Controlled Fall: Chapter 2 "The Crash"

Posted on October 14, 2018

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“This is the moment,” I taunted myself as the saliva rushed into the back of my mouth forcing me to slam my lips shut while my chest heaved in short bursts for air, my stomach convulsed and I stared deep into the blades of grass, “Let’s see what you can do now.”

“Next group,” Middlebury College Ski Team Coach Bart Bradford said, looking like a Viking warrior, red faced, small, dark eyes boring holes in the horizon, straight, white blond hair, thin on top hanging to his collar. He had no reason to care about me.

I shuffled to the line, “Tuck jumps out and back.” Tweet the whistle blew. Bent with chest on my thighs so that my back was parallel to the ground and with my hands in front of my face to break the imaginary wind I exploded in a broad jump as high and far as I could, landing into the starting position and exploding again and again. Turning back for the start my legs refused to fire at the same time. “Don’t cheat,” I said to myself. A weird, painful and yet slightly arousing tingle in my crotch begged me to stop. “These are the important ones. Maintain form.” Saliva filled the back of my mouth again and my lips constricted instinctively. I spit. Jack-knifed, hands on knees, arms fully extended, eyes closed, sweat and tears met in the corner.

“Back on the line,” Bart says, “Piggyback out and back.”

“Just win,” I said dropping the nausea and jumping into the sprint, like flipping a switch, surprised at my speed.

Walking back to the dorm, my soaked t-shirt turned cold under my sweatshirt. As the sun dropped behind Adirondacks and the skeleton trees faded into the darkness I said to myself, “See, you didn’t even get sick.” I talk to myself more than I want to admit, “And you wanted to quit. Just like all those other times. You don’t have a choice. You have to make yourself want to quit and then don’t. That’s the only way.”

When we ran sprints up the steep hill by the golf course the next week teammates stepped in front of me at the start to keep me from winning, but they couldn’t. That day Bart said, “You could give our Nordies (cross-country skiers) a run for their money.”

The semester finished, skis packed, along with a giant bag of dirty clothes, I’d made major gains, but to compete for the school I had to ski fast in two weeks. On my ride home, I stopped at Smith College, fifteen minutes from my parents’ house, because my ex-girlfriend had a Christmas present for me.

We’d met the January before when I’d trained at Berkshire East with the teams from UMass, Smith and Amherst prior to starting at Middlebury. She and I first kissed while catching snowflakes on our tongues riding up the chairlift. At the end of that day, shielded from the group, she had taken my hand, written her phone number and said, “Call me.” She hugged with enthusiasm, something my family didn’t. And I told her my secrets.

Before touring Europe that summer she’d said, “You really need to come to Wisconsin for my birthday, you know. It will be fabulous!!!” but I had a painting job and didn’t think I could afford the flight. We’d talked on the phone during her trip and she’d quoted Jimmy Buffet signing her postcards, “The weather is here wish you were beautiful,” Still I couldn’t commit. When I finally arrived at her parents’ she ignored me.

Though we continued to play at boyfriend and girlfriend when she returned to school, I worried I’d ruined everything. Then driving to a movie at the mall, she blurted, “Stop here,” way away from the entrance. I pulled over. She said, “I slept with someone in Greece”.

Finally exhaling, I said, “We can get beyond that. Love can overcome anything.”

“I don’t think I can,” she said.

I announced myself at the locked and monitored Wilder House then walked up the stairs. Stephanie met me at her door with a huge hug. Picasso’s Bouquet of Peace hung upside down on the wall, because as she’d told me that first night, “That way you don’t lose the fluids from cut flowers.” Amber, her scent, filled the room. Purple and green, the worry dolls, crazy haired Einstein on the wall saying, “Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love.” I wondered, without wanting to, if she’d affixed the galaxy of glow-in-the-dark stars to this ceiling too.

“Do you want your Christmas present?”

“I didn’t get you anything.”

“That’s okay. I saw this when I was in California for Thanksgiving and knew you had to have it.” She bounced with the excitement of puppy, “Here open it up.”

I unwrapped the box and pulled out a Nils hooded ski shell.

“It’s my colors,” she said, “Purple and green. And look, I got myself one too.” She modeled a smaller version out of her closet. “We’ll match.”

“I can’t afford to get you anything like this you know.”

“You don’t give a present because you expect one in return. You give a present to share with someone you care about. You deserve something that’s not completely functional. And it looks so good on you. ”

She sat down so that we touched and kissed me to remind why we kissed in the first place. We didn’t sleep together that night, but we did fool around.

She said, “You can’t tell me that you don’t love me.”

Wanting to end it definitively and for her to feel the pain that I had, I said, “I don’t love you anymore,” and I left.

The next morning Matt complained to my mother that I wouldn’t get up. Rushing to empty my skis and dirty clothes from her car so she could get to work on time, she said, “If he won’t get up, just go to the mountain yourself.” Matt was nothing if not persistent. It was easier to give in, plus I wanted to ski with him.

We loaded two pairs of skis apiece under the backseat of my parents’ Plymouth Voyager minivan, then drove past the No Parking signs to the race shack. Locals lovingly referred to Berkshire East as Berkshire Ice for its bulletproof snow, but on December 20, 1988, the white stripe that snaked from the top, cut across the brown mountain to the finish of the race hill and fanned out like a delta had begun to soften by nine o’clock. Paul Putnam, our coach for much of our lives told the group of us, “Are you girls just going to talk all day? Take two runs and then grab the slalom gates.” I considered my Slalom and Giant Slalom skis leaning against the race shack. Bart had secured my first free skis ever. I’d skied on the Slaloms, so chose the GS. We took two runs, but Paul wasn’t at the shack so we headed up for one more.

Race boots were designed for performance not comfort. I unbuckled them at the bottom to let the blood flow and restore feeling. Off the lift, I clamped them down and slid the goggles over my eyes. In the warm weather I didn’t wear a helmet or hat, just my black and red Spyder race pants, a double thickness sweatshirt that I’d bought from a buddy before leaving school and my light blue Serac shell with Middlebury Skiing on the back.

The beginning of the season provided the greatest opportunity to break bad habits because the summer layoff meant they were no longer ingrained in every movement. Each time I’d resisted the urge to quit during the fall I’d broken from old patterns and failures. Now on snow, I needed to grow the bubble of confidence. At the end of the previous season Matt, who was top three in his age in the country, had said to me, “That’s the best Slalom that I’ve ever seen you ski.” It probably helped that I’d beaten him that run. I pushed off looking for that feeling.

Jim Schaefer fiddled with his equipment in the middle of the trail. He had been my rival and polar opposite since we were twelve, consistency, consistency, consistency. Staying within his ability, he performed each movement perfectly if sometimes robotically and finished every run of every race for years on end, which made him an easy target. I started my turn to use him as a gate. When his head snapped up I switched to my inside ski and raised my outside one in an effort to say, “Look it can be easy.”

I dropped over the knoll and Jim returned to fiddling. The pitch flattened and funneled left, but my ski popped off before the cat track that would have brought me across the mountain to the bottom of the race hill. Back at Mt Tom, Matt and I had skied and ridden the t-bar on one ski some of those nights that we stayed until nine. I prided myself on my ability to stay upright if I lost one. This time I went down. A big chunk missing from the top of one ski seemed to indicate that I had skied over it before or after, but I don’t remember which. By the time Jim came along I had slid to the side of the trail, my skis, poles, gloves and goggles strewn on the soft snow.

“I don’t think I hit the trees,” I said, fully conscious, but with labored breathing and in shock. I tried to get up, to prove that everything was okay. By this time, Tim Flaherty and Matt had arrived with the others.

“You can’t move,” they held me in place. I struggled for air and rolled over.

“Unbuckle my boots,” I said to Matt.

“Tommy and Gary, go get the ski patrol,” Jim said to his younger brother and friend. When they arrived Matt, Jim and Tim helped them slide me onto a backboard. The ambulance drove me to Franklin County Medical Center. Dick Rossi, the Ski School Director and a family friend, whose daughter raced with Matt, called my father at Belchertown Middle School.

His look in the Emergency Room scared me back to the same feeling I had when I was a little kid in trouble. Adrenaline must have burned that black and white image of dark mustache, impenetrable glasses, full-face disappointment through the shock and into my memory. Next, alone and unable to move, the cold slipped under my blanket as I stared into the dark sky waiting for the helicopter that had been summoned to take me to the larger hospital in Hartford. At the next hospital, the nurse told me not to fall asleep when they slid me headfirst into the CT Scan, a sensation like being buried alive. I fought the panic, forcing my breathing to slow, easing away from the claustrophobia and fell asleep my nose almost touching the edge of the tube.

“I told you not to fall asleep,” the nurse said. That’s all anyone told me during the tests.

When someone reached my mother at a real estate Christmas party, her third job in addition to social work for the elderly and ski instructing, she asked, “How is Matt?” unable to comprehend ski accident so hearing car crash. She made it home first. In the perpetually cold house she slipped into perpetual motion, organizing entries for the holiday ski race the following week (she and my father volunteered as race secretaries at Berkshire East) since she didn’t know what to tell friends and family.

Matt and my father didn’t know anymore when they arrived. The three of them drove to Hartford Hospital in silence and sat marooned in the waiting room.

Finally, a fat, sloppy doctor ambled in and said, “Your son, your brother broke his back. He’ll never walk again,” turned and walked out. They clustered and cried. When they finished my father said, “That’s the last time we can cry. We have to be strong for Chris.”

All three of them were in my room when I finally made it there. No one said much. I didn’t know anything and just wanted to get into bed. The pain didn’t register over the morphine. Matt and my father headed home. My mother stayed in the chair next to my bed, the curtain cordoning off our dark space lit by the television. She changed channels, quickly skipping past ski racing.

“Hey, turn that back,” I said and she did.

A piece of tape held a soft plastic tube, which went up my nose and down my throat to drain my stomach of the chocolate chip cookie from Bailey’s Country Store that Matt had picked up on his drive home from Burke and which I had eaten for breakfast on my way to the mountain. I didn’t like that tube. It made me feel old and sick.

I said, “I’m pulling this out.”

Before my mother could move I yanked it hand over hand out of my nose then vomited the rest of the night, bile the color of deep snot stinging my nose as I breathed out my mouth through the chemicals. My broken body contorted with each convulsion. I sweated to the plastic sheets. The hospital blazed with heat. I needed water to drink through the bile, to quench my thirst. They gave me foam plastic popsicles, like shrunken down versions of those edging paintbrushes, dipped into ice cubes. I didn’t think I’d ever sleep and don’t remember when I did.

Chapter 2 read by the author.

My childhood rival Jim Schaefer was the first person to me after my accident. We returned to the crash site, on the mountain he now owns, and on which his first wife died of an asthma attack in his arms for this conversation.