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Finding relief from grief in a child world

I went there Monday afternoon. For the first time in years, since my teenage girls were kids, I went back to the playground where I used to take them, in Delaware Park.

I went for a reason. I wanted to hear the uncomplicated peal of a child's laughter. I wanted to see the pure, absolute joy of little people at play. I needed to be reminded that there is another side of life, the side that we all live for, the side marked by moments of simple happiness and sudden laughter.

I went to the playground and sat on a bench, near where a half-dozen kids scampered under the watchful eyes of parents. There were swings and a curvy slide, and shrieks of excitement filled the air. It is a world of sunbeams and cotton candy, a world where every day brings the startling discovery of something new.

Despite the routine of daily life, there is still a kid within all of us, closer to the surface in some than in others. I needed to connect with that place, with a kid's sense of joy and laughter, because our world lately has had none of that.

Flight 3407, Newark to Buffalo, was Continental's second-last trip here Thursday night, with no connection to anywhere else. Most of the people on it were returning home from work or from a trip, or coming to visit family. If you did not know one of the 50 victims, chances are you know someone who does.

The last week has been filled with prayer services and stories about the people who died and interviews with shattered loved ones. I needed a break from it. I needed a rest from the unthinkable reality that, in a horrible instant, 50 people perished on a third of an acre in Clarence Center. The hamlet where this plane fell is a crossroads ordinarily so quiet that you can hear a dog bark from a quarter-mile away. Now the last memories of someone's mother or father, sister or brother, friend or lover, rest amid ashes and rubble.

Monday afternoon at Delaware Park, a girl -- maybe 5 years old -- in a red coat and orange boots whizzed down a curving slide. Her friend, wearing a pink coat and a green wool hat, followed her. After each time down, the girl in red turned to her friend and asked, "Wanna go again?" Nearby, a small girl -- her hair a cluster of braids captured by red plastic clips -- was pushed by her father on a swing. With each thrust, she squealed, "I go high."

I sat on a nearby bench listening to their laughter, as bright and sparkling as tiny bells. Kids are not weighted, the way adults are, with pain and loss and disappointment. They are guided by their senses, living in a world where chasing a windblown leaf or putting crayon to paper is the purpose of the day.

As days pass, the hum of routine will slowly reclaim our attention. The time will come when Flight 3407, for most of us, fades to a grim afterthought. But the family and friends of those 50 people will never fully leave the day behind.

Death will come to most of us with some dignity. Our bodies will be wept over and cared for. It is a dignity and a caring that is yet to come to these 50 people, not until their remains are gathered and carefully carried away. Until that happens, there is a sense of unease in the air, of incompleteness.

Monday afternoon I found a place where hurt was balanced by happiness, where an overdose of sadness was countered by an outpouring of joy. The playground rang with the small voices of those who unthinkingly embrace the gifts of sun and blue sky, of swings and slides.

For a few welcome moments, I immersed myself in their shrieks of joy. I surrendered to their easy peals of laughter. I let their unbridled glee wash over me. It was as comforting as a warm bath, as simple as a summer day, a reminder of what 50 people truly lived for.


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