flaxen-haired boy

When I was fourteen I started seriously saving for college. I worked summers at my community swimming pool answering the office phone and selling candy. At fifteen I life-guarded and taught swimming lessons. At seventeen I started coaching teams of wiry kids with shiny hair, some who spent all day at the pool just like I had growing up. Coaching was one of those things that seemed to come naturally to me ... I was good at it, just like my big brother.

A fun part of coaching was getting to know some of the families, the ones where two, three, four or five of their kids all swam. These kids, for whatever reason, shined for me, perhaps because I too came from a swimmer family. It was in my blood, so we shared an understanding of the unique swimmer culture that helped us bond.

One special family I remember had two boys and a girl. All three were good swimmers, competed year-round and had wicked senses of dry humor. The girl was the youngest and she definitely followed in her brothers’ sarcastic footsteps. I liked that about her, about all of them. I saw my own family in theirs. The oldest boy was a senior in high school and a lifeguard—tall, blond, handsome, charming—the kind of kid who everyone liked, who was reliable and smart. Adults respected him, peers adored him, little kids looked up to him. The middle boy was shy and quiet, but I was fond of him for his raw swimming talent, his relaxed friendly manner and his clever witticisms. He seemed to be an old soul.

After that summer ended the oldest boy went off to college. Some time later I learned that he had accidentally fallen out of a fraternity’s third story window and had died. I was in shock. I remember reaching out to the boy’s family with some sort of token of consolation. Maybe it was a bouquet of flowers or a poem or a simple note, I don’t remember. I just remember thinking—perhaps knowing—that my gesture was insignificant, meaningless, that nothing I could say or do could make any difference at all in their lives.

I still think of that family from time to time. I wished I had known them better. They were close-knit, ate their dinners together, had lots of friends over, laughed and told stories, all of the things I thought were important and—someday—wanted my future family to be like. I imagine their happy days spent with their affable handsome son, their beloved big brother. I wonder how their lives changed in his absence, knowing intimately the inevitability of a life reshaped in the presence of overwhelming loss.

For one fine summer that flaxen-haired boy with the glimmering smile and limitless charisma, along with his lovely family, affected me and so many others—and still do—in a very positive enduring way. They will always be fondly remembered in my heart because in some small way they helped shape me into who I am today.


  1. Christy,

    That is quite simply a beautiful and sad story masterfully told. Thank you.


  2. Christy, I remember this family, too. I teach night classes at the University now, and think of him when I drive by fraternity row. Hugs to you...

  3. Oops, and that last comment wasn't from Holly--it was from me. :-)

  4. Hi Christy. Thanks for the kind words about my brother and family. Tom died almost exactly 25 years ago. Every gesture of compassion was greatly appreciated and meant a lot to my family. I am touched and honored by your eloquent writing.

    Also...Hello, Martha! Of course I remember you too.


  5. steve,
    thanks for writing. it's hard to believe that summer was over 25 years ago. seems like a lifetime ago. i guess because it really was.