in touch and went on regular out-of-town sojourns, usually to places with less rain and fog and more palm trees and sunshine.
One such trip brought both our families to a La Union resort when my friend and I were maybe 7 or 8 years old. Growing up a landlocked highlander, I was never good at swimming. The most training I had with aquatics at that point was navigating through ankle-deep, street rain-water during particularly sodden monsoon days. Although my friend was better versed in the oceanic arts, he was much shorter and was still a few years away from a puberty growth spurt he would have later.
One afternoon, as the siesta-hour sun dipped behind a cover of clouds, my friend and I ventured to the empty pool – which, as far as my hazy memory recalls, was circular with an inner island upon where a kubo of sorts stood. Imagine a donut, but in place of sugary bread, it was chlorinated water, and instead of a hole in the middle, it was a raised island. The water’s depth was considerably deeper on the far end than the side where the pool’s entrance steps were. Having been to this pool many times before, we decided to push our limits and shuffle over to the deeper end by clinging onto the inner island’s ledge, inching our way until slowly our toes could no longer touch the tile floor.
Upon reaching the furthest side, we decided to swim across the water to the outer ledge, which meant we would risk a few seconds of swimming in deeper water, at least until we reached the opposite side.
I went first, cheating by pushing against the ledge harder than usual and using that momentum to reach the other side easier. My friend went next, and perhaps because he chose not to push off as hard as I did, or if something caught him off guard mid-way, he began to struggle. His head bobbed up and down as he started coughing, arms flailing and splashing against the water.
There was no one else in sight, and apart from the splashing water, it remained eerily peaceful. The next thing I remember, I had pushed off the ledge again, hard as I could, my eyes stinging from the chlorine. When I felt his arm on my hand, I yanked with whatever energy I had, keeping my other arm outstretched toward the inner island’s ledge.
I recall thinking with my eyes closed that I had made a big mistake.
My legs felt as though they were on fire, and my lungs were on the verge of surrender when my fingertips finally felt the cobblestone ledge, and I was able to pull both of us to its safety. In the odd silence of that afternoon, coughing and wiping the water from our eyes, we took a few minutes to catch our breaths, waiting for the adrenaline and the panic to subside before wearily crawling out of the pool. We agreed not to mention any of it to our parents, in fears we would never be allowed to swim alone again – because that’s how pre-adolescent logic works.
In the decades since, when the planets align, my friend and I would recall that experience and laugh. In two weeks, he’s getting married, and although our families no longer spend our vacations together, and we don’t see each other as much as we used to, we still stay in touch. He has always thanked me, and although I’ve never really considered what I did “saving his life” more than believing that my brain just panicked and went into auto-pilot of what one should do, I’m glad I did because the world is better with him in it.
Remembering all of this has made me think of times when we’ve felt that what we were doing was nothing extraordinary, not knowing that our actions could be life-saving salbabidas for others. Be it through random acts of kindness, a message from out of the blue, a hello, a joke, a shared song that reminded you of them, among countless other actions not necessarily as dramatic as pulling someone from the depths.
In countless stormy periods of my life since then, from bouts with anxiety to break-ups to battling homesickness and mental blocks – and more recently, a health scare that left me reflecting upon all these experiences – I’ve had my share of being on the other side of the pool story, with the same luck, if not more, of having amazing people guide me to safety, my friend included.
In the end, we’re all each other’s salbabidas. (COUSIN FROM BAGUIO)