Saturday, January 30, 2016

Rage, pathos, pity and skiing

Until recently, I have been able to treat my spinal cord as a difficult adolescent: I have lived with it, endured it, and trusted it to either bugger off at some point in the future or to start behaving better. But it's nearly 20 months since I broke my neck and the adolescent looks as though he might be here to stay. Iola has baptized him 'Diplodoscious', a name as good as any other, and he lives with us on a daily basis, an awkward and spectacularly complex mixture of electrical impulses and chemical coding which provokes rage and pathos and pity inside me in almost equal measure.


I am not going to stop doing the things I love because my broken neck makes them more difficult, but sometimes my broken neck whoops my ass. Literally. I have no clear sensation in my left foot so, more than once, I have needed to come down mountainsides on my caboose because I can't trust my left foot in the places where the path is hidden by leaves. I need x-ray vision, a walking pole, and hiking pants with reinforced patches across my bum. It didn't use to be like this.


However much money I spend on soap and however much I fiddle with the temperature of the water, it hurts when I wash my hands. It will probably always hurt when I wash my hands. I do a lot of hand-washing because my children are petri dishes of colds and flus and vomiting bugs; my chickens contain an entire poetic lexicon of potentially deadly diseases - salmonella and histoplasmosis and cryptococcosis and more; and our random menagerie of household pets share a familial desire to poop copiously in various shapes and places. That's a lot of hand-washing; that's a lot of pain. My accident has also meant my hands have grown old before the rest of me. Like a little old lady, I need to take a few extra moments when I buckle the dog's collar, or turn the key in the lock; I need to run lids of jars under hot water; light bulbs tend to shatter when I try to change them because I have no way to regulate my grip. Most of the time, I can live with this - my hands got old before me? Meh! I can still write and knit and flap them about me as I chivy the girls out of the house in the morning - but last week I cried in the check-out queue of the supermarket because I couldn't get the coins out of my purse.


I've never thought pity is a particularly useful emotion. I believe in having compassion for and empathy with those less fortunate than myself. But sometimes I pity myself. Not often. Not often at all. But sometimes.


Two weeks ago, I phoned the Smugglers' Notch Adaptive Ski Program (SNAP) and introduced myself. I explained about my neck and my nerve damage and my tendency to fall over unaided while both feet are on the ground. I told them I wanted to learn to ski.
'What level of skiing were you at before you broke your neck?' asked the administrator.
'I hadn't,' I said.
There was a long pause before the administrator said, 'So, you broke your neck and then you decided you wanted to learn to downhill ski?'
I said yes, and she said I needed to meet S-.

S- spent nearly 27 years of his adult life captaining an Atlantic fishing boat, then he became a born-again Christian and dedicated the rest of his life to helping people with disabilities to farm, during the summer months, and to ski during the winter. He's blunt as a mallet, irascible, troublesome and an absolutely fabulous teacher. He's the kind of man who'll promise candy to someone else's ski class of Kindergarten children if they promise to lie down in the snow and refuse to get up; he'll not back down when he thinks he's right but he would never ski past any incident without first checking everyone was ok. At the moment he's living through the final stages of pancreatic cancer: while he calls himself a 'dead-man walking' he also tells me he isn't quite ready to go yet. He's got a job to do - there are a few children he's been working with over the years whom he wants to spend another winter with, and he wants to make me fall in love with skiing.

As well as the skis on my feet, I now have two tiny skis attached to my arms via crutch-like contraptions. They're called outriggers. 'The thing is,' says S-, pointing to all the people under our ski lift, 'all skiing is adaptive.' He describes how each person is skiing differently, using their body differently, personalizing their equipment. Just because I have four skis doesn't mean he's not going to expect me to learn properly.

My left leg doesn't have sufficient coordination for me to be able to slow down by making a snow plow (to borrow Iola's terminology, a snowplow means making a pizza slice with my skis). S- listens, shrugs and tells me I shouldn't be snow plowing anyway. 'You should be parallel skiing,' he says. 'It looks better and it will make you a better skier.'

S- makes me use the edges of my skis to make sweeping turns down the hills, he makes me twist my body and keep my legs close together so I can slalom, he makes me practice ankle pivots and hockey stops.

At the bottom of the run, we get into the chair lift and swing out over the snow and the slope and the dark edgings of the trees, and we talk about life and living and pain and struggle and the wonders of sailing across oceans and the best ski runs he's ever had. At the top of the hill, we ski off the lift and pause for a moment, looking out towards the mountains and feeling the snow on our faces, then we chase the slope back down to the bottom.

Perhaps it is because I don't know what it's like to ski without a broken neck, or perhaps it's something more profound, but at the end of a morning's skiing, my cheeks ache from smiling. All that other stuff - my little old lady hands and the rage and the pathos and the pity - are smaller somehow, because everything else is so big.


  1. In awe... and that most perfect ski instructor. thank you. You inspire.

  2. I'm just sorry there wasn't more snow for you this winter!

  3. I'm just sorry there wasn't more snow for you this winter!

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