Write About It

When The Holidays Are Hard

When The Holidays Are Hard
© Wes Gow

[Photo credit:  “Sad Christmas” by Melody368 at DeviantArt.com]

In retrospect, I believe my boyhood was fairly idyllic.  We grew up in a small town outside of Tampa, Florida, along the muddy banks of the Alafia River.  My middle brother and I would ride our bikes down to the cow pasture, hop the fence, and pedal down to the rope swing on the river.  Most summer afternoons we would meet up with a band of three brothers who had taken a similar journey through the back of their own neighborhood.  The Benigni boys (pronounced “Bah-nee-nee”):  Nick, Adam, and Brandon.  We all went to school and church together, played on the same sports teams, and dreamed about the same girls.  The rope swing was a halfway point between their house and ours, and the five of us made many memories on that river.

After high school we all went our separate ways and mostly lost touch.

Friday night, two days before Christmas, I got a call from my mother.  Her voice was heavy and slow.  Nick had just been killed in an automobile accident that afternoon.

Loss of this magnitude is brutal, especially this time of year.  Nick was a husband and father of three daughters.  I can’t even imagine what his family is going through:  his wife, kids, parents, brothers, in-laws.  But in the midst of grief and sorrow, I’d like to take a moment to share a memory of the boy I remember.

Nick was the oldest of our gang (close to 40 by now), but in many ways I remember him having the youngest heart.  Some people just seem to squeeze every last drop out of life.  Nick Benigni was one of those people.  (In fact, he was driving home from skydiving on the day of the accident).

We all went to a small private school, and for as long as I can remember, the senior class trip was always held at a ranch retreat in upstate New York.  I know this because it was my great uncle’s ranch, and my dad always led those school trips.  Thus, my brother and I were sometimes allowed to tag along.  

One of the highlights of the trip was the day spent on the ski slopes.  For a bunch’a kids from Florida, this mostly involved endless laughter and calamity, and I have no fonder memory of it than the day Nick Benigni practically made history.

The first half of the day is always the same:  sizing your gear, tripping over your skis, and probably purchasing warmer gloves from the gift shop.  Then the instructors drag your face to the bunny slope and teach you the second most important maneuver to ensure your survival that day:  the pizza-pie.  (The most important is to simply fall down.  On this particular day, Nick did neither of those things.)

The pizza-pie is executed by pointing the tips of your skis together and pushing out on the backs and sides, naturally creating the shape of a slice of pizza, and more importantly acting as a break.  You look like a complete moron – none of this seamless parallel ski stuff – but your chances of getting down the hill apart from the snow patrol are dramatically enhanced.

Properly outfitted and instructed, newbies are then essentially left to fend for themselves.

Thus, it was on a sunny afternoon shortly after the beginners class that my brother and I were slowly meandering down a modest slope, careful to keep our skis in the shape of a pizza pie, looking like two human snow plows.  We took wide turns after gliding the full width of the hill on each pass, as if determined to touch every square inch of it.  Basically, we were following the rules.

Suddenly, a streak of black shot past us so fast that I marvelled at the sheer human velocity before I could even muster frustration at the near miss.  We stood sideways and watched the figure scream straight through the crowd like a freaking snow demon, hell bent on smashing land-speed records…and anyone who dared to interfere. 

It was Nick Benigni.

None of this pizza-pie nonsense.  

Wide open, full throttle.  Completely out of control and completely loving every hair-raising second of it.

The slope we were on was right in front of the lodge, which posted long rows of ski racks maybe thirty yards in front of the entrance.

Nick was closing in, and he wasn’t anywhere near slowing down.

From halfway up the hill I watched this increasingly smaller dot speed without hesitation directly into one of those racks, slamming into a pile of chaos and dragging the entire collection into a smashing halt against the side of the lodge.  I didn’t know whether to cheer or cry, and honest to God I never imagined he’d ever eat again without a feeding tube.

But that was Nick.  The guy had a smile you could see from a satellite, dwarfed only by the size of his heart, and absolutely no trace of fear anywhere in his body.  He left a wide swath of joy wherever he went, and he’s left a big hole in a lot of people’s hearts.

He’s in a better place now, and that knowledge keeps the sorrow from drowning all hope.  But his family has a long road of healing ahead.  You don’t have to have known Nick to feel the impact, and if you’d like to help alleviate some of the financial burden on his wife and daughters, then please visit this campaign established for that purpose.  Anything helps.

The hard truth is that we’re promised nothing in this life, and I think maybe we’d all be a bit better off living it like Nick did.  Wide open.  Full throttle.  Love without restraint; say whatever you need to say.  And for God’s sake, ditch that stupid pizza-pie technique and get after whatever it is you keep putting off!