It was a cold, icy morning in New Hampshire, and as I stood at the base of the frosted mountain, strapped into my long, boney skis, peering up to where the mountain’s peak meets the sky, I wondered, Can I really do this?
I was nine years old, and although my best friend went on an airplane to Florida for winter break, my parents always took us to New Hampshire. We were six siblings, and I imagine the airfare alone would have been enough to wipe out the entirety of the trip fund. And so, we always drove to our vacation destination, rented a nice, comfortable home, and did pleasant day trips. On this particular day, my mother stayed behind with my three youngest siblings and my father ventured out with the rest of us kids, a friend, and his kids, to experiment with the ski slope at Bretton Woods.
“You guys don’t need lessons!” he quipped, as if he were a pro, ready to teach us every last skill in the emboldening sport. “Just cross your skis, and take it slow!” This was it. The one lesson we’d need to survive the steep slope. Not to pick up too much speed, and we’d be okay. Not to lose control.
As my father pushed us all over to the lift area, three teetering children, in mismatched snowpants and jackets, he lined us up in order to embark on the T-bar. I watched as each upside-down T swooped past me, grabbing an expectant passenger in its wide berth, towing him or her uphill. It looked effortless. The attendant reached up and pulled the spring-loaded bar down to my height, abruptly thrusting it behind me, and I sat. I kept on sitting until I landed firmly on the snow, and the T bounced up over my head, buoyant and happy to be free of my weight.
My next attempt was a little more successful. “You can’t really sit,” my father explained. “Just lean on it a little. Let it drag you.” And he straddled a defunct T that lay next to the lift, to demonstrate the various towing positions. I made it six feet up before falling again, my ski burrowing itself in the ground. The attendant pulled me out.
Finally, precariously, I was being hauled up the mountain, and I held my breath. I knew if I even turned my neck the wrong way, I would fall. If I got too excited, I would fall. But I had this nagging sensation that I just had to turn around to check how far I’d come. I needed to celebrate my uphill battle, to scream, I’m doing this! And so I turned, for a split second, for a hairsbreadth moment, for an achingly impossible glance at the glassy vista and fleecy heads below, when I fell, disembarking from the lift, my ski wedging itself in a large bank of snow in the path of oncoming T-bar riders.
There were a few vacant T’s, and then my father.
“Don’t worry Sarah,” he cried, as the wind carried his voice in its arms. “Stay right where you are. I’ll come get you and you can ride with me.” I nodded, though I was so bundled up, I doubt he noticed my movement. My savior, huddled in his thick black coat and brown gloves, just a few moments away from reaching out to me, from pulling me out of my state of entrapment. I sat in the snow and waited.
“Wait for me, I’m coming!” As I turned my head in the direction of his voice, I discovered that in his fervor, my father had fallen. En route to rescue me, to pull me from the embankment, he had lost concentration in his footing and a ski had twisted from its straight path uphill, veered a little left, and crossed the other ski, knocking him off the T. I sat there, a few feet uphill from him, blinking back tears.
“Abba, are you okay?” I asked, worried that we wouldn’t make it down. A knob of fear crested in my throat as I took large gulps of wind. He fell because of me. It was my fault. Was he hurt? Who would I rely on, if I didn’t have him?
“I think I’ll be all right! Sarah, you need to try to slide off the path of the lift before more skiers come. Try to move over this way,” he said, motioning to a row of trees that separated the lift line from the ski slope. “Take off your skis if you have to. We can crawl through the trees and put our skis on the other side, and then just ski down from there.” It sounded like an adventure. I felt my fear melting away, and in its stead, a glinting, wholesome spark.
Together we crawled off the lift-path until we stood on the open face of the snowy slope. We snapped on our skis and he followed my lead down the mountain, our knees bent, hunched over, braced against the wind. And every few feet, I was compelled to pause and look back at him, to make sure he was still in my cautiously slow trail, swift and upright. When I fell, he would swoop over, and pull me up by my armpits, setting me back on the path downhill. He trailed me until we reached the base of the mountain, our skis in the eternal “pizza pie” shape, and we exhaled the stress of our excursion as we lumbered over to the T-bar again.
For years, whenever I would get emotional over something, but couldn’t muster up enough sadness to spill forth with tears, I could relive those moments together, etched with fatherly concern in its most primitive form; the two of us in the middle of the slope, passing through the trees like tiptoeing ghosts, slender and elusive, and I could easily cry. My father, carrying our equipment on his back, then helping me to regain my footing, and sending me off down the hill. This memory always sets me off.
And perhaps that’s how I’ll always know my father. As he is. As a father should be. An expert, guru, virtuoso. A subtle leader. A tell-tale safety net. He would follow cautiously behind as I embarked on my journeys, and when he’d witness a stumble, he would covertly dive in for the rescue, and we’d continue hand-in-hand, formulating a new strategy for success, before he could send me off again, slowly, cautiously, hesitantly. And always, at the bottom of the slope, I could turn around and squint against the glare of the sun, to see his awkward shape lumbering down the hill, his face alight with a smile.