Friday, September 24, 2010

"The Almost Perfect Ski Day," a memoir by Catherine Mattice

We were finishing dinner, sitting around the table discussing dad’s plan to take me skiing the next afternoon. But it was a school day, and I was only in grade 6. Mom was less than pleased. In fact, she was worried. We laughed off her fear. It was nothing new. She was always worried.

“What if she breaks her leg?” she blurted out immediately with a dramatic tone, edging on hysteria.

“Don’t worry. She’ll be fine,” Dad reassured with authority.

I watched the tennis match of my parents discussing the potential ski day with my fate hanging in the balance. Holding my breath and crossing my fingers, I was rooting for the ski day. While I had quickly fallen in love with the sport I had just learned that winter, the added attraction was time off school. A thrilling combination for any 11 year old, even if it was only a half day. But Mom’s prediction did set off the worry metre in the back of my head.

Dad won the match. Elation replaced worry. I could barely contain my excitement. When I left class to meet Dad for the cover up ‘dentist’ appointment the next afternoon, I was flying.

It was the perfect ski day – sunny with a cerulean sky and fresh powder snow draped across the land and dripping from the trees. We made the hour long journey from Montreal to our favourite ski hill, Mont Avila, in the Laurentians.

I look back and remember vivid snapshots of that day. I was wearing my red ski suit with a blue ski hat (no ski helmets in those days) and my long sandy blond hair tucked beneath in braids.

From the moment I snapped on my first pair of skis, I discovered a profound joy that I have carried with me over the years. Joy found in one thing, but also everything. The freedom and unharnessed bliss of gliding down the mountain. A mind cleared of worry and stress while breathing in the clear, crisp winter air. The sound of the snow crunching and squeaking beneath my skis. The incredible rush of flying down the mountain toward the expanse of the world below. And then the chance to do it all again.

I’m sure Dad glimpsed a similar joy, but as a parent perhaps it was also the shared experience of spending time with a child. He wasn’t the greatest skier. But he was fearless. Even at my young age, I knew I could never be so fearless.

At one point, I remember thinking he would be more likely to break a limb as he flew down the mountain to tumble into a whirling mass of skis, legs and arms.

“Dad, are you okay?” I yelled out panicked, not knowing what I would do if he was hurt.

Covered in a layer of snow, he quickly got up laughing with delight. “I’m fine,” he called out across the mountain, his deep voice chuckling. “C’mon, I’ll race you the rest of the way down.”

The day seemed to linger in a lazy, happy way, much like the dreamy quality of a summer day, but it was really only just a few short hours.

Near the end of the day, Dad looked me with his crooked smile and asked: “What do you think? One more run?”

“Sure,” I grinned as I pushed off for the chairlift.

It started off much like all the other runs, but the shadows were longer and deeper, hiding the dipping sun. The snow had lost the fluffy, fun texture and had transformed into a tougher track with an edge of ice. I was getting tired, so I took my time. Dad raced ahead, eager for the thrill. I was on an easy flat when my edge caught on the snow. I turned like a ballet dancer without the grace, trying desperately to regain my balance. My heart raced as I struggled for control. Then I heard a thunderous crack and pain exploded up my leg.

“My leg, my leg. It’s broken!” I screamed from the depth of my lungs as I lay sprawled on the snow with my feet and skis at a 180 degree angle.

Dad couldn’t hear me. He was already at the bottom of the hill. But an older man skied over to my side and gently tried to calm my hysteria. Placing his mitts under my head and dispensing a mint candy to distract me, we waited for the ski patrol to arrive.

All of sudden Dad arrived, breathless and terrified. With superhuman strength infused to a parent with a sick or injured child, he had run up the mountain weighed down by heavy ski boots plunging deep holes into the snow as he forged a path uphill.

While the pain throbbed mercilessly and the shock had started to consume my body in uncontrollable shivering, dad was with me. Everything would be okay.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. I do remember we both laughed nervously, acknowledging mom’s fateful prophecy. But as I look back as a parent to rewind the video of the actual ski day into a series of slow motion snapshots, I realize the significance of Dad’s sprint up that hill. If I close my eyes, I can feel the adrenaline rush of terror he must have felt while racing with his heart lodged in his throat to my rescue. I’ve felt the same panic whenever I’ve worried for any one of my three children.

We lost Dad to cancer over a year ago. As it is so often when you lose someone you love dearly, I find myself searching through the memory book of my mind for time spent with him. Despite the accident, moments of magic peaked through the day like the sun pushing through the snow laden trees. I can still see his young smile full of mischief.(At the time, he was about a decade younger than I am today.) I can hear his deep baritone voice so clearly - the laughing, the teasing and then the worry. But mostly, I feel an overwhelming sense of happiness over a day shared with a father who loved me.

Catherine Mattice has over twenty years of experience as a communications specialist and writer within the tourism industry. She began her career as a writer consultant, working for a variety of tourism and health care trade publications, including Meetings & Incentive Travel Magazine.

During a ten-year period, she held various marketing and public relations positions within Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. After leaving the hotel company, she contributed to Fairmont’s spa division as a writer consultant.

Catherine is currently working on transforming her lifelong love affair with reading and writing into a career as a novelist. She lives in Mississauga with her husband, three children and a wacky canine.

For information about Brian Henry's writing workshops and creative writing courses, see here.

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