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Backstory: Christmas Powder

I sit in a recycled ski chair on the cabin porch in Ouray, Colo., and watch giant, Christmas Eve snowflakes fall softly as I call my parents to wish them Merry Christmas. I am eager to tell my parents that I’m going backcountry skiing for the first time tomorrow. Instead, Mom reads her oncology report: cancer. In my mind tumors twinkle like Christmas lights throughout her. The conversation ends and snowflakes merge with my chilled tears.

On Christmas morning, eight inches of snow coats everything. I should be joyous, but my mood is icy with concern for my mother and anxiety for the molecular demons that may lurk within me. And the thought of skinning up a mountain for my first time terrifies me—what if I can’t keep up, or if I trigger an avalanche? How do I know what is safe? I claw at excuses to send my husband and pals without me. Brenda and Don are locals. Even Disa, a chocolate lab with a snow addiction, loves her powder days. I’m not sure I do. But I know I should seize life because there are no guarantees of another day. I deliberately and wordlessly prepare while Stephen quietly packs beside me.

Ouray is whitewashed and cold as we scurry through, but Red Mountain Pass glistens under a topaz sky. I always suspected I would thrive on the skin up. It’s the right pace for an introvert like me to disappear into solitude, the noisiest thing being the thumping of my Oklahoma heart as I force skis uphill. The others move so swiftly that I’m left behind, passing story-filled mining shacks and flocked trees on my own. But I could do this all day, all winter, this climbing. I have never seen mountains from this perspective. Then I wonder—what would Mom think of this view—is it too incomprehensible, too overwhelming, too adventurous for her daughter?

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[Illustration] Alex Nabaum

An hour of climbing takes us to a saddle overlooking the Million Dollar Highway. As I struggle to remove skins, I’d give a million dollars to allay all my fears. Of the descent. Of my mother’s descent. I remember Mom pushing me outside in bulky snowsuits and boots lined with plastic bags to play in Minnesota snow. She encouraged me to keep riding that rusty metal runner sled even after I’d slashed a cheek. Would she tell me to head down this expansive slope?

Don and Disa disappear first, then Stephen. Brenda lingers with me to vocalize my instructions: “Just ski. You can do this, Melissa. You will love this.” I am paralyzed until Brenda suggests we take a more conservative route rather than slalom through trees after the boys.

Cautious, not certain what to expect of the powder, I begin my descent. I gain confidence with each ungraceful turn and smile as I learn what it feels like to float on clouds and fall into pillows that puff crystal-cold kisses on my cheeks. My joy, sometimes pensive but always sincere, is a dare to fate—just try to ruin my Christmas with bad news and dire predictions.

Once we reach the bottom, we climb again, this time up Prospect Gulch. In thin air next to Red Mountain No. 3, I admit that I am happy. I could be overwhelmed by the need to see and do more because my mother now counts on me to live boldly, see bravely and cherish fresh mountain air someday without her in the world, but right now I’m on a remote snow-draped peak on my skis, gulping in full, brisk life for me.

Skiing between evergreens and laboring under snow curtains, I am distracted by a sound that I cannot identify. Instinct tells me to look high in that perfect blue sky and there I find sandhill cranes flying over Red Mountain Pass. I stop and let eager crane chatter disappear beyond my perception until I am left alone with the sound of the mountains breathing. Mom would like this moment, and in that suspended bliss I acknowledge that she won’t likely see another Christmas. But I also know that my new love of backcountry skiing will be there, and that’s a thought I can happily live with.

This essay was first published in the December 2014 issue. To submit your reader essay, email sean@holpublications.com subject “Backstory.”

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