The day my life changed forever, we were on the slopes. I remember running out of the lodge, my ski boots like anvils on my feet, my skis’ edges cutting into the folds of my hands, and the aluminum tips of my ski poles scraping icy concrete. Was I screaming bloody murder, or was the feeling of glass slashing my throat caused by my gasping for air? I’ve seen pigs get slaughtered; their violent squeal is the sound of death. I feel like on that day, on the steps of the lodge, at some point, I must have shrilled with the equivalent abandonment and pain.
The last time I saw them together, both of them were smiling at me. When they were doing anything competitive, their relationship turned brotherly. Danny loved keeping up with his dad, even if his dad always thought he was the one trying to keep up with Danny. They laughed from ten feet away as they snapped out of their boards. I asked them if they wanted to take a break inside, but they were already walking back to the chairlift. When Tim shouted that they would try the intermediate slope, I didn’t think anything of it. In a way, I think I was relieved that they were leaving me for a bit longer. I remember looking forward to staring at my phone in the lodge. I never thought that would be the last time I’d see him.
I’ve beat myself up thinking about what he went through on the mountain as I was scrolling through Instagram in the lodge. How many stranger’s pictures flashed before my eyes as he cried for help? How many likes did I dole out as he witnessed our family’s collapse by himself? If I had gone with them, none of this would have happened, which pains me to think about, but what most disturbs me is that I won’t ever know precisely what he experienced. Obviously, I know the death was caused by traumatic brain injury, but it’s the before and the in-between that haunts me. I’ll never know the horror of what he witnessed, so I feel ill-equipped to help him feel better.
I forced him to tell me what it was like. He didn’t want to relive what happened on the mountain, but I told him that talking about a tragedy was the only way to move on from one. My justification was self-serving. I wanted to learn the messy details so that I could stop wondering what it had been like. At that point, I wasn’t sleeping; my mind was all-consumed with the dozens of possibilities it had created by trying to fill in the blanks of the accident. Like being lost, then finding tracks in the snow, learning the circumstances that developed on that day eased my mind, but he didn’t seem to benefit from the exercise. To this day, when people talk about the mountain, his breathing changes. It’s only now that I understand that for him, retelling what occurred was suffocating, like being buried in an avalanche.
I grieved for sixty-three days before I packed up any of his things. Folding the clothes he’d never wear again was the most difficult part. Each item I touched tethered me to a moment in the past, an image my memory presented as clear as a picture from a photo album. I’ve gone through terrible lows where the guilt I have for putting his belongings in boxes puts a hump in my back that prevents me from looking up to the sky. The lows lasted for hours or days, and when they hit, I did not look up the whole time. Instead, my eyes were transfixed by the flaws of whatever was under my feet; the scratches in the hardwood under the dining room table, the rust stains on the tile of my shower, the cracks in the garage where his boxes are taped shut. Occasionally, I’ll still find something small of his. The other day, I found his earplugs wedged into a crack in the bed. They must have fallen there when he was still alive. Walking to the garage to place them in a box made me feel crazy. Why couldn’t I just throw them away?
I have this dream where I’m an educator again. The day’s lesson is the seasons, and I’m teaching the children that the color of snow is black. I have it once a week. I don’t cook the meals he liked the best because eating them at the table without him has changed how they taste; my homemade red sauce is inedible when all you see is the color of blood. I used to think I was a good mother, but now that I understand how quickly everything can change, I can’t be sure of anything. Does a good mother cry as much as I do? Does she subject the only one she has left to the full savagery of her emotions? I was drinking coffee in the lodge when I got the call that he was dead. I ran outside as if I could run up the mountain and find them, but somewhere along the way, I fell. As a stranger nervously helped me pick up my ski gear, I saw the coffee I spilled soaking into the snow. I don’t drink coffee anymore.
The time between finding out what happened and calling people to tell them what happened was the strangest. My order of operations, prioritizing the tasks I had to complete, left me frozen. The paramedics put blankets on me, assuming I was cold, but I threw them off. I couldn’t handle any more weight. They asked me if I needed more time. I whispered my response, “That’s all we ever need.”
One of the hardest things to do was choosing whether to console my son or pay attention to the logistics of what was happening with my husband’s body. Another one was having the nightmare task of calling loved ones to enlighten them of our new reality. Somehow, though, I managed; I kept going. I listened and made the decisions, made the phone calls, and shed tears. Those who have experienced a loss like ours understand the desire to persevere. It’s strange when you’re forced to do more than you ever had to do when you're emotionally depleted. The physical part of you takes over. You can always tell when someone's grieving by paying attention to their facial expression. Grieving people do everything without moving a muscle in their face. Their eyebrows don’t move; their lips don’t curl. They carry the debt of existence with blank faces.
The fire season that followed my husband’s death was the largest in our state’s recorded history. I watched the news as a reporter stood in front of the lodge and said that the resort had lost nearly half of its four thousand skiable acres. An image appeared on the TV showing the sides of the mountain that were affected. The spot where it happened had been burned to ash. Giant sequoias - like the one he ran into - gone. Seeing the visual on the screen and deducing that the same tree that had killed him was now gone didn’t bring me any solace. Instead, I felt the saddest that I had in weeks. Everything, at all times, can vanish in the blink of an eye. When the reporter began talking about the financial impact the fires would have on the resort, I turned off the news, then I walked to my son's closed door, put my ear against it, and waited. I just needed to hear that he was still alive.
When Danny was a toddler, Tim once took a hose to a bird's nest hanging on a ledge by our front door. He killed two baby birds in the process, and we tried to hide them from Danny but couldn’t. Danny saw their broken wings, slow movements, and the blood dripping from their thin, cracked skulls. As a family, we watched those two birds die, and, as a family, we all had to talk about it. I recall Danny needed to repeat his descriptions of what he saw, and for several days, he’d look to us for confirmation, “And they had blood coming out of their ears, right? And they were dead, right?” Even a month or two afterward, occasionally, he’d bring it up.
But Danny doesn’t talk about what he witnessed on that mountain, and he’s never repeated any of the details of his experience to me. All I have was his raw memory, that one time, and yet I remember the story as if it was a childhood prayer. Danny told me that when he finally caught up to dad, he was gurgling, and the snow behind his head was a deep red. I have night terrors of my son seeing his father like this. I’ve accepted my husband's death, but I still suffer from the pain of knowing I cannot protect my son from the cruelties of life.
Danny will go to college next year, and then I’ll be a widowed empty nester. What I have left of Tim is in my heart, the boxes in the garage, and in Danny. He’s told me that he’s not going to worry about me when he’s at college because I’m the strongest person he knows. Just like Tim tried to keep up with Danny, I’m trying to make him proud. I won't be able to press my ear against his door next year, but there will be other things to do; there always is. I might get low again for a time, but hopefully, I’ll come out of it like I always have. Life puts so much in my head, but if I’ve learned anything, it's that I have to try to stay in my heart. Love is what allows me to persevere. If I can just stay in my heart, I have a chance.