When I was a young child living in Ohio I spent a lot of time playing with my cousin Gina, who was a couple of years younger than me and the daughter of my dad’s brother John. Gina and her family lived on a farm in nearby Oberlin. I remember traveling to her house where they had a large sandbox, and we played in that sandbox for hours at a time, digging trenches and building castles and houses and walls.
Gina might have been my best friend as a young child, as much as I could muster up the responsibilities of friendship. Our carefree times together still linger with me as the high epitome of childhood innocence: playing for the sake of playing, a privilege we gradually learn to give away as adults for the illusion of greater “responsibility.”
Behind the scenes a major change was in the works. It interrupted the life I knew and jump-started a string of goodbyes that slowly unraveled the perception of that innocence. My parents decided to move us to Florida, which I have often quipped is mandatory if you happen to reside in Ohio, New York or New Jersey.
I didn’t see much of my cousin Gina after the move to Florida. She and her family visited once or twice during the 1980s, and I saw her again at Christmas 1989 when we gathered at my oldest sister Fran’s house in Strongsville. By then Gina was a beautiful 20-year-old with big brown eyes, attending college. We had a lot of fun catching up.
After flying home from Ohio to Florida, catching a cold on the airplane and finishing what was left of my last Christmas break of my last year in college, I packed up my stuff on the first Sunday of January 1990 and made the four-hour drive back to school in Tallahassee.
Shortly after arriving, a phone call from my brother informed me that Gina had died in an icy car crash that weekend in Ohio. And just like that the last grains of imagined childhood innocence slipped through my fingers like fine sand, as quickly as Gina had slipped from life to death.
I spent that final semester of college haunted by the photos we had taken of Gina just 10 days or so before her death; hanging out in my sister’s living room, happy, perfectly healthy, well-adjusted to life. I clung to the distant mental images of the two of us playing in the sandbox, hanging out, happy, perfectly healthy, trying to adjust to childhood. Had it all been a dream?
While passing co-eds on campus—and there was no shortage of coeds at Florida State University—I would sometimes see Gina’s face. I threw my all into school that semester and earned a 4.0 in my classes to finish strong, and part of me was serving the effort as a tribute to Gina; my own private way of keeping her memory alive. Maybe it was a larger, performance-oriented effort to once and for all overcome whatever within me remained lacking for an interrupted kindergarten, and for a childhood that could never quite wiggle out from under the weight of those thick glasses or break through the barrier of the stutter.
I have noticed that what is most precious to me feels ever fleeting and already slipping through my fingers, even as I hold it before me: naked innocence; people; opportunities; happiness; and so forth. Every moment matters, and in my constant hurry to get to the distant future that “could be” I often fail to appreciate the current stretch of what is.
Even as I write this my oldest daughter Alexandra is a college graduate working in France and my youngest daughter Olivia is a college freshman. How did that happen?
As they were growing up, I didn’t want to let one grain of their precious childhood or innocence slip through my fingers. I wanted to hold all the sand in the palms of my hands, and keep eternity secured in the shelter of my passionate oversight. I can’t come to terms with even the potential of goodbyes when it concerns my little girls.
But I knew I couldn’t retain the grains any more than I could suspend the tides or harness the winds. I could only play hard and bring out as much joy and potential in them as possible, during whatever fleeting time we had together in the sandbox.