In September, when it became clear that the play structure in the back yard had to go, I thought back to a column, written years ago by Steve Duin at The Oregonian, that brilliantly captured the bittersweet emotions involved in that parental rite of passage.

“When the afternoon sun drops behind the holly trees, I still hear the swing set sing and see the shadow of its passing in the grass,” Duin wrote in his June 2000 column. “What I miss are the days when my children would leap for the bars or the stars with utter abandon, and I knew where they would land.”

Shortly after moving to our home in Dilley 10 years ago, that image was etched into my mind as I spent several weekends wrestling the posts and plywood into place, hanging two swings, securing a slide and erecting a bi-level play house, complete with a 10-foot escape pole and monkey bars that brushed our own holly tree. Elena and Nathaniel immediately took to it, transforming the gangly structure into the Hogwarts Castle and spending hours “flying” on their Nimbus 2000 swings.

Over the years, the chains attached to those plastic seats were shortened - and shortened again - as my kids’ legs grew. Eventually, however, their interests wandered beyond our yard and the untreated lumber showed signs of rot. So when I clipped one of those posts with the yard tractor on Labor Day weekend and saw it give way, I realized it was time.

Back then, thinking about the task ahead, I focused more on the bitter part of Duin’s equation. I am not one of those dads who wishes he could go back to those youth soccer games and the cake walk at the Dilley Carnival. But, I do have wonderful memories of the days when Elena needed a boost into the swing and Nathaniel wouldn’t slide down the pole unless I was at the bottom.

On Sunday, however, I felt gratitude as I broke out the pry bar and revved up the Sawzall. The day before, I had been among those who gathered at Sonrise Church in Hillsboro to listen to parents who did not have the luxury of watching their kids outgrow their childish ways.

Like many in this community, my life was touched by Anna and Abby’s death. My wife, Karen, has worked with their mom, Susan, and Elena had gotten to know Abby during Forest Grove’s summer youth program where they shared a yoga class, a love of musical theater and, later, a very stylish haircut.

Last Monday morning, as news of the accident spread to social media, I got a call from Elena, who is in her first year of college in Minnesota.

“Daddy, I just heard about Anna,” the shaky voice on the other end of the phone said. “Do you know if Abby is OK?”

At that horrible moment I did want to turn back the clock, pick up the little girl coming down that long, scary slide and wrap her in my arms.

“No, sweetie,” I said. “She’s not OK. She’s in the hospital and it doesn’t look good.”

The subsequent days have brought more long-distance conversations, tears and a swirl of emotions. For me, it’s been complicated by the need to navigate the tightrope of community journalism, balancing the need to inform our readers of what happened while remaining sensitive to the family members who are dealing with shock and unfathomable grief.

The past week’s news about the driver of the car that killed Anna and Abby hasn’t brought any comfort or clarity. As I raced through the first draft of Jill Smith’s story about Cinthya Garcia, my heart ached again.

Cinthya graduated a year ahead of Elena and, like my daughter, has a soft spot for kids with special needs. Reading about the care she has provided for a disabled cousin, her work with kindergartners at Joseph Gale and the comfort she gave the victim of an auto accident last spring, made it clear that she, too, has touched many lives in our community.

Because of a horrible mistake — leaving the accident scene — she now faces a future that involves not only terrible remorse, but also the prospect of jail and deportation to a country she left at age 4.

So, on Sunday, as Nathaniel helped me move that massive 4-by-6 beam away from the site, I was profoundly grateful for the privilege of watching my children find their own places to land.

The lingering sadness in my heart has nothing to do with my kids growing up. It’s for the families of those two little girls whose lives were frozen in childhood, and another 18-year-old who is making her own tearful calls to her daddy.

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