Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How I Learned to Ski: When the Fall the Saves You

It's a gorgeous morning in Park City, UT. As with all new things, especially ones that involve falling down, skiing fills my chest with anxiety. I’m in my second series of ski lessons. From the flag where we adult learners line up, I can see my fearless five-year-old Ellie balancing on tiny pink and white skis. When we set-off she passes me in the “first timer’s” lift line. She’s laughing and falls down. The ski instructor grabs the handle on the back of the red vest they put on all the little skiers and pulls her back up to standing. My parka has no such handle yet I have a lot farther to fall. She has all her people to pick her up. Ever since my father died, I do not.

            At the end of my lessons, my husband and father-in-law agree to ski down on a green run with me. It’s terrifying - not only might I fall and experience a broken bone or torn ACL, I could slow them down, or they could leave me behind, alone.
On the big lift, I breathe in and out. From my lips, puffs of air form small clouds which tempt me to move my glove off the safety bar to touch them. Below my skis, the tree line changes from bare birch branches, to evergreens, until there is only purple-white snow glistening as it melts in the overwarm March day. The impossibly blue sky deepens through the lens of my goggles. I congratulate myself on my ability to calm my fears, to be present in the moment, and to handle my instinct favoring panic. We reach the top of the lift. I slide down the ramp and glide to a safe stop. So far, so good.

 “Why don’t you go and I’ll follow?” I am back in the state of mind that questions why anyone would find hurling themselves down the side of a mountain at 12 mph fun. Instead, I feel reckless and stupid.
“Six lessons, you can do this,” I tell myself. Pause and breathe again. In that moment, I stop and look to my right. The view from the top of the Earth is miraculous – I feel freedom. Now I understand, people do this for the chance to see the world through Zeus’ eyes.
“Just don’t leave me, ok?”
“Of course, not. We’ll just take our time,” My husband reassures me.
            About six minutes into the run, my husband has taken a different turn. He’s gone. “And there it is,” I sigh.
My father-in-law stays a few yards ahead of me, I follow his tracks until a narrow part of the run where I fall forward trying to avoid two girls who couldn’t be a day older than Ellie. The snow sneaks into the space between my sleeve and my glove. Its cold burns the inside of my wrist enough to distract me. My brain pushes out the failure and humiliation trying to ignite my amygdala – no time for that now. I’m on my side in the middle of a ski run. All I can do is get up.

I recount the steps I learned:
Step one: Skis across the mountain.
Step two: Dig your poles into the mountain above you
Step three: Rise up and lean on your downhill ski.
Step four:  Keep on keeping on
We reach an intersection on the mountain. One direction is blue and the other green. Somehow we end up on the blue. I see my father-in-law scoot over to the “Rest Area.” The pitch, as far as I’m concerned, is vertical. The first obscenity emerges from my mouth. It’s only 100 yards, right?
             As soon as I make my slow, wide, round turn, my body betrays me and leans back. On my side, I am sliding down the mountain. Once I come to a complete stop, I look over to the rest area. My father-in-law has also disappeared from view
“Are you kidding me?” I say out loud. A passing man gives me a look as his impossibly small child zips past me.
I make it to the rest area. By now, I’ve lost control. Frustration lights her match igniting the lonely tinder in my veins. Tears run down my face. Where do I go? Whose tracks can I follow? What if I just can’t do this? How am I supposed to continue?
I head out across the steep slope with my skis almost perpendicular to the mountain. A snowboarder comes close behind me as I turn to the right again. My ski slips, I lean back from my fall and I am down again, flat on my back. I’ve moved no more than 15 yards form the previous fall. “So that’s how this is gonna’ be. Might as well get on with it.”

New instructions for getting up from a fall:
Step One: Breathe.
Step Two: Don’t cry. It won’t help you get out of this.
Step Three: Accept that you are all alone and they aren’t going to help you up. If tears fall anyway, return to Step 2.
Step Four: Breathe again. Decide to get up. Keep on keeping on.

I am up and down again in less than five seconds. Get Up, turn left, fall down. Get up, turn right, fall down. I repeat this at least four more times. Anger, fear, frustration, and abandonment overcome me. “How could they do this to me? They left me here, all by myself. By myself. I have to do this alone – again!” Luckily no one seems to notice that I’m literally talking to myself on the piste.
This is the loneliness of keep on keeping on. It never goes away. It comes back when you’re scared for life, miles from civilization. When you need your own sense of self-worth, when you need to know people love you, when you asked them above all else, “Please don’t leave me.”
They don’t know. They don’t understand what it means to be left behind. And you know they will always leave you. The worst thing that’s ever happened to you and people do it over and over again every single day. Even the ones who are supposed to love you – they forget and leave you by yourself, to find your own way down, even if it means rolling down a mountain and starting an avalanche. That is what it feels like to grieve.
            I channel my anger and play the words I will say to them at the bottom of the mountain, in my mind “You are dead to me.” I charge all the way down the rest of the mountain, falling once or twice until I reach the slower, flatter slope at the end. The foam on my mask is soaked with tears. When I finally get to the bottom, I don’t see them.
Finally, I see my husband. “You left me. Then your dad left me. Then I fell. And I fell and I fell.”
            “Where did you guys go? You must have turned the wrong way.”
Be careful of the words you imagine yourself saying. You may say them. “You’re dead to me.” He laughs until he sees my tears. How can you trust anyone when even the ones who know and love you leave you with your skis in the air, flat on your back on the side of a mountain?
            The next day, in my lesson, I ski that same run with an instructor. When I fall, he tells me to get up and lean forward. Go with the feeling of falling. Use it to pull you down the mountain. Keep on keeping on. I don’t fall again. I carve my ski deeper into each turn. You can’t resist the fall – you have to embrace it.

Learning to ski is learning to live after someone you love, who was supposed to take care of you dies. Only you can trust yourself to finish the run. You have to lean toward the fall - it’s the only way down the mountain.

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