On Friday We Ski 2

I wrote this when my daughter stood tall as my waist. Now, she’s taller than me, yet it still rings true.

Each Friday noon, I stand among the clumps of parents, chatting, waiting for the hired busses to squeak to a halt and for our little angels to pour out. When they arrive, they stumble off, bundled in ski clothes, rocking in the clip-clop steps of ski boots, wearing neck gaiters, helmets, goggles, and carrying their skis horizontally as if they’re balancing trays. The little ones don’t have poles. A few have snowboards. Every child wears a bib which says, “Vail Mountain School,” and they scan the tall crowd with heads craned back, searching for Mom or Dad, or the classmate’s parent they will join. They are colorful, stiff dolls, insulated tightly, and it’s hard to believe they’re ready for action.

Syd’s easy to spot because she has a cover on her helmet which is white with a bouncy rainbow mane and unicorn horn. I gather her and Kellyn, whose parents couldn’t come. Syd says, “Can you carry my skis?” and I say, “No, I have to carry my own,” in the same tone I use each Friday, and she says, “Awww,” and we head up the noisy metal stairs with ovals cut out so the snow from boots falls through. Each step comes to a first-grader’s knees, and it’s hard, precious work, hefting themselves and their equipment. At the top is the lift, and mayhem.

It’s hard to find a spot to lay down our gear, but we squeeze in. “Hey, you’re standing on my skis!” a little voice says. Children hunch forward to the careful work of scraping snow off their boot bottoms against their bindings, then lining up their toes, then heels, and pressing down with all they’ve got to clip in. Some of them are too light; a parent has to help push.

“Let’s go!” Syd says. We maneuver through the bustling maze and glide into the lift line, scrambling for our passes while the attendant waits. We slide up to the red board, wait for the chair to swing round before us, and follow it out to the blue board. Syd and Kellyn jump up and backward onto the seat, the chair clamps on the cable, and we accelerate up the hill. I don’t pull down the safety bar right away, and little voices scold me. On the ride up, for folks from somewhere else a scenic adventure in itself, we start to feel the freedom.

We reach the top, join with classmates, and decide on a run. By first grade, most of the kids can really ski, have been skiing for several years, and we all—young, old—skim along, refrigerating our teeth as we grin. Groomers, powder, bumps. “Hey, there’s a jump!” and we all do it, like follies, and the six inches of air between our skis and the snow feels like a mile.

The whole school skis, the middle and upper schools in groups with teachers, and throughout the afternoon, we see older students. Sometimes they wave as they pass. Sometimes, if we’re stopped, they bend low in conversation over the colorful insulated blobs. Almost always, the littler ones are smiling. And all over the mountain, we see bibs like ours, members of our school. The head of lower school skis under the chairlift, and we yell her name. She looks up and waves.

Admittedly, it’s not all glory. There’s whining. There’s crying. There’s petty first-grade machinations. But not often.

We veer left, past Mid-Vail, and as we ski along, a warm tear seeps into the foam lining of my goggles. It’s completely sappy, I know, but in this moment, I am so glad for this. When I see the faces of the other parents, I can tell they feel it too. We are so lucky.

I stand at the top of the lift, top of the mountain, top of the world, and scan our prosaic view. The Gore Range to the northeast pokes the sky like a jagged readout on a heart monitor. Mount of the Holy Cross juts highest to the southwest. These mountains are the pulse of our lives. And I am a parent, on a Friday afternoon, skiing with my child as part of school. We’ve made so many sacrifices so this can happen: the twelve-year-old van, the used clothes, the budget, my career. I cry because the joy in this moment, when my child is a child, and I, as we ski, can be a child with her, so thoroughly makes up for our sacrifices.

Yet there’s more.

For as I glide down behind Syd, rising as she initiates and sinking as she ends each parallel turn, veering in between the lodgepole pines toward a trail with Kellyn close behind, laughing and squealing, I feel a twinge of guilt, and I think of other children. Not mine, but mine.

I think of the children I heard about on NPR, who died in Iraq yesterday. The children in Pakistan, who sat in their school desks, optimistic and trusting of their impending fates. The ones in Africa who are hungry, or have AIDS. The ones who I read in National Geographic are kidnapped to jockey camels in races for rich sheiks in Qatar and are treated like slaves. I think of all the children who aren’t skiing right now, who will never have the chance.

As we schush to the bottom, we wave to friends, slide forward, and load on the chairlift. “Marshmallows!” Syd and Kellyn cry out. Perched on this chair speeding up the hill, I drop little white cylinders of sweetness into their open bird mouths.

But we are here. Right here, right now. And I have only a few more years before Syd moves on with the big kids. So on Friday, I ski. We all ski.

On Friday We Ski