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Grasping at the passing moments

When the air is cold, it cuts into your lungs like a sheath of ice. When the moon shines against the clouds, you can see your way home without streetlamps. That's what it was like when I was in London for Christmas, fourteen years ago.

Photographs may fade and crinkle and collect dust, but the scenes they depict never change. I can easily look back at the Tower of London and the Changing of the Guard at the Buckingham Palace, because the camera lens captured the moment.

People, on the other hand, slowly change as they age. When I look at an old picture of myself, I laugh. "Is that really me? How can it be? I look in the mirror every morning, and it's always the same old face. It never changes."

But in these 14-year-old pictures, my parents tower over me, although they are both no taller than 5@#4". In one photograph, my father looks heavier than he is now, and he has longer, blacker hair.

One night, my father and I left the hotel to look for presents. We walked to a small toy shop, where an old man showed us some small Cockney cabs and other Dinky toys. On the shelves stood queen dolls whose eyes closed when laid down.

But on our way back, my legs grew tired, because the toy shop was far from the hotel. I began to fall behind. So my father scooped me up, even though I was six-years old, and let me ride piggyback the rest of the way home.

It was in the moonlight that I saw the strands of gray in my father's hair. I closed my eyes and pressed my face against the back of his neck.

I used to wish that people were like photographs, so they wouldn't have to grow old. We could collect the moments of our lives in an album and continuously relive them.

But we can't relive them. The moments pass.

Last summer, I worked at a company in San Jose. There, the air is hot and dry. It cools when the sun goes down. I can imagine Jorge running with his two young daughters in the twilight park.

My supervisor would sometimes bring his children to the office before dinnertime. They would run around the room, draw on the chalkboard, and slap at the keyboard of the computer terminal. To them, the days must last forever. To them, moments come cheap and plentiful.

But they don't. Patricia, one of the managers, was to have a baby. She kept her work and travel schedule, and I always saw her walking slowly down the corridors.

One morning, as I was reading my computer mail, I came upon a secretary's note saying that Patricia was in the hospital with complications. She was fighting to keep her baby, but things were happening too early. The baby would be born prematurely.

A week later, Patricia gave birth to a girl, who lived for only a few hours. A final note followed.

This is what it said: "Her name was Jennifer Elizabeth, and she was a beautiful child for the short time that she lived. She weighed less than a pound."

Dragutin, a person in my research group, had been excited for the past month, because his wife would soon give birth to a daughter. Often he would interrupt our conversations on image processing with questions on how to install a dishwasher at home. He was trying to do it himself.

"I got copper wiring, but it isn't the right size," he would say. "What should I do?"

The tragedy, however, affected him. Sometimes when I passed his office, he would be sitting quietly. I could see a shade of darkness under his eyes.

He came by my office before I left for Boston. His curly hair stood in disarray, as it often does. We talked about the work I had done during the summer, and about what he would be doing in the future and what I would be doing in the future.

I was packing some books and manuals away in boxes, and I suddenly turned to him and said, "Good luck raising your daughter. I'll see her next summer."

He smiled and shook my hand, as if I had made a promise.

One night in August, Jorge took me out to dinner with his family. In his wallet, he kept a photograph of his daughters. We all like children, for we know that we can only live on through them.

The wind was blowing when we left the restaurant. Jorge's youngest girl, a two-year-old, complained that she was cold. I picked her up and carried her to the car.

And as I held her, I was for a moment sent back to London at Christmastime. I was pressing my face to the back of my father's neck, hanging on as time slipped through my grasp.