On the Edges
I asked for the funeral to not be on my birthday.
Before I left her at the security gate, I turned to my mom and asked her one last time if I was doing the right thing. She pulled me close into a hug and told me to get on the plane. When I got to the gate, I texted my boyfriend Mark. I knew once I saw him, I would feel better about everything, including my decision to fly to Denver in the first place. I just needed to get to him.
Mark had asked several times if I was sure I wanted to come. Even as I picked up my carry-on and boarded the plane, I wasn’t sure. But everyone, including Grandma Julie, had said to go. I think they were concerned I was going to spiral out of control again if I continued to allow grief to consume me. It was decided for me that I couldn’t be allowed to wallow.
After I landed in Denver, I found my way to baggage claim and saw Mark waiting for me. I ran up to him, tears already in my eyes as I wrapped my arms around him. He brushed my hair out of my face and kissed my forehead before asking if I was okay.
Mark’s parents drove us to Copper Mountain, an hour outside of Denver. While it was still light outside, I was awestruck by the magnitude of the Rocky Mountains, nothing like the Appalachia that I was used to. As it got darker, snow began to whisk around us and slowed down traffic. At one point, we came to a dead stop. The snow had become so heavy that they closed off the mountain pass we needed to go through. The wind whipped harsh snowflakes at our car in the elevated and unfamiliar terrain. I unbuckled my seatbelt and laid across the backseat to rest my head on Mark’s lap. He combed his fingers through my hair; he knew how effective that was at calming my anxieties.
We eventually made it, and I found my room. Claiming jetlag, I went to bed before everyone else. I laid down and closed my eyes, holding back the tears of leaving my family back in Pennsylvania.
With a birthday so close to Christmas, I usually spent it with my dad’s side of the family. Christmas evening at my grandparents’ was special. Everyone was in the kitchen making something. The grandkids were in the playroom downstairs. On my eighth birthday, I was surrounded by my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. I thought that was pretty cool. I blew out the candles on my ice cream cake and still had blue frosting smears around my lips while I was opening my presents. We cleared away the torn up wrapping paper, the rest of the cousins slightly bitter because their gift receiving had ended days ago.
It was late, the aunts all said, we should be getting ready for bed. All the cousins went upstairs into Grandma and Grandpa’s room, rolled out our sleeping bags, and stole pillows from hidden closets to fall asleep. The room was dark. And even though I had just turned eight, I was the youngest in the room. I watched as the clock on the wall kept ticking until it reached 9:36pm. The time I officially turned eight. The newfound sense of wisdom I had expected did not arrive with the turn of the clock.
My grandparents hadn’t gone to bed yet, they were enjoying one of the few occasions when they had all their children in the same place. I could hear my aunts, uncles, and parents laughing downstairs, all gathered in the dining room around a table, extra chairs crowded around it now that the eleven grandkids were sleeping upstairs. Beneath the crack in the bedroom door came the laughter and just a sliver of light. Quietly as to not wake my cousins, I unzipped my sleeping bag, opened the bedroom door and walked down the stairs right into the dining room where the older generations were.
I felt everyone turn to see who had broken bedtime protocol. Grandma stood from her place at the head of the table, took my hand, and led me into the kitchen. She put an antique kettle that looked like it was made from hundred-year-old brass on the stove. As we waited for it to whistle, Grandma pulled down two mugs, a tea pot and several bags of tea. She opened the fridge and pulled out a piece of pottery filled with cream and another filled with sugar cubes. She placed the tea bags in the teapot right as the kettle started to whistle. The water was poured into the pot, allowed to brew for a few minutes before being transferred into our two mugs. She stirred in two sugar cubes for me, one for her, and a splash of cream to cool down the tea.
I burned my tongue on the first sip. We stayed at the table off the kitchen, letting the rest of the adults enjoy the dining room space. The occasional burst of laughter drafted through the house. I felt like a grown-up drinking my tea with my grandma who I was proud to share a name with, just like my dad shared a name with my grandpa. I grinned widely when my grandpa came to check on us and called us his “Big Julie” and “Little Julie.” Years later when I continued to grow and Grandma started to shrink, I would joke that we would have to reverse our nicknames. But on my eighth birthday when I was still shorter than her, we sat at the kitchen table burning our taste buds until sleep finally overcame my birthday adrenaline and I went back upstairs to join my cousins in our sleeping bags.
Only my dad was allowed in the hospital room. We drove three hours as soon as we heard she had been admitted again. The hospital was dark and empty. We didn’t see any other visitors while we waited. We were ushered into a side waiting room where an infomercial for a vibrating waist trainer played on a loop. After a while, Aunt Carolyn came in and told us that we could see her.
We filed down to her room as my aunts and uncles exited the room. She was sitting upright, the nasal cannula I was accustomed to by now was nestled beneath her nose. Her breathing was slow and ragged, like she swallowed ocean water and couldn’t get it out. Like every breath took a little more out of her.
“Julie, I hear you are going skiing this week?” she asked as we settled in.
“Yeah,” I responded, trying to choke back the tears that I knew were coming. “I leave on Thursday and I’ll be back on Christmas Eve.”
“That’s good, you’ll have two full days of skiing. Where are you going?”
“Copper Mountain, in Colorado.”
“There’s good snow out there in Colorado, but it’s not like the Pennsylvania snow that you are used to. It’s going to be icy out there, so use the edges on your skis. Make sharp turns.”
Coughing through every word, she continued asking each of my triplet siblings about their lives. Andrew told her about his most recent swim meet, that he had set a personal record. Katie was cheerleading captain again. David was set on going to WVU, but was still waiting to hear back from more schools.
After a while, Grandma started to doze off, it was getting harder and harder for her to keep her eyes open and we knew it was time to head out.
“Julie, remember,” She said as we picked up our coats to head out the door. “Ski on the edges. Colorado is icy. And take lots of pictures; I haven’t been to Colorado in years, I want to see all the fun you have.”
When my dad was in college, his parents moved to a ski resort in Western Pennsylvania, their house on the side of Hidden Valley Mountain. The whole family would jump over the back fence, click on their skies and ride down the mountain. Their house was the place that everyone gathered.
Our family was constantly expanding. By the time my grandparents moved to Hidden Valley, their oldest three daughters had already been married, two grandchildren had been born, and a set of twins were the way.
My mom was still a girlfriend when she received her first Christmas present from her future mother-in-law at Hidden Valley: a white ski purse, handy for storing cash and valuables while you’re on the slope. It was also at Hidden Valley that I first learned how to ski from my dad. My first time on in the mountain, we rode down the special path and navigated our way to the side of the fenced in slope. My dad pointed out the big beautiful house that his family once lived in and had called home and would always be home. After I admired the infamous house I had heard so much about, my dad slid down the mountain on his skis backwards. I did too, despite my novice status.
The ski lifts in Colorado were much longer than the ones in Pennsylvania I was used to. It had been several years since I had gone skiing and I was nervous about going down the mountain. I assumed that skiing was not like riding a bike, and it would be difficult to pick it back up. Mark took us on one of the intermediate level slopes which probably would have been a black diamond on the East Coast. Very patiently, he tried to break my habit of making a pizza slice with my skis to stop. He explained that you want to slow down by cutting into the snow. Use the edges… I sped down the hill ahead of him and tried out the technique. The first cut I made, my left ski went airborne, the tip of the ski got caught in a snowbank, and I went tumbling to the ground, skis detaching from my boot.
I was laughing as Mark came up behind, pulled me up out of the snow and went to retrieve my ski for me. We both knew how clumsy I was and realized this was going to be a long process. Grandma was right, it was icier out here in the Rockies. I clicked my ski back into place and wobbled as I tried to regain my balance. My ankles ached already and felt bruises forming on my calves. Continuing down the mountain, I was wary of the icy patches and windfalls of snow, wanting to avoid another wipe out.
Although I never got to see her ski myself — my grandma had been in too poor of health for my most of my life to ski — I knew skiing was so much a part of how my grandma raised her children. If my relationship with Mark would have lasted, I would have liked to think our families would all have gone skiing together.
When they told me the funeral date, I told my grandpa I wouldn’t be going to Colorado, I would stay in Pittsburgh to be there for him. But then, in a way only Grandpa Howdy could do, he said that Mark was a part of my family now too, and I was not going to miss out on a once in a lifetime opportunity like this. I was going to Colorado.
In Colorado, the sun was shining brightly, bouncing reflections off the heavily textured snow caused by the hundreds of grooves driven through it. Some lines appeared blue while others maintained their true white quality. In the distance, even more snow topped mountains loomed. I dug my phone out of its secured zipper pocket to take a picture of beautiful Colorado. My throat tightened up as I realized that it was nine in the morning, eleven Eastern Standard Time. The funeral was beginning right now. I took the picture on my phone and typed a text message to my grandpa, hoping he knew that even though I wasn’t there, that up in the mountains, closer to heaven, I still felt her with me.
I took in the slope ahead of me and pushed off. I made sure to ski on the edges.