On a Whistle and a Prayer

Though her summer lifeguard job gets her out of church service, she still finds herself praying for a chance

A kid could have drowned that day. I sat under the umbrella on my lifeguard tower, saving my sixteen-year-old self. Twirling my whistle, I looped silent prayers. Please, don’t let me be pregnant. Please, please, God. Thoughts and rope twined round and round. 

That summer, I’d started my job at the community pool with great focus. A week or so in, I made rescue history: two saves in one dive. Two friends had been play-fighting in the deep end. Play turned to panic. Panic in water can cause flailing arms to drag down any person within reach, even the rescuer. It’s survival instinct. I blasted my whistle and dove in. My lock around each boy’s neck—the way I wedged my upturned body between them and cradled a head in each armpit as I flutter-kicked to the wall—wasn’t textbook. But it was enough. Their mouths fish-puckered just above the surface. Our tandem breath sucked in air, hope. 

I’d almost failed my lifeguard training course the previous winter. There was a required timed event, to dive down seven feet and retrieve a ten-pound brick. I couldn’t find the brick. The instructor gave me a second chance, but not before adding, “You might want to have your eyes checked.”

My eyes were fine. The black brick lay on top of the black drain grate. Thick chlorine fumes were a hallmark of this indoor pool, in an annex of the Methodist church. The chlorine haze wound from pool to pulpit. I believed it must have been an effort by the church to cloud the vision of girls and boys who would otherwise see each other in bathing suits. It amazed me that they even allowed such a thing. I was a member of the Church of Christ. We didn’t allow coed swimming or dancing, or even services with instruments. The Methodists had it all.  

But my mom had a fear of water, passed down from my grandmother who’d almost drowned in Kentucky Lake. So she bent some rules, and I learned to swim at that church. First as a tadpole and then as a member of the town’s swim team, losing toenails as I practiced flip turns against a wall I couldn’t see coming. Mom saved me that fear. The fear of drowning in still waters. 

Illustration by Anna Hall

Being a lifeguard, and sixteen with my own car, brought new concerns. One morning, I was making a sandwich to take to the pool, singing a song I’d heard many times on family road trips, the radio forever tuned to the oldies station. Yummy, yummy, yummy I have … I couldn’t remember the lyrics, so I improvised … candy in my tummy. Mom yelled from the living room, “What do you have in your stomach?” Her question was pointed. I knew she was suspicious of my after-work social life. 

That year, painful cramps had led to a diagnosis of endometriosis. After a surgery to burn off the fibrous tissue suffocating my uterus, the gynecologist prescribed birth control pills. Mom waved the script in her hand. “This is not a license.” I’d never told the doctor, with my mom beside me during appointments, that I had experienced another telltale symptom, pain during sex. 

The pill was supposed to suppress hormones contributing to my endometriosis, to shock my body into a constant state of imaginary pregnancy. I popped a pill whenever. No one talked to me about the reality of pregnancy. No one told me how to use the pill to prevent one until the day I sat under the umbrella on the lifeguard stand, praying away. 

“You’re supposed to take those at the same time every day. That’s, like, the big thing about the pill,” an older lifeguard told me as we mopped the locker room floor. I must have said something as we cleaned. Or maybe I just had a look that other teenage girls recognize. 

I was only a few days late. Not even, maybe. I didn’t count days between periods, then. I counted whistle blasts—two to give warning, one to give rescue. I counted seconds between lightning and thunder to gauge the distance of a storm. I counted the last minutes of light on the longest day of the year, my favorite. The remaining hours of summer vacation. The number of Sundays I could skip church service because, after all, I had to work at the pool. 

I knotted my whistle lanyard around my reddening fingers, a pool of please, please swirling in my head. I bartered infinite, pitiful pleases: I’ll believe better if only … If only please. I can’t be.

For the rest of that summer, I would watch kids splash and play in the pool. I dove in after them when their play turned to trouble. The water I was treading stilled. Maybe it was prayer, or science, or sheer willpower. I do wonder about the power of panic, particularly as I approach my fortieth birthday—with not one pregnancy to count. Still, I look out, taking in the light on the longest day of the year. 

About the Author

Holly Morse-Ellington

Holly Morse-Ellington is a journalist and playwright. She received an Individual Artist Award in Playwriting from the Maryland State Arts Council. Her work has been published in American Theatre, the Loch Raven Review, Broad River Review, Matador Network, and the Furious Gazelle, among others.

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