His breath billowed into the frosty air as the sled held him upright, its stern firmly planted beside him. He’d had to dig it out of the forgotten depths of the garage, but this is what she’d wanted, and what she wanted she always got. For forty seven years. He breathed out again as he flexed his fingers, sore from the sanding he’d had to do to get their wooden ship in shape to sail down the hill once again. Just one more of the million minor aches he’d suffered for her love.
The city had just lifted its ban on sledding, skating, and fun. So here they were, he, the sled, and her love. Birds set free from their cages often did the strangest things, and when the idea of sledding pushed against his stubborness, he couldn’t even set himself against it.
He let his feet root him to the ground as images flashed of them coming to this hill when they first bought the house. Twenty-somethings with all the energy of those who could sleep in till noon, running up and down the hill like fools, laughing at each explosion of every well-aimed snowball.
He felt the depth of his roots as he saw their kids sitting between his legs on the sled when it had been the warm yellow of freshly lacquered pine, gifted to them by his father. His daughter gripped the rope attached to the fire engine red posts at the top of the front curve while he cradled his son so he wouldn’t topple out from the side. He’d plotted out his path between the saplings the city had planted that year, and his kids had shaken with their raucous laughter the whole way down, even while the fresh powder covered them all as it billowed over the prow.
Images of Charlie pushing Carla when they were teens curled the old man’s lips upwards. The boy had loved the joy in his sister’s voice as she would yodel down the hill once he got her up to speed and sent her flying above the white stuff. The smile faded when he remembered how his heart had stopped when she’d bounced off the jump not one of them had noticed at the bottom. Then she’d leapt to her feet, arms raised triumphantly in the air at having conquered nature.
He thought of the year when his boy hadn’t come home for the winter holidays, spending it out west with his college girlfriend, when he and Carla had dragged his beloved wife out despite her protests. Even then his love had claimed she was too old for such shenanigans, and they’d barely reached their sixties. But she loved him too, and he loved this hill, so she’d come out and shared in their joy. The next year, when Charlie’s girlfriend turned out to be his boyfriend, he’d brought Jeff home at his mother’s optimistic urging and all three of the kids had joined them on the hill.
It hadn’t taken long for the tradition to grow, and that year he had built a sled for the boys so they could ride together, as they’d become a family of their own. Charlie always called it a prescient gift, as the length of the sled easily accommodated the twins they adopted the next year. His wife tried insisting on only letting one of the twins down at a time, but the two bawled so much when they were separated that she soon changed her mind.
So much love had slid down this hill, it had spread into the air like the canopy of a mighty maple, spreading wide to wherever they found themselves, shielding them from the troubles of the world. As he let out another breath, he realized that the hill had also eased their tensions and their pains. Carla’s breakups, so often strategically timed before the holidays, had left as many tears on this sled, just as had the laughter at Jeff’s shenanigans whenever he was trying to repent for something silly he’d said about Charlie’s latest outfit.
Those roots are the same ones that held the family upright when Carla had called with the news. A lump. Probably nothing. That year, they had slipped down the hill to try and escape the monster eating away at her from the inside. Charlie and Jeff had pushed her faster than ever before, hoping to go fast enough to go back to the days when a jump at the bottom was the scariest thing one could encounter. But nature had returned for what the hill had failed to claim.
He’d brought his love here the next winter, after Charlie and Jeff had moved out west, leaving them alone in the house for the first time in forty years. They’d lost one child to the most malignant thing in the world, and the other to the ever-present pain of mourning. The hill was too much of a reminder of her, and the roots hadn’t been strong enough to keep their son here. Luckily, the canopy above spanned to wherever he would end up. That had been the last time they had ridden this sled. One last ride as an homage to a memory of love.
And here he was, rooted to the hill, holding up the greying wood he’d sanded just enough to not let it disintegrate under his weight. A disease had locked down the world around them for nearly a year. They’d done all they could to isolate, locking themselves and their love inside their home, allowing only the occasional walk down the hill and back to escape their cage. Nobody had even visited for his seventy fifth birthday, but he had gotten some nice deliveries. And his love had wanted to make it special, so she’d gone to Jenna’s place down the street to get some help baking him a cake.
He’d blown out the candles in front of the tablet the boys had sent them. Old eyes watching boxes filled with old faces. A disjointed chorus had sung the song, and not much else happened, but he’d had her beside him, so he’d beamed the whole way through. At the end of the party he waved to the boxes and fell asleep in her arms, a smile engraved in his wrinkles.
A week later her cough had worried him, but her optimism lifted their spirits, and they went for another walk to escape the walls of the home their love had built, if only for a few minutes.
That last walk had been a month ago. Now here he was, gingerly bending to set the sled at the tipping point. He sat at the back, planning his route between the trees that had grown so thick at the bottom, their arms reached to heaven. Her love filled the space in front of him, and he grabbed the rope, taking one last slide down the hill together. An homage to the canopy above, a canopy of her love as it spread out among the outstretched arms of the maples and reached so far beyond. An homage made without knowing if he’d make it back up the hill on his own.