My dog follows me into the hallway as I’m crunching on a stick of ants-on-a-log. If only she knew raisins were terrible for her and that I wasn’t going to give her a bite anyways. I see my mom losing steam on folding a pile of laundry, so I sit cross-legged next to her and start matching socks. She’s scrolling through social media and leaning against the wall, rubbing the spot under her eyes where the rim of her glasses made a red imprint. She doesn’t notice me at first but then watches me as I sort the mismatched socks away. Sometimes, I bunch two socks that don’t match together just so they aren’t lonely.
She joins me, and I see her nose wrinkling when she layers my brother’s underwear, even though it’s clean. My dog collapses beside us, scooting near to hint that she wants to be rubbed. I run my hand down her belly, and she sighs, content.
To break the silence, which is beginning to become uncomfortable, I ask, “Are we driving up to Sugarbowl this weekend?” Skiing should be a neutral topic, but my dad wants us to be that “skiing family,” and my mom does not.
“I don’t think so,” my mom answers and lays down on her back. She plays with a sweatband, slingshotting it into the wall and catching it after it bounces back. “Besides, that’d be the first time I’ve gone there in, like, almost thirty years.”
“Really?” I inquire, pretending to pay attention. My dog nips at my toes and tries to wrestle the sock off them, causing me to giggle and push her away.
My mom continues: “Not many good memories from there. I remember how we’d have to get up so early just to drive the four hours and pay $100 a ticket to ride the gondola up and ski. My brothers didn’t ski, though; they boarded.” She rakes a hand through her hair and breathes in and out through her nose.
I can hear my brother falling asleep to an audiobook version of Harry Potter from across the hall. Sometimes I wonder if he’s ever gotten past the first book, even the first chapter. Maybe my dad just plays it on a loop, so he doesn’t have to put him to bed himself. The British woman’s voice is calming, and I want to drown in the Hogwarts adventures. Alas, I’m merely a muggle.
“That sounds like a pain.” I position my hands behind my head and lean on the mound of laundry. It makes for a nice cushion so I can take a “company 5,” as my dad likes to call them. The only problem is that he takes too many “company 5”s, which is why he isn’t folding clothes with us right now.
“There was this one time at Sugarbowl,” my mom gulps, “after my dad got sick. We drove the four hours and had prepaid gondola tickets and everything.”
I never met Grandpa Kent, but I wish I did. My mom’s dad died when she was 23 from Multiple myeloma, a type of cancer caused by infected white blood cells in your bone marrow. It tore her family apart, including her relationship with my grandma. Since then, my grandma has been dating odd old men who eat nothing but butter with papery lips that cover their dentures and high-up jobs at banks.
My mom closed her eyes like she was seeing the event unfold in her mind, unfolding like the pair of shorts she left in a heap beside her. She picked up her phone again like she would turn it on, but then she just held onto it. “We bought four gondola tickets instead of five because my dad wasn’t going to ski. He couldn’t, he was going through chemo, and the doctor said it was important not to overextend himself because he was already so fatigued.”
I could imagine it all as I lay there with the bright hues of clothing in my peripheral vision: the mountains of snow, the built-up excitement like one chunk of a snowman on top of another. I could see them all bundled up, breathing circles onto the window as Grandpa Kent drove them into the parking lot.
My mom didn’t mention what kind of car they drove, but I can imagine it as an old Ford Festiva with all three boys and the only girl squeezed into the back. As they pull into the parking lot, I can see them poking each other and gasping at the glistening snow. They get in line for the gondola, and Grandpa Kent is adjusting his paperboy cap atop his head. The kids hold on tight to their skis and boards with their small mittened hands.
“I was overjoyed,” my mom described, “but I don’t remember why. We didn’t get to go skiing often.” She opens her phone and scrolls through the Nordstrom website, occasionally pausing to glance at winter hats with pom-poms.
The four kids and their dad arrive at the ski bum with the nose ring who’s checking tickets right before the gondola lifts off. They hand over their four tickets, and the guy counts them, scratching his nose when he measures the number of people in their group.
“There’s only four tickets here,” my mom recalls him saying, “and there’s five of you.”
My mom and her three brothers glance over at Grandpa Kent, who steps forward and gives his signature broad smile. I’ve seen this smile in pictures but oh, to be there and witness it. “Sorry, I’m not skiing, I’m just going to sit and wait while my children ski.”
The ski bum exhales, and it makes clouds in the air. “I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t allow you to do that. You need a ticket to go up.”
I imagine my grandpa shifting his weight from one foot to another and looking the guy square in the eye, “You don’t understand. I can’t ski. Doctor’s orders.”
“Sorry, sir—” The guy starts.
My mom’s voice catches at this part in the tale, but she clears her throat. To distract herself, she takes mismatched wool ski socks, rolls them up to her arms, and snaps her thumb against her other fingers like she’s miming sock puppets. “My dad never wanted to admit he was sick. He wanted to feel strong and in control. But I remember him that day when he took off his cap, rubbed his bald head, and exclaimed, ‘I have fucking cancer!’ for the whole world to hear.” My mom shivered and closed her eyes. “It just made it seem so . . . real.” I could tell how scared she felt and how much she missed her dad. I watched her patiently and felt my stomach swirl into knots. It’s not fair she had to go through this, all of it, even this particular moment.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the ski bum says in a raspy voice, “you’ll still need to pay for a ticket.”
Grandpa Kent stomps over to the ticket booth, demands an adult ticket, whips out his wallet and comes stomping right back. He fits his cap back onto his head to keep it warm, scowls at the gondola guy, and waves his new ticket in his face.
“When I get off this gondola, I’m going straight to customer service and complaining about the hard time you put an old, sick man through. Let’s go, kiddos.”
I could feel my eyes watering, so I sat up straight and buried myself in the laundry, carefully tying the shirts together like linen origami. My mom rubbed that same spot under her eyes.
Her nails clicked against her phone screen. “I don’t remember what happened—if my dad got his money back or not. But I remember I couldn’t focus for the rest of the day. I was dodging skiers left and right and even flew off the run and into a patch of trees.”
I could envision my mom tucking her tears into her goggles and pushing forward with those skinny little poles, leaving the problems to travel back down in the ski lift. I couldn’t imagine how she felt when her dad faced defeat. I guess my grandpa is a muggle, but aren’t we all? Life isn’t magical, but at least we can believe like Harry did until it’s too late.
My dog licked her lips and got up from her little rest. She decided to trample the piles of folded laundry, causing us to chuckle and scold her. I excused myself to the bathroom but headed in the other direction. Only when I was in my room with the door closed did I let myself cry.
It was a silent cry because I didn’t want anyone to hear. I settled on my knees and cried for my mom and her brothers and my grandpa, who I never got to meet. He sounds so brave, I think to myself, unlike me. I barely got through the story without crying.
I love you, I think to the sky, and wipe my tears away. I open my door to go back to the laundry and know that Grandpa Kent isn’t a topic I can just fold away. I need to learn more.