The Toboggan by S. Gabriel
The late afternoon sun struggled weakly through the gathering clouds as John and Sara arrived. Most of the winter enthusiasts had long since headed home for hot chocolate and warm baths to chase away the chill. But John believed in keeping his word and he had promised Sara that they would take the taboggan out today. True, he had allowed the outing with his buddies to take up the best part of the day, but he was determined not to renege on his promise to his new wife.
John lifted the heavy sled from his dad’s truck, checking briefly that the newly waxed bottom would produce an even glide. Satisfied, he grasped the jute rope that he had secured to the front of the sled and started up the hill, motioning for Sara to follow, the toboggan trailing smoothly behind him. Sara plodded tentatively along, but then, this was her first experience with snow – not counting the impromptu snowball fight John had started when they arrived the previous day.
They hiked in companionable silence. As they climbed, a brisk breeze swirled icy flakes around Sara and she shivered. “It’s really cold, John. Maybe we should go another day?”
She ran her gloved hands up and down her jacketed arms as she trudged behind John, her boots emitting a crunch with each footfall in the crisp snow. She was wishing she had accepted her mother-in-law’s offer to borrow a heavier parka. How was she supposed to know how cold Vermont could get? Born and raised in South Florida, the only snow she’d seen was in the movies. At least she’d had the good sense to borrow John’s mother’s snow boots; her feet were the only part of her that was warm.
“No way,” John answered, his voice jubilant. “I said we’d go today and this is the day! Besides, it won’t be any warmer tomorrow.” He chuckled not unkindly but just happy to share this moment with Sara. It had been years since he’d had the old sled out of storage; he was glad his parents hadn’t gotten rid of it when he took off for a warmer climate three years ago.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I went sledding?” Sara asked, her words breathy with exertion.
“Really?” John answered skeptically, pivoting slightly to look at his wife. “I thought this was your first time.” He stopped to let her catch up to him.
“Well,” a smile evident in her voice, “we called it ‘sledding’. My cousin Terry and I were watching the Winter Olympics when I was about ten. We’d never seen snow except in movies or on TV, and were totally fascinated with the luge and bobsled events.” She drew even with John and stopped, glad to have a minute to catch her breath. “So we cut out a long piece of cardboard – just big enough for the two of us to fit on – and hauled it over to the park where there was this hill,” she laughed. “Well, we called it a hill. Looking back, it was more of a small mound of loose dirt and wispy grasses that sloped down to a shallow drainage canal. Anyway, we settled onto our ‘sled’ and with much effort managed to get sliding. Fortunately for us, the canal was dry because we couldn’t stop. We ended up sliding over the embankment into the canal. And that’s the sum of my sledding experience.”
John laughed. “Yep. It will probably feel exactly the same… except for the landing.” He turned continuing his climb, pleased that the toboggan, although heavy, was pretty easy to pull.
Sara glanced behind them noting with some alarm that from this vantage point the hill was much higher, and steeper, than it had looked from below. She asked nervously, “Are you sure this is the right hill? The one you used to sled on?”
“Of course I’m sure,” John replied good naturedly, guiding the sled around an icy mound. “Me and the guys spent hours racing each other on this hill when we were in high school.”
They kept to their own thoughts for several minutes, the combined sound of their labored breathing filling the air. Sara spoke up again. “I think we’re the only ones left on the hill. Is that normal?”
John reached the summit, turning the sled to face downhill then looked around as he waited for Sara. The sun had slunk deeper into the darkening clouds. Sara was right, they were the only ones there. He had been so absorbed in pulling the heavy sled up the hill that he hadn’t paid any attention to his surroundings. He wasn’t overly concerned though. The gathering shadows would make guiding the toboggan around the ice mounds a little challenging, but it was nothing he hadn’t done before.
He reached out for Sara’s hand helping her up the last bump to the summit. She looked a little uncomfortable. “What do you think?” He pulled her close throwing an arm over her shoulder. They stood on the precipice together, their breaths puffing out little bursts of fog in the chilly air.
“I think it looks pretty far to the bottom,” Sara replied, her brow creasing. John was so excited to share this experience with her that she didn’t want to disappoint him by opting to walk down.
He laughed. “Once we get going it won’t seem so far. It only takes a couple of minutes to get to the bottom.”
She looked dubiously at the sled thinking, ‘That’s supposed to be comforting?’
John pushed down on the sled driving it deeper into the crunchy snow to steady it then climbed on. Once seated, he looked up at Sara’s worried face. “It will be okay, I promise. You’ll love it. Come on, climb on behind me.”
Sara cast one more uneasy look down the steep hill then did as her husband instructed, carefully placing each booted foot alongside him and scooting as close to him as possible. She wrapped her arms tightly around his mid-section and buried her head firmly against his back.
“Ready?” John called out.
Sara felt like she was going to faint, but nodded her head up and down against John’s back. “Ready as I’ll ever be,” she said, her voice muffled against his thick parka.
John dug the heel of his boots into the snow driving the sled forward, grasping the coarse rope tightly in his fists. The well-waxed toboggan provided no resistance. One final shove and John drew up his legs as the sled tipped over the edge of the hill and quickly picked up speed.
Sara screamed – in fear or delight he couldn’t tell – and John let out a whoop of unadulterated joy. He hadn’t had a rush like this in years! The wind whipped past them as they flew forward. Bits of ice crystals pelted John’s face and he squinted to see past the fine spray.
He figured they were about half way down the hillside when they hit. In the moments between the toboggan’s impact with the mound of unyielding ice and the subsequent tumbling, he thought of the delight on Sara’s face when he’d produced the tickets to fly to meet his family and friends. She had never flown or traveled any further north than Georgia until now. He thought of her smile as they stood before the county courthouse judge less than three months earlier promising to love and cherish each other.
Sara lost her grip on John as the sled flipped. She uttered the briefest cry of surprise as she flew up landing just ahead of the sled then rolling end over end.
John felt Sara’s death-grip around his mid-section give way just before he, too, flipped up and over, landing hard, the toboggan grazing his shoulder as it careened passed him. The thick rope jerked roughly from his hands sending him skidding sideways from the force. The sled continued its riderless journey in the gloom.
Tumbling, he thought he heard the sled hit another ice mound as he tried to dig in his heels, grab at the ground, anything to slow his descent but his legs, his arms, wouldn’t obey. “Sara!” he screamed, “Sara!”
‘Beep, beep, beep. Beep, beep, beep’. He awoke slowly, groggily. His throat hurt. He tried turning his head but something was holding it rigidly in place. He groaned. He heard a shuffling noise. He squinted into the too-bright overhead fluorescent light, groaning again. He heard words but couldn’t make out what was being said. More shuffling. Then footsteps. A shadow. Someone leaned within his field of vision.
“John? Can you hear me, John?” said the stranger.
John’s eyelids were held open, first one then the other, by cool hands while piercing pencil-thin light further assaulted his vision. He tried to pull away but couldn’t move. He tried to speak but managed only another groan.
“John, you are at Northeastern Regional Hospital. I am Dr. Mills. Your neck and back are stabilized, that’s why you can’t move. Can you hear me, John?”
John blinked slowly. Once. Twice. Three times.
“Good,” said the man understanding the mute communication. “Your throat will be sore for a while. You were on a ventilator for several days.”
John thought with alarm, ‘Days? Did he say days?’ The fuzziness invading his thoughts was making it difficult to concentrate.
“John, your parents are here.” His parents’ heads seemed to float above him at the pronouncement. They smiled tentatively and John could see tear tracks on his mother’s cheeks.
He tried to speak. “Sa….,” was all he could manage to croak.
The doctor exchanged a look with his parents, that, in his hazy state, John couldn’t decipher. His parents retreated with brief squeezes to his arm that John guessed were meant to reassure him. “We’ll have lots of time for questions later. Right now, I want you to rest.”
Before John could voice his objection, ‘Where is Sara?’, he drifted into unconsciousness.
Ten weeks had passed since John first opened his eyes and met his new reality. It was a slow, painful recovery but he could now lift himself into a wheelchair and make his way down the hospital corridor. His parents visited often, in fact, they had just left. He’d been impatient for their departure today and now made his way slowly, deliberately, to the elevator. The nurses he passed either nodded and said hello or ignored him. They knew where he was going - where he went as often as his own recuperation routine permitted.
He entered the room as he always did, nudging the door open a little at a time with the wheelchair’s footrests. She laid unmoving in the room’s only bed. She looked so small, John thought. The soft ‘beep, beep, beep’ of the machines keeping her alive was the only noise besides the soft sound of rubber on linoleum as he wheeled closer.
John reached out and gently picked up Sara’s hand. It sat unmoving and cool in his palm and he gently closed his fingers around her silent fingers. He began with telling her about his parent’s visit then about the morning’s therapy session. He thought to tell her about what they’d served him for lunch but, as on every other visit, he couldn’t think of a way to make his soft-food diet sound interesting so skipped it.
As had become his habit over the last few weeks, he gently released her hand to pick up the book of poems that rested on his lap. He had never been one for poetry, favoring Stephen King novels over verses, but Sara liked poetry. And so he read her poetry.
He always included one of Sara’s favorites by Emily Dickinson, the one she had chosen for her marriage vows. He asked her once why she had chosen that particular poem. “Because it is a song of hope and resilience; that’s what I wish for us,” she’d answered.
“Hope is the thing with feathers”, he read softly, “That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – and never stops at all”. His throat closed up and he was unable to continue. He stared at her quiet features, so still, so lovely, remembering the earnestness and trust in her eyes when she’d recited those words to him.
Drawing a hand across his eyes, he swiped impatiently at unshed tears, swallowing painfully. “Wake up, Sara. Please wake up,” he spoke quietly, urgently. “We have so many things we still need to share,” this time he did not check his grief. “I’m so sorry, Sara. So sorry that I didn’t get home sooner or that I didn’t…” his voice trailed off - the familiar apology drifting into a choked sob. He held her hand and prayed.
Sometime later he heard the squeak-squeak of the nurse’s rubber-soled shoes as she entered the room and he looked up. It was time to leave. He nodded to the nurse and gently laid Sara’s hand back on the bed before wheeling himself out of the room.
John sat motionless in the small chair that he had pulled up to Sara’s bedside. He held her hand and recited ‘Hope is the Thing with Feathers’. He had memorized it, repeating it to her every time he visited. When finished, he sat silently listening to the low ‘beep-beep’ of the monitors. He didn’t have it in him to babble on as usual. His parents were taking him home today. But John felt no joy at this prospect. Since he wouldn’t be able to drive for a long time yet, it would be difficult to visit Sara very often.
Nearly six weeks had passed with little progress, but at least she was off the ventilator. John saw this as a hopeful sign although the doctors were careful to warn that the longer Sara was in a coma, the less likely it was that she would wake up. He couldn’t bear the thought.
A throat cleared and John looked up seeing his parents in the doorway. “Ready?” his father asked softly. He’d been released a couple of hours ago and they had been sitting outside Sara’s room waiting for him, understanding how hard it was for him to leave the hospital without her.
‘Ready?’ John thought, brokenhearted. ‘Ready to leave her behind?’ His mother moved to his side drawing him close. At last, John struggled to his feet, using the forearm crutches for balance. He followed his mother to the door stopping to glance once more at Sara before turning to leave.
“Hope… is… the… thing… with… feathers…” floated hoarsely across the room and John froze. He turned quickly, nearly losing his balance, and made his way back to Sara. Leaning against the bed rail he reached for her hand, his abandoned crutch making a metallic scraping sound as it slid along the rail, clattering when it hit the ground.
Sara laid as before, unmoving, eyes closed. “Sara!” he croaked. “Sara…”
Her lips moved again, the faintest of sound escaping, “Hope … is… the… thing… with… feathers…”
Two years later…
John waited patiently in the driver seat marveling at his wife’s dexterity as she secured the multitude of buckles on the infant car seat. John thought the restraints resembled an astronaut’s seat belt system. He still hadn’t figured it out. He smiled. Just because he could.
Two and a half years ago he thought his world had ended. But Sara had made a full “exceptional recovery” according to the doctors who hovered around her for months after she woke from her coma. John was left with a small limp and occasional stiffness in his back which, considering the extent of damage he’d suffered in the accident, he gladly accepted.
John absently flipped the visor down against the bright summer sun.
“Did you get the little suitcase in the hall?” Sara was running through her endless checklist again, he knew.
“The one with flowers on it?” John asked. “The one that you asked me about two minutes ago? That one?” He grinned, chuckling.
She looked up meeting his gaze and grinned in return. “I know I’m being a control freak but it has the things I’ll need in-flight for Lilly.”
“Yep. It’s in the back with the other bags. Or do you need it on the way to the airport?”
“No. Just on the flight. Whew,” Sara exhaled, closing the back door, and climbing into the passenger seat. “I had no idea about the amount of work involved to travel with an infant.”
John nodded. “At least we didn’t have to pack coats and boots.” He wriggled his eyebrows for emphasis.
Sara leveled a stare at her husband. “Considering what happened the last time we went to Vermont in the winter… I may never agree to see snow again.” She allowed herself a small grin to soften her declaration.
Their daughter gurgled and, in unison, they turned to look at two-month-old Lilly snuggled in her space-age cocoon ready to meet her grandparents for the first time. John’s gaze shifted to his wife. Times like this filled his heart with so much love and gratitude, it left him speechless.
He reached across the console for Sara’s hand. She met his earnest gaze. Raising her hand to his lips he kissed it softly murmuring, “Thank you.”
Sara leaned into John until their foreheads met. She closed her eyes and whispered, “Hope is the thing with feathers…”