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Five Minutes to Fear

2008-09-24 17:39

  Our families camped together once a month, so when the Fourth of July fell on our scheduled weekend, we never gave it a thought not to proceed with our plans. The drive to Rehoboth Beach took six hours, counting four bathroom stops for three children and two women and two men who swore they would lay off the water.

  The campsite was five miles from the pristine shoreline and boardwalk. We couldn't wait to dig our toes into the warm sand. Our daughter was seven at the time and our friends daughters were eight and three. We packed enough toys, beach towels, and tanning lotion to last three weekends.

  After pitching our tents and setting up camp, the seven of us piled into our cars and began the hunt for parking spaces closest to the water so that the men would not have to resort to camel-like behavior when hauling our supplies to the beach.

  We staked our claim on the remaining ten feet of sand and sent the children to the ocean's edge. Our striped towels and white flesh blended with the thousands of other sun worshipers. Music blared from cranked-up radios while Frisbees whizzed overhead. Fair-haired recruits in muscle shirts hawked their ice cream sandwiches and cold soda while I poured lukewarm Kool-Aid.

  From where I reclined, I had a clear view of the three girls splashing near the water. They chased the waves and tunneled into the wet sand, building castle after castle. It took extreme persuasion to convince them to relinquish the sea long enough to split soggy sandwiches with us. Periodically, the men would drop their books and leap into an incoming wave while capturing an unsuspecting child. I could only imagine the giggles above the beach clatter.

  After hours of play and sunburned feet - we motioned for the girls to join us. I packed the towels and lotion while my best friend packed the toys and food. We each had our responsibilities but neglected the most important one. My daughter and her eldest daughter arrived by our side. Their youngest girl didn't.

  We locked eyes. Our previously orderly world shrunk to the beach and the thousands of people strewn around us. Instinct jolted us into action. We screamed her name and pushed past bathers and tanners, frantic to find a missing child in a green bathing suit. Each second ticked by as though specifically designed to torment us.

  "Angela!" My head snapped as the perfect picture of a mother and daughter reuniting exploded in my vision. I wanted to fall to the ground and weep amid the mass of strangers who had been unsuspecting participants in a drama unfolding before them.

  Since that day, I've relived those five minutes of fear at Rehoboth Beach too many times. I relived them each time my daughter hid from me behind a store fixture or ventured out alone in the car after passing her driver's test. I relived them when she was late returning home from dates and when she married and moved to a city far from my reach.

  Years later, we relocated to Florida, where once a month we frequent the swarming beaches of Daytona. My husband and I rent beach chairs and an umbrella and stake our claim along with the other beach lovers hoping for a relaxing time in the sun. Invariably, I spy a child dropping his bucket to search for his own cluster of recognizable faces. My heart freezes until I witness the mother wrapping her arms around him again. Only then do I breathe and rejoin the masses.

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