I purposely put off writing my April newsletter this month because I really didn’t have anything interesting to say. We were leaving for our annual ski vacation in Vermont, so I took my AlphaSmart along, hoping that by the last few days of the vacation, I’d have something to write about.
And I do. But it’s not exactly what I had in mind. Before I tell you what happened, let me go back in time to 1994.
That’s the year I skied for the first time. I’d always had a secret desire to try skiing, but you know, that’s just something that seemed impossible for a middle-class citizen who’s never laid eyes on a ski resort. But my daughter, Leah and her friend, Jen, wanted to try it, so we drove up for the day to Bryce Resort in Virginia, about two hours away from home, and took our first lessons. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked, even though I later realized I really hadn’t learned much at all about skiing that day. I recently came across a picture Leah took of me that day; I was pretty much just sliding straight down the hill, clutching my poles as if they were lifelines, my butt stuck out as I crouched over my skis to give myself some needed momentum. Staring at that picture, I couldn’t help but laugh. I’d been so proud of myself, thinking I was really skiing!
But that first ski trip to Bryce was the beginning of my love affair with the sport. The following December, our whole family went up to Ski Liberty Resort in Pennsylvania, and there, my husband and son fell in love with skiing, too. And that’s how our annual ski vacation came about. At first, we were happy with places close to home—Massanutten in Virginia, Camelback in Pennsylvania, Canaan Valley and Snowshoe in West Virginia. But back in 2000, we decided to go to Vermont because we’d heard that the Green Mountain State had the best skiing in the Eastern United States. The first resort we tried was Smuggler’s Notch, rated the # 1 Family Resort by Ski Magazine several years in a row.
How could I know then that Smuggs might turn out to be our last ski resort as well? Because right now, I very much fear my skiing days are over.
It happened on Thursday, April 3rd sometime between 3:30 and 4:00. As we rode up in the chairlift together, Frank told me he was going to head to the condo after one last run. I said I wanted to do one more if there was time. The lifts closed at 4:00, and since this would be one of our last runs of the season, I wanted to get in as many as I could.
Frank waved at me from the bottom of the hill and clicked out of his skis while I turned to the chairlift for my last run. Little did I know that that last run might just turn out to be the last one ever for me.
It was a good run, even though the warmth of the beautiful sunny day had turned the snow to crystallized slush. But I skied it fast and flawlessly, enjoying every smooth S-turn, relishing in the joy of a sport I’d loved from that very first day at Bryce…even before I actually learned to ski. It’s impossible for non-skiers to understand the passion we avid skiers have for the sport—the exhilaration of flying down the mountain in complete control. It’s so easy to forget how quickly you can lose that control—and how your life can change dramatically in an instant. I remembered my fall last year at Killington; it happened just like that. One second I was skiing in total control, and the next, I hit the snow hard, knees first, then my chest—and just like that, I had two fractured ribs. And I still don’t know what happened to make me lose control.
But on this last run, everything was perfect. I reached the bottom of the slope, clicked out of my skis and headed back to the condo.
When I opened the ski locker, I was disappointed to see that my sister’s skis were not there. And the vague worry I’d had earlier in the afternoon resurfaced.
I’d last seen Kathy at the summit of Morse Mountain, the smallest of the three peaks that make up Smugglers Notch. As we’d rode up in the lift together, she’d been contemplating taking the one blue run on Morse. Even the lift operator knew about it because as we got off the lift, he asked her if she was finally going to try Snowsnake. Frank was in the chairlift behind us, and as Kathy headed toward Snowsnake, he called out to her. “Break a leg, Kathy!” Horrified, I chastised him, informing him that that particular saying should be used only for theater, and he quickly corrected himself. “Good luck, I mean.” Kathy smiled and waved—and we headed off in different directions.
That was the last I’d seen her. After watching for her, and not seeing her anywhere, I asked the lift operator if he’d seen her lately. He remembered her right away, and said he thought she’d headed over to Sterling Peak, the second largest mountain that had nothing but blue runs and black diamonds. Alarm bells went off in my mind. Kathy was a good skier, but she hadn’t skied for two years, and our first two days of skiing here at Smuggs had been tentative for her. I wasn’t sure she was ready for the blues on Sterling.
So when I saw that her skis weren’t in the locker, I had a gut feeling that something was wrong. And it wasn’t more than a minute before I found out I was right.
I opened the door to the condo, and Frank met me in the kitchen. “I’ve got bad news. Kathy took a fall on Madonna and she’s at the ski patrol office. They’ve called an ambulance.”
That’s all he knew. In a state of panic, I took only enough time to get out of ski boots, and we were in the truck, heading for the Madonna lodge. I didn’t even think to grab my purse or my cell phone.
A few minutes later, I burst into the Ski Patrol office, and saw Kathy on a stretcher. She had an oxygen mask glued to her nose and mouth, but she was conscious. Her ski suit had been c cut away to reveal a swollen right leg. An IV dripped a solution into a vein in her hand. The ski patrol couldn’t tell us much, but it was obvious they believed she’d suffered a fracture of her femur—the large bone in the thigh. The ambulance arrived, and I rode with her for the hour long trip to a trauma care center in Burlington. The rescue guys were great; the drive took so long because of the winter condition of Vermont roads—the pothole and bumps and frost heaves which would add to her agony if we went too fast. They kept her sedated with pain medication throughout. In the Emergency Room, the real pain came when they had to remove her ski boot, and then later, when her injured leg began to spasm.
The trauma team did a portable X-ray, and a few minutes later, I saw the film myself, and even a grade schooler could tell she had definitely fractured her femur. An orthopedic surgeon was called in, and within two hours, she was in surgery. Gone are the days of a hospital stay in traction for weeks on end. They inserted a nail into her bone to bring the two pieces back together, and the next morning, they had her up and walking with a walker. She won’t be able to put any weight on her injured leg for at least four weeks. She won’t be able to drive for probably three months.
I’m writing this from the back seat of our car as we head back to Virginia. Kathy is in the front passenger seat, her right foot cushioned by a pillow on the floor. Frank is driving. Every two hours, we have to switch off—Kathy moves to the back seat with her injured leg stretched out on the seat. Frank moves to the front passenger seat, and I drive. It’s going to be a long trip back home. We’ll have to stay in a hotel tonight, and with any luck, we’ll get home before dark tomorrow night. The biggest danger for Kathy now is the threat of a blood clot; that’s why she has to move and change position every two hours. They’ve put her on a blood thinner to help prevent this from happening, and it’s administered every day through an injection into her abdomen.
Kathy has a long road of recovery ahead of her. She can’t go back to her home in Kentucky because she drove out to my house, and that’s where her car is. And even if she could, she lives alone, and there’s no one to care for her. Staying with us is the only option, and of course, I’d have it no other way. She’s my sister, and I want to help her in any way I can. But there are all kinds of logistical problems—ongoing medical care, the rental properties she owns in Kentucky, and most of all, her animals. She has two cats and a dog. We have to figure out what to do about them. The dog is being boarded, but obviously, having him stay there for three months isn’t an option. She’s hoping a neighbor will take him in and care for him. The cats are outdoor cats, and with spring coming on, she’s sure they’ll be fine with my dad coming over to leave food for them. Still, she worries that they’ll go off, and she’ll never see them again. Personally, I think having Jasper and the kitties, Alvin and LBK, out here with us would be good medicine for Kathy, but with the price of gasoline, it’s just not practical to have someone go get them and bring them back to Virginia. And having them flown out? Well, God knows that would be exorbitant, too. And with the medical bills Kathy will be facing, I just don’t think we can justify the expense. (And on the issue of practicality, although her animals would be good medicine for her, they’re also a lot of work, so even if we could bring them out, should we?)
So…there are all kinds of problems were going to have to work out. All because of two seconds of skiing. Two seconds that I know Kathy would like to have back.
It’s times like these where it’s natural to play the “what if” game. What if she hadn’t decided to take one more run? What if she hadn’t decided to go over to Madonna, the largest of the three peaks? What if I hadn’t chosen Smuggs this year? What if we’d taken our usual trip to Stowe? What if Frank hadn’t unwittingly told Kathy to “break a leg?” What if I hadn’t been reading Amy Tan’s THE BONESETTER’S DAUGHTER? Perhaps then…it wouldn’t have happened.
But playing the “what if” game gets you nowhere. It is what it is. That’s one of Kathy’s favorite sayings. And that’s what we have to deal with. What is.
But having something this devastating happen does bring you to a crossroads. That’s where I am right now.
Is it time to give up skiing? Is the Universe trying to tell us we should sell our skis on EBay and instead of heading up to Vermont every winter, take a cruise instead?
I turned 55 last month. I know for a fact that my bone scan a few years ago revealed tiny pinpoints—the beginning of osteoporosis. If I should take a hard fall skiing one day, I could fracture a lot more than a couple of ribs. And after seeing what Kathy has gone through the last couple of days, I have to ask myself…is the joy of skiing worth the risk?
I don’t know. I just don’t know the answer to that. Maybe when winter rolls around again, maybe then I’ll be able to make a decision.
But if I do have to say goodbye to skiing, I’ll do it with a heavy heart.
Congratulations to my March contest winner, Paula Hafner from Norfolk, VA. My new contest is up. Check it out at www.CaroleBellacera.com.
Until next month…