Living on the Edges

“You have to relax or you’ll never get this.”

I nod, forcing a smile as best I can, my lips stretched across my tightly-clenched jaw. My lungs burn as I kneel forward onto my hands. My calves spasm, reminding me that about a year has passed since I last exercised.

The author takes time from falling to pose for a portrait.

I look up to see Dean, my snowboarding instructor, stepping out of his bindings and walking towards me. He is the most patient man in Aspen. The rest of my group waits for me at the base. But I am only halfway, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve wiped out.

A pair of gloved hands outstretch to help me up. I struggle to balance myself as Dean provides a quick pep talk. The trick, he says, is to relax my body and allow the board to pick up some speed. He asks me to try closing my eyes this time and use my head to lead the board. When he advises me to open my eyes, I am accelerating down hill, my balance perfect.

“Now, Larry, shift onto your toes!”

The nose of my board points straight down now and I gain speed. The feeling is exhilirating and terrifying all at once. I hesitate to shift my weight while Dean calmly reminds me again to “get up” on my toe side. Miraculously, I do, and my board slows and veers to the left. Dean calls for me to shift the weight back again and look straight down the mountain. I do, and the speed returns.

My heart is racing now. I’m snowboarding! But I convince myself I’m out of control. My head calculates how to crash. Dean counsels me to look to my right and rock back on my heels. The proposed weight shift is to my strongest side – my heel edge. It should be a breeze, but my head is over-thinking and I pull back too harshly, plant my board and twist into the snow.

I breathe ferociously, goggles clouded from my panting and perspiring. My body wants to remain still. I’m exhausted and think myself foolish for even trying. And just as I am about to strap out of the board and take the easy way out, I hear a voice from above.

“Hi, Dad. Nice wipeout!”

Lucas chuckles respectfully as he passes over on the chair lift. As he ambles away, I hear a final command from over his shoulder, “keep it up!”

The scene was Aspen, Colorado. Lucas and I traveled there last week for a father-son bonding experience. We usually try to get away once a year and this year we elected to learn snowboarding. I broke my arm on last year’s adventure, learning to skateboard. I figured snowboarding was a natural next step.

We had a great time, and I eventually got the hang of it. One more day and I would have either (a) mastered the basics or (b) blown out a knee.

While we were away Jordan continued to progress on her own. Her rehabilitation is going marvelously well. In fact, she will be discharged from the hospital this Friday. Her legs are gaining strength. She moves around with a walker and can stand on her own for longer periods of time. She still has a long way to go. She will continue outpatient physical therapy several times a week and requires specially-designed casts to support her knees and joints. Nevertheless, she’s made rapid progress that even surprised her physicians.

There is more good news. Though not official, the latest MRI scan indicates the tumor may have slightly decreased in size. While the mass of the tumor is still daunting, it is marginally less daunting today. In our family, that’s cause for celebration.

Of course, I didn’t know any of this as I lay in the snow last week, contemplating surrender. But as I hoisted my pathetic body back onto the board and groaned from the stiffness of my legs, I thought about Jordan. I wondered if she would snowboard down the mountain with us one day. I wondered if my trivial age and condition-related pain was any benchmark for the certain aching she must feel each time she re-learns to walk. And I thought about the magical way she goes about recovery – with stamina, and strength, and color. The kid hasn’t given up. She’s done exactly what was required of her and more. She’s faced challenges most of us would shrink from, stared down adversity with tenacity, and managed to find plenty of extra time to relax in the hospital play room or joke with her family. No matter how tough the cancer and the chemo gets, she gets tougher.

And with those thoughts circling in my head, I quit my moaning, lifted my sorry rear-end off the ground, and boarded the rest of the way down the mountain without falling once. As I turned to a stop at the base, Dean looked over and flashed a smile. “Now, you’re doing it.”

And so is she.