Several years ago while cross-country skiing with my 18-year-old daughter, we came upon an icy patch next to a ledge. My prudent daughter removed her skis. I kept mine on, sat on them and proceeded to slide down the hill on my derriere. My impudent “devil may care” behavior precipitated loud screams of, “Mommy! Mommy! Take off your skis.”
That was then. This is now.
“Swish” is the calming sound skis make gliding across silvery alabaster fields. The quiet meditative repetition — right, left, right, left — of the skis, combined with the perfect cleanliness of the gentle breeze, can create a deep sense of well-being and inner calm.
Except if you are skiing terrified.
When I was young, I could ski by myself for hours in the wilderness, fearless.
Last week when I took a gentle fall, I discovered my 75-year-old knees made it impossible for me to get up. I twisted and turned, flopping around from position to position, repeatedly falling back into the snow. My pants were soaking, my hands freezing. I remembered my husband suggesting I get snow pants. “I am not a child,” I said.
I tried to remove my skis, which would have at least allowed me to stand up, but the amount of leverage required was way beyond my strength. I flashed on a book I read in high school, Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” I thought I could write “The Old Woman in the Snow” if I live.
Hemingway’s protagonist, Santiago the fisherman, is far out into the sea without any land in sight. I am far into the woods, without any road or house nearby. Santiago struggles against a gargantuan marlin and becomes tired. I struggle for hours with the elements — cold, wind, snow, ice and water-soaked clothes. Santiago asks God for help.
I call on my savior, my husband, but my phone is out of range. I think of trying to break the skis against a tree. It occurs to me I could break my leg with such a foolhardy gesture.
Santiago thinks that, although no one should be alone in old age, it’s unavoidable. He sees clouds building-up and a flight of wild ducks and thinks at sea no man is ever truly alone. I, on the other hand, am terrified that I am not alone and a bear will eat me.
It’s getting dark with miles to go before I sleep. With no solution in sight, my life flashes before my eyes. Yes, it did. That is a thing.
I stop trying to get up. I stop trying to get the ski unhooked from my boot. “Ignorance,” Dr, Phil says, “is working harder at what is not working.” I lie on my back, bringing the skis over my head and shake my legs furiously like a praying mantis wearing swimming fins and sunglasses. With one groan followed by a yelp, a single ski takes flight.
I know my skiing solo days are over. My husband and I will ski together for evermore. I like to exercise in the morning, he in the afternoon. We compromise, the main verb in marriage. At 11 a.m. last Tuesday I see an old woman with a serene countenance skiing toward me.
“What do you do if you fall?” I ask.
“Just unzip, unlace and remove my boot. Bring an extra pair of socks with you.”
The existential mystery, the quintessential unanswerable question is: “Why didn’t I think of that?”