Mar 4 2014

Into the Woods

Any lenses we were wearing – glasses or goggles – fogged up instantly when we trudged into the lodge. Wet, heavy snow dripped off our coats and hats. We’d been skiing nearly three hours and hadn’t intended to stop, except a small squall settled in over the mountain, its steady diagonal snowfall like needles against our faces. Hot chocolate was required, to warm our hands and take a break from being battered by the icy snow.

The lodge, a chalet-styled restaurant, was packed with diners at tables with plates of steaming food, croque-monsieurs and pomme-frites, thick pieces of red meat with creamy sauces. European skiers won’t miss their appointed meal times; a plus for flexible eaters like us who’d rather snack along the way and take advantage of the short lift lines that result while the rest of the mountain’s patrons are savoring their long lunches. Now we were in their midst, standing at the bar in the dark room, cradling our cups of hot chocolate, taking a restorative pause and hoping the snow would ease up.
It did. We gulped down our last sips of chocolate and clunked out of the lodge in awkward ski-booted steps to retrieve our skis and poles, laid against a wooden fence, and headed for the nearly empty lift-line.

We’d rotated in shifts all day, skiing as a family of four, and then De-facto would ski off to explore more demanding terrain, later returning to the two gentler hills that satisfied the girls. Then we’d ski a couple of runs together, all of us, before I’d get my turn to ski off and take a few longer, more challenging runs alone. It’s fun to ski with the girls and watch them get more confident. But how I love to ski alone, at my own pace, to stop when I want – or not stop at all – revived by a few precious, private moments at the top of the mountain. I was a ski-bum for a year in my early thirties, and all the freedom associated with that period of my life comes rushing back to me in an instant, just by sitting alone on the chairlift.

While I was off on my own, De-facto tried to inspire the girls to veer off the main piste into the woods, following tracks carved out by other adventurous skiers. The narrow trails snaked on and off the main slope, quick little jaunts in and out of the forest. For heartier adventurers, you could go deeper and find steeper tracks, one of them even over a bridge with a small jump. But if you stayed at the edge, close to the slope, it was a gentler risk, exhilarating enough for Buddy-roo, who daringly followed her father into the trees and out again.

Short-pants, though older, wasn’t quite as daring. It doesn’t help that her just-about-adolescent body is gangly and spindly. But she’s always had a different kind of physical coordination, and because of this tends to avoid sports in general. Just getting her out on skis is a bit of a trial. The night before we left, she cried because we were forcing her to go skiing. After three runs the first morning, she’d forgotten the burden we’d pressed upon her to enjoy this form of winter athletics, surrendering to its pleasure. But despite De-facto’s enthusiastic encouragement, she refused to follow them into the woods, preferring to do her standard snowplow snake back and forth across the main slope.

Our four-hour passes would expire soon – we’d gone for the shorter lift-pass thinking that the kids wouldn’t want to ski longer. In the end it was De-facto and I who were aching and exhausted and ready to call it a day. I’d skied fairly hard on my last solo turn, so I nodded at him to go off and take a last run on his own. I’d do one more with the girls and ski them over to the rental shop to return the skis and meet him there.

Except Buddy-roo wanted to follow her father into the forest again, so it was agreed she’d wait for Short-pants and me at the bottom by the lift so we could make our final ride up the mountain before our passes ran out. ski_pisteThen we’d take our last run of the day, down a different slope that would take us to the rental shop. The phrase, last run of the day, always sounds ominous to me. As a young child, my sister broke her leg on the last run of the day, so I’m always cautious about making this declaration, afraid to jinx one of us to such a casted fate.

Short-pants and I started out side by side, but I soon pulled ahead, making slow, wide arcs in the fresh snow. Halfway down, I stopped to wait for her. I scanned the hill for her distinctive helmet-worn-over-the-ski-hat (her choice to wear it that way), but she was nowhere to be found. I craned my neck in every direction, on the verge of worrying, until I saw her purple coat and her lopsided helmet…in the woods.

She was just above me, so I took a dozen giant side-steps back up the mountain to get closer to her. She was stopped in her tracks, considering how to navigate forward. From where I stood, it looked like she had a choice to veer out of the woods fairly easily and ski to me, or she could continue on the trail into the woods, though then the route out would be steeper.

“Look at you, in the woods!” I shouted. I wanted to encourage her for taking the risk, though I wished she’d have done it with her father so he could coach her through it. “Hey, why don’t you take the next path out. We’ve got to get down and meet your sister.”

Either she ignored my advice or she was unable to turn her skis in the heavy snow. Although she wasn’t going fast, she was going deeper into the woods and the further she went, the ridge between her and the main slope grew steeper, as did all the little exit paths. When she realized this, she froze.

I checked my watch. Buddy-roo was no doubt waiting for us by the lift, wondering where we were. I knew our lift passes would run out soon, too, which wasn’t the end of the world except then we’d have to ski a good distance cross-country style – never fun with the girls – before walking up a steep hill to get to the rental shop.

“Come on out!” I yelled, cheerfully. “You can do it.”

She inched forward until she came to the next set of tracks leading out of the woods. When she tried to turn, her skis got caught in the heavy snow and trees_on_canvasshe fell over, landing with her skis above her. I watched her struggle to lift them; they were buried under the snow. I called to her, coaxing her to move her body above the skis so she could lift them and position herself to stand up. She couldn’t move. She didn’t have the strength.

I snapped out of my bindings and walked up into the woods to where Short-pants was laying in the snow. I couldn’t get her untangled, so I snapped her out too and we walked out of the woods, carrying her skis, back down to the slope. But now the bottoms of her ski boots were caked with packed snow, and we were still on too much of an incline to balance on one foot and scrape it off. Getting back into her skis was turning out to be a chore.

It was starting to snow again, hard. I took out my phone – De-facto and I had been texting each other to choreograph our meet-ups all day – and called him to tell him to go back to the lift and get Buddy-roo, who by now was either angry with us or terrified that we’d forgotten her. It was a stroke of luck to reach him, he’s not an always-answer-the-cell-phone kind of guy.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Short-pants kept repeating. She could sense my exasperation, without me saying a thing. She was on the verge of tears and the whole ordeal had exhausted her. I kept assuring her it was all okay, but my voice was tired, making my words hard to believe. We walked up to a more level part of the slope, where she could find her balance and we could fuss more easily with her skis and boots. Just as I managed to scrape the snow off her boots and clamp her back into her bindings, De-facto and Buddy-roo called to us from the chairlift passing overhead. Short-pants waved back as I put my skis on and shuffled up right beside her.

“My little wood nymph,” I said, planting my poles in the snow so I could let go of them and put my arms around her. “You ready to ski down?” She cracked a reluctant smile, chuckling at her new nickname.

We took off down the mountain, both of us skiing directly to the front of the lengthening lift line. I begged the pardon of a family about to enter the two_pairs_of_skiselectronic gate, explaining that our passes were about to expire and we needed to get up one more time in order to ski down to the other side of the mountain. The turnstile blinked green, letting us through. We inched forward as the chair came around behind us, scooping us up as we thumped back into it, with relief.

Swinging in the air, meters above where she’d been stuck in the snow, I asked her why she chose that moment to go into the woods, instead of going in with her father.

“I guess I just wanted to go on my own,” she said. “You know?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I know.”

Mar 13 2013

Step on a Crack

It was raining at the top of the mountain. Short-pants klunked toward the car in her bulky ski boots, cold and drenched but smiling after a morning of skiing. Buddy-roo and I had skipped the sporting activities of the day. She’d turned her ankle running in the yard of our country house earlier in the week, and my back was flaring up a little bit, so I opted to sit it out with her. The first day we took over a table in the mountaintop restaurant and I even jumped on an open wifi signal and scratched out a few work messages. Her foot hadn’t improved, so I dropped half of my family at the ski lift that morning and took Buddy-roo to a local doctor in the village who sent us to chalkboard_skiierthe nearest hospital in the valley to get an X-ray. The visit was efficient, if not unsatisfactory in that the image showed no evidence of even a tiny fracture, so there was nothing to be done – according to the radiologist – but give it a rest and wait and see. A troubling prognosis, especially since our plan was to go to Barcelona the following week, a visit which would include no small amount of wandering around the city to explore it.

I wasn’t pleased to miss the skiing. At one time in my life it’d been an every-weekend pastime. I even lived in Switzerland for two winters, skiing to the chairlift from my door, whenever I wanted. These days it’s a once-a-year excursion, at best. But I appreciated the experience Short-pants was having, on the slopes alone with her father, exercising her skiing muscles and getting a few days to catch up with her younger sister, who, last year proved to be a more confident skier.

De-facto set about loading their skis in the car, Short-pants sat down sideways in the car seat with her feet out the door to remove her boots. She was wet and exhausted and could barely bend over. I squatted down before her, carefully. I unbuckled the boots and opened the wide flaps so she could extract her foot. The first boot slipped off with a gentle tug. The second was more persistent. I pulled at it, meeting resistance, so tugged harder, giving it a real yank. The boot snapped off into my hands, accompanied by a bolt of excruciating pain in my lower back, upwards to my shoulder and down the ground through my leg. I threw the boot down on the ground and leaned against the dirty, wet, car. Fuck.

Later, after lowering myself gingerly into the passenger seat, our car wound down the mountain roads and the tears streamed down my face. They were not so much about the physical discomfort – I new the pain would pass eventually – but more about the consequences of this injury on my plan to return to the Camino Santiago in a week’s time. I couldn’t imagine walking 250 kilometers, let alone with nearly 10 kilos of weight on my back. I couldn’t even think of bending over to tie my hiking boots. I’d have to postpone the walk. But until when? The spring is already filling up with work engagements, or preparations for same. I’d cleared these weeks specifically to walk, and to finish. Though the Fiesta Nazi, an avid Camino fan, reminded me that every time I “finish” I’ll start scheming another leg of it that I want to do, from Le Puy, or to Finisterre, or the Route del Norte. But I have had my mind set on finishing the Route Francés this year, while I was in the middle age of fifty.

“Sorry you hurt your back,” Short-pants’ gentle voice from the backseat. I realized she might feel responsible since it happened while pulling off her ski boot.

“Just wait,” I said, shaking my finger in the air so they’d know I was joking, “until I find out which one of you stepped on a crack and broke my back.”

Buddy-roo giggled, but Short-pants was quiet.

“Hey,” I pulled the visor down and looked at her in the mirror, “this isn’t your fault. I should have known better.”
Even though you can tie my back injury specifically to a physical incident – it happened once before pulling up carpet, or this time tugging off a ski boot – I believe that I’m be pre-disposed to such an injury if I’m off balance in my life, or trying to carry too many things. Dr. John Sarno, a specialist in rehabilitating people with chronic back problems, wrote a book, Healing Back Pain that I’ve read more than once and always resonates with me. There is an emotional component that contributes to back issues. Whenever mine flares up, I know I have to pay attention to something.

We returned to our country house, where I remained horizontal for a whole day while Buddy-roo acquired a pair of crutches at the village pharmacy so she could hobble around. I can’t say this was a horrible punishment. Short-pants served me tea, and De-facto rubbed a special anti-inflammatory pommade my back. He cooked all the meals and the girls did all the dishes. I got to stay in bed and read and write and play Subway Surfer. My back survived the seven hour drive to Barcelona, and each day I have less pain and more mobility. Buddy-roo is still hopping on crutches – she’ll probably have to get another X-ray – but I’m very much on the mend. The Camino may still be within close reach. I have a few days to decide.

It’s might be better left for early May. I could carve out two weeks then and the weather will be warmer and possibly dryer. It’d be during spring break, so that might be easier for De-facto. We’ll see how I feel, later this week, when I need to decide whether to fly to Léon and bus to Astorga and begin my walk again, or whether I drive back to Paris with the family. For now, I’m taking it one day at a time, which is in itself a good reminder, and certainly a preparation for the Camino ahead, whenever it happens.

Feb 29 2012

Scales of Parenting

The sun slipped up over the horizon as we pulled away from the country house. We were up before dawn and quickly in the car, dressed in full ski gear. Our drive to the mountains was three hours, a little more, moving from Autoroute to Route Nationale to mountain roads, gray ribbons weaving through steep fields of snow. The Massif Central is not France’s most chic ski destination, but it is the right terrain for our little skiiers to get their legs. They’re in training for a full-on-week-long-rent-a-chalet-ski vacation in the French and Swiss Alps, hopefully next year.

On the mountain, the continuous hum of the ski lifts became our soundtrack. Blue sky arcing over us meant uninterrupted sunshine and perfect temperatures. Little feet tucked into tiny boots snapped into bindings on short skis, midget-sized poles at their sides. They looked ready to ski.

Short-pants shuffled across the snow, one ski at a time, especially awkward in all her gear. It was more like walking than skiing. Encouragement was required.

“Look at you! That’s it! You’re doing great! You’re skiing!”

She inched along. Her spirits seemed fragile – she was at once thrilled to be so equipped and engaged in the snowy sport we’d been previewing for days, and at the same time terrified of the burden upon her to turn down the mountain on two such narrow boards.

Buddy-roo was already essing from side-to-side on the slope, slowly but steadily reacquainting herself with the actions required to steer and stop on skis. The four of us made a long – though slow – parade of snow plows down the slope. It was a start. But now we had the real challenge: the lift.

Last year, the girls debuted on skis and we ramped them up to use the big chair lift, though not without a bit of stress and scurrying at the last minute to be sure everyone was in place to be scooped up by the giant mechanical chair. They had some experience with other ski lifts, T-bars and J-bars, too, but never with a poma-bar. But that was the only kind of lift at this resort. Sometimes the lift lines could stretch out across the bottom of the slope, not because the resort was so terribly crowded – it wasn’t – but because of the succession of little kids or beginner skiers falling of the lift and needing several tries to get situated on the bar.

Even as an experienced skier, I’m always a bit nervous the first time I use a ski lift. Especially the ones that drag you up the hill. The moment it jerks forward can catch you by surprise. Or it can move so smoothly that you get lazy and forget you’re not supposed to sit. Next thing you know, your ski tips are crossing and you’re horizontal in the snow.

Our foray into the land of the poma lift was not without a few errors, but quickly both girls mastered the art, and moving them back up the mountain was the least of our issues.

After one run, Short-pants wanted to take a break. She’d adapted to the skis with more difficulty than her sister and it was apparent she was enjoying it less. She looked adorable, her little legs not much thicker than the ski poles in her hands. But you could see she was miserable, which was maddening because we’d driven three hours and invested in ski rentals and hotel reservations and we’d toted all the gear from the car to the lodge – that in itself a production – and we just wanted her to try it a bit longer.

The earlier enthusiastic encouragement, more like coddling, took a different tone: cajoling.

“Oh, come on.” I said. “We’re out here, the sun is out and the sky is blue. It’s a gorgeous, perfect day to do just what we came here to do: ski! You can’t give up now.”

She could. Give up now. But she didn’t. She’s an obedient child so she suffered another series of snowplow turns down the gentle slope of the bunny hill. But she spent more time on the hill than on her skis. Halfway through the run, she headed the direction of the lodge, situated at the mid-point of the hill.

“Can I take a break?” she said, sniffling. She was on the mend, or so we thought, from a cold and she’d been sniffling for days.

I cajoled some more: uplifting, you-can-do-it logic and don’t-give-up-yet appeals to keep her at it. Just one or two more runs before we stop, to cement the muscle memory, to get her skiing with a bit more confidence before she stops to rest.

“I want to stop.” She was on the verge of tears.

I didn’t know which way to go on the scale. Tone it back down to coddle, stay steady at cajole, or ratchet it up to command. We’d only started. She couldn’t be tired. It wasn’t cold out – if anything the sun made it too warm for her ski-coat. We’d just had lunch. There was no good reason to stop.

“No,” I said, more firmly. “You’re going to ski. That’s what we came to do and there’s no reason to give up after only one run.”

Now she was fully in tears.

This is one of those parental dilemmas. How hard do you press your kids to go beyond their initial limits? When do our gentle and respectful requests get put aside because the situation requires a firmer tone? And when is the right time to scale it up to the strongest command?

I remember my early skiing career, being miserable and freezing cold, standing in a line in a group lesson, making-a-pie with my skis ad nauseam until my little thighs were burning, and wanting to do nothing but klunk through the lodge and have my mother unlace my boots and let me sit by the fire. But my parents commanded me to gut it out, despite the wet snow and cold toes. It’s true that I came to love skiing. In high school I adored the ski club’s Thursday-night excursions. Later I spent most winter weekends skiing in Vermont. In my thirties, I even took a winter off to be a ski-bum in Switzerland. If they hadn’t pushed me, I’d have missed out on all the fun.

Short-pants turned her skis down the mountain and pressed on, falling often and finding it harder and harder to get back up. De-facto took over the coaching, but her heart wasn’t in it. At the bottom of the slope we promised that she could ski right to the lodge on the next run.

Which she did. And sat at a table on the terrace and watched us tour up and down the wide trail with her sister, who was now getting confident enough to obtain speeds that merited her new nickname: the Bomber.

I’d ski over and visit Short-pants every other run, notching down to cajole as command obviously hadn’t worked. What became apparent, at each visit, is that she wasn’t so against the idea of skiing as she was truly feeling ill. Her cold was not on the mend, and she was slightly feverish and even a bit dizzy. No wonder she couldn’t get excited to ski. She was permitted spectator status the rest of the afternoon.

Later, at the hotel, she went horizontal immediately while De-facto cooked up a dinner in our kitchenette. She was truly sick, and I was feeling horrible about how I’d commanded her to ski earlier.

“It’s okay, mama,” she consoled me. “I’ll ski tomorrow.”

“We’ll see,” I coddled. “Only if you feel like it.”

We took it easy the next day, but she rallied. Her skiing grew steady and she spent more time upright than on the ground. We let her sit on the terrace whenever she wanted. She counted the skylights on the building and read the signs outside the shops and restaurants.

On the third and final ski day, it was Short-pants who didn’t want to stop.

“One more run!” she said, wearing a wide grin. This provoked a long groan from the Bomber who was tired of skiing and ready to stop. I guess it paid off, this time, to scale things down.

Dec 31 2010

A Year, Defined

Her coughing echoed off the walls of our hotel room. Just as I’d doze off, Buddy-roo would cough again, violently, waking herself up, and keeping De-facto and me from any semblance of real sleep. Only Short-pants, who could sleep through a train wreck, got any shut-eye.

The cough started last weekend, on the tail end of a mild cold, a typical flight-path for this kind of winter malady. Here is every parent’s dilemma: hover over your child and rush her to the doctor every time she sneezes?
Or help her gut it out because, usually, a little TLC, tea and honey and homemade chicken soup will let it run its course. It’s never comfortable, but kids get sick – everyone gets sick – and you get through it. Of course, Short-pants once had a cough and flu-like thing that turned out to be a brain abscess and required surgery and six weeks in intensive care. This could have turned us into full-fledged helicopter parents. We’ve tried, very deliberately, not to overreact to subsequent illnesses based on that experience, which was a statistical anomaly. I’m kinda proud of that.

Why is it that a child’s cough or cold always gets worse the day just before a holiday weekend or in the middle of a vacation? It’s like they wait to get really sick until your trusted pediatrician is out of reach or until you’re in a strange place where you can’t handily call a doctor. Then you wished you’d addressed it when they were just a little sick, except then you’d feel a bit silly, calling your doctor because of a runny nose.

After one particularly severe coughing fit, I switched places with Short-pants (who barely woke up and moved to the other bed like a zombie) in order to be next to Buddy-roo. I wanted to check her heart-rate, to feel if she had a fever, to try to slow her breathing by slowing mine beside her, or at least try to reassure her with a mother’s embrace.

“Mama,” she said, in that sweet middle-of-the night voice, “the coughing is keeping me from continuing the beautiful dream I was having.”

“I’m sorry peanut,” I soothed her, “tell me about your dream.”

“I was standing in the courtyard at school and there was a big white cloud stretched across the sky. The cloud got closer and closer and I saw it was Grammy standing on the cloud in a really beautiful dress with gold wings…”

She erupted into another fit of coughing.

“…and then I stepped onto the cloud, it was soft and warm, and then I had wings and a halo, too. Just like her.”

I’m glad this felt like a beautiful dream to Buddy-roo, but to me it had the makings of a nightmare. Was this a message from my mother or just a coincidence? I vowed to myself that we’d see a doctor, and soon.

During the last week of my mother’s life, we talked about communicating from the other side. “If you can,” I pleaded, “could you tell Short-pants to pick-up her room?” It’s true I wouldn’t mind such a nudge from the afterlife, but the real reason I said it was that I knew it would make my mother laugh – the full circle of it all – and she did. Laugh, that is.

After some back scratching and tandem breathing, Buddy-roo’s coughing subsided and she fell into an even sleep. But now I was wide awake, left to further consider the meaning of her possibly prophetic dream, after which I turned to something I’d been pondering all day: my defining moment(s) of the last year. This is one Reverb10 prompt that I’d considered skipping; I think I’ve written enough about it already. Click on this blog’s dying or grieving tags and you’ll see I’ve documented, explored and exhausted the subject. Even my most loyal readers must be bored with it by now.

But there in the darkened hotel room, pitch black but for one thin line of pre-dawn light where the drawn curtains didn’t quite meet, the rest of my family slept and I ran through it all again, the whole constellation of moments that defined 2010 for me, plotted around the event of my mother’s death.

I remember at the calling hours at the funeral home, when, for a moment I actually stood outside myself, like an observer, watching the scene unfold. I saw my brother, my sister and myself greeting the friends and colleagues of my mother – of both my parents, in fact – who came to pay their respects. There’s a remarkable thing that happens at a time like this, a mutual healing occurs when the people who’ve come to console you discover their own grief and you end up consoling them. I think this is why we have calling hours and funerals and memorial services. Grief has its private moments, but its public expression has a place in the healing process, too.

I saw that somehow, despite our own exhaustion and grief, we’d pulled ourselves together and done what had to be done to move things along, to make all the arrangements, to show up and dig deep and find the words to appreciate each person who’d come to console us. I saw the three of us, doing this just the way my parents would have done it, just the way they would have wanted us to do it. And I knew that if my mother were watching, she’d have been proud.

The defining moment, perhaps, is what happened next, when I realized that I didn’t need to make her proud anymore, and I hadn’t needed to for a long time. I understood, in a deeper way, that it’s about making myself proud – not her, not my father, but me. Or even thinking ahead – maybe it’s a little bit about making my children proud, the way my siblings and I were so very proud of our mother.

What defined me this year was not that I lost my mother, but what’s happened since she died. Not to go overboard here; it’s too easy to canonize her now that she’s gone and it should be said that we had our fair share of frustrating, eye-rolling moments, typical for most mother-daughter relationships. But in the end, we were good friends and we relied upon each other. I’ve had to learn how to be afloat without her gentle ballast in the background, and that is what will define this year for me.

At breakfast the next morning I asked the hotel proprietor to suggest a local doctor. She could, it turns out, and she even made a few calls on our behalf, returning with several options, the best of which was a general practitioner with open office hours until 10:30 am, in the village halfway between our hotel and the ski mountain.

Vous avez évité une catastrophe,” the doctor said, pressing her stethoscope against Buddy-roo’s chest and looking at her throat and ears with the proper lighting. Buddy-roo coughed, violently, and smiled. “What’s a catastrophe?” she asked me, in English. “A big mess, and we’ve avoided it,” I answered. “Is that good?” she asked. I nodded, feeling her forehead.

At the pharmacy I handed over the prescription, waiting and watching as the pharmacist meticulously fulfilled the doctor’s requests, one item at a time. He placed each box of medicine in front of me with an explanation of how much, how often, at what time of the day to administer it. When he put the package of suppositories – for a cough – on the countertop, he must have noticed my expression. “It’s the French way,” he said, in English, smirking at me. I’m pretty sure he never had to administer a suppository to a 7-year old child. If he did, I bet he’d choose another form, despite its slower efficacy.

Our last day of skiing could continue as planned. I was prepared to sit it out in the lodge with her, but Buddy-roo wanted to have another lesson and another few hours on the slopes. At least now she was fortified with some medicine and tonight she’d sleep without interruption. In a week’s time she’ll be fine; already she seemed on the mend. I felt the clouds lifting, rising high and away, and I knew that if my mother were watching, she’d have been proud.

Not that it matters (ahem).

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Kathryn Fitzmaurice: Prompt: Defining moment. Describe a defining moment or series of events that has affected your life this year.