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My days of play with my kids have slipped by

The park still extends its invitation, although those it invited long ago have sent their regrets.

"Daddy, let's stop and play in that park," came a voice from the back seat.

I'll admit, the park looked especially lustrous on that brilliant afternoon, and a less stiff-necked inner self might have complied. But the practical voice of the parent prevailed, replying with the father's version of "your call is important to us."

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"We don't have time today, but we'll play there next time we come up to see Grandma."

The park disappeared out of the corner of my eye as we continued our drive home. We did not play in the park the next time we went to visit Grandma. Nor the time after. Nor the time after that. Month followed on month; year piled onto year. The fresh June grass, when it returns, will still have to wait to host us in play.

What was more important than stopping for a half-hour to play with my kids? It couldn't have been much, otherwise I would remember what it was. Now, whenever I pass that park, I am reminded of Shakespeare's words to "call back yesterday/Bid time return."

Maybe I had nothing in particular to do and just couldn't be bothered. Or maybe I was looking forward to a rendezvous with a six-pack in the fridge. Next week would be soon enough to push three kids in swings.

Twelve years later, I am sitting in the park for the first time. With my mother. She has just had a minor stroke and we are waiting between a morning and an afternoon medical appointment.

The late June morning suggests, as June does, that nothing ever dies. Time was, this white-haired woman sitting next to me would stack her grandchildren into a wagon and pull them a mile to buy an ice-cream cone. I remind my mother of her days leading this little caravan and am grateful that she can remember. Even so, I find it wrenching that this jolly entourage, with its delicious quest, has faded away into the paltry neurochemistry of memory.

This park is a beautiful place for children to play. It is set below street level near a public library. It offers shade and sun measured out in due season. It has swings for the younger and the older kids and a jungle gym to satisfy those who want to spend a morning indulging their inner chimp. It has plenty of space to run and shout and tumble with no danger of anyone telling you to be quiet.

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On this morning, what appear to be swings disguise their true identity as sky-bound chariots that can carry kids, or at least their heels, a little closer to heaven.

Parents arrive with their children; nannies with their charges. Now the race to the best swing begins, and the winner embarks. Lesser vehicles are claimed and soon little legs stretch in the vigorous contortions that will lift the charioteer from the earth. Shouts of triumph ring out from those who reach apogee.

And, of course, there is the coveted moment of weightlessness when the chains go slack and the return to earth just might not happen. These kids are learning that there is no euphoria like the defiance of gravity against a summer sky.

Why such regret for time past? My children, after all, have swung on many swings, climbed many jungle gyms and tumbled through much grass in their time. The regret comes from the nature of their request.

It wasn't a materialistic gambit to go to the toy store or McDonald's or an amusement park. It was a request to play. The road ahead of them will offer too little of this.

I consider my mother, whose life and that of her siblings consisted of work, work and more work. Her parents were devoted and loving, but times exclusively devoted to play with their children would have been few.

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My parents, on the other hand, had time to play with their three children. They were part of that lucky generation who did not need two incomes to raise a family, who did not face the privations their own parents did during the 1930s, and who did not have to eke out an existence by patching together several benefits-free and pension-free jobs, as their grandchildren probably will have to do.

Time to play. In the happy hurly-burly of shepherding three children to and from our weekly visit to grandma, these melancholy thoughts would not have crossed my mind. Only years later did I consider that if my kids have kids, the pressure of keeping a roof over their heads may not permit them time to fly children to the sun on a swing.

Time on this June day has passed and now my mother and I have to get into the car for the second appointment. As I start the engine, I foresee a fall and winter of attending to the needs of a parent who grew old while I looked away for a moment.

Putting the car into drive, I survey the park and in my mind embrace the grass and the swings and all they mean for days not seized.

Mark Harding lives in Toronto.

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