Her Bravery

I distinctly remember the day my mom first showed me her bravery.

We were in my parent’s Chevy Celebrity. I think I was five. The corduroy seats itched the back of my knees, so I kept tugging on my skirt hem. I played with the hand-crank on the window, turning it up and down repeatedly. Each time it was down, warm air seeped inside and got stuck in my nose. And despite the floor being out of reach, I kicked my feet back and forth trying to touch my toes against the carpet.

We were car-dancing to Madonna when my mom gasped and slammed on her brakes. Our heads flew forward then slammed against the seats with a thud. I stopped kicking and car-dancing. Stopped playing with the window. Stopped breathing for the shortest moment.

Everything stood still as our eyes connected in the rear-view mirror. There, I saw concern and love, then determination and strength. All before she blinked.

“Oh, God!” she shouted. I exhaled and the world rotated again. “That car hit the little girl so hard she…” her voice trailed off. I heard the clicking and clacking of the car going into park and her seatbelt being unbuckled, then the slapping of the belt raveling up.

She climbed out of her seat, slammed her door, and stopped in front of my window. “You stay here,” she said, using her voice that meant business. Perseverance filled each line on her face in a way that I had never seen before.

I gulped down a breath bubble and scratched the corduroy seat to feel the fibers under my nails. I nodded yes.

“I mean it, Danielle,” she said.

“Okay, Mommy,” I whispered to her, but she was already jogging away.

I craned my head up to peek out the window and the smell of exhaust fumes overwhelmed me. It was a busy street that felt close to home, but I couldn’t tell which one it was. I saw my mom approach a girl lying face down on the pavement. She wasn’t much bigger than me. And behind the girl was a car. Its windshield was caved in and shards of glass glittered against the street. I looked away, afraid and unsure of what was happening.

Time isn’t the same when you are a child, so I don’t know how long I sat there avoiding the scene out of my window, but it felt like hours. I heard sirens and voices just beyond our car. I saw the flashing lights, but I couldn’t bear to lift my head and watch.

Eventually everything slowed. No more sirens, lights, or commotion.

My mom opened her door, sat back down in the driver’s seat, and cradled her head in her hands. “I couldn’t save her,” she wept. “I couldn’t save the little girl’s life.”

 

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Ski Lesson

“First toe, then heel.”

The neon green rental skis lay before me, perpendicular to the mountain. Snow had started to fall, and perfect white flakes were landing on them, illuminating each scratch and dent from inexperienced skiers who wore them before me. 

I looked up to my instructor, a tall, slender man named Gunther with reflective sunglasses on. In them I could see myself bent into awkward right angles. I straightened my shoulders, and looked back to the skis. They looked more like big green boats, and I hate the ocean.

It was barely 20 degrees outside, but underneath my brand new ski coat, North Face fleece, and base layer, sweat was gathering at the small of my back. I pulled my goggles over my eyes with mitten-covered hands. My peripheral vision was limited because of the gigantic piece of plastic and foam on my face, and my range of motion was restricted because of all the layers. I pulled down the fleece neck warmer for a dose of oxygen, inhaled the icy air, and returned it to its position over my mouth. After that, I focused on the skis or, more specifically, the scratches on the skis. 

Why did I let my husband talk me into this?

“Toe then heel,” Gunther repeated. “Downhill ski first.” His German accent was thick, reminding me of my mother-in-law. 

Kids less than half my size zoomed around me, first to my front, then to my back. They traversed the mountain easily, back and forth, keeping their skis in a wedge shape. Each of them safely stopped at the bottom, not far from me and Gunther.

Toe. Then heel.

Balancing on my left foot, I picked up my right foot like I was told. The boot weighed at least five pounds. It took some navigating, but after several tries I got the toe of my boot lined up with the binding. I stepped down hard, and heard a click.

“Das ist gut!” he said. “Now your left foot. Dig the edge of your right ski in. Balance. Use your poles for support, right? Toe, then heel.”

I tightened my grip on the ski poles and tried to dig them into the snow. One pole slipped on a patch of ice, and I lost my footing. I fell forward, but my ski instructor caught me by the arm.

“Again,” he said, righting my shoulders. “Das ist easy. Don’t think too much. Just do.”

“Okay,” I said, “just do.” I found my center on my right ski and dug the edge against the mountain. I pressed my left boot in and it clicked. “Yay!” I squealed.

“Cool, right?” Gunther asked. The wrinkles on his face became more pronounced as his mouth stretched into a wide grin. He appeared to be having fun with my lack of experience.

“Yes,” I said. “Very cool.”

“Now, we ski.”

Crap.

* * * * *

I fell eleven times on the bunny slope during that lesson, crossing my tips, turning too fast, or catching the edge of my green boats on ice. Each time, Gunther pulled by the arm to a standing position and told me to try again. 

By the end of my lesson, the weight of the thick fabric against my skin felt like I had dumbbells hanging from my shoulders. Air was getting stuck somewhere in the top half of my lungs, never giving me a full breath. Sweat had pooled inside my mittens. And the muscles in the back of my legs were quivering, but I listened to him. I got back up and kept trying.

This is my fifth year on skis. I don’t use rentals anymore. Instead, I have my own. They are purple and black with silver sparkles. When I strap them on, they are an extension of me. I know exactly how well my edge will catch against the ice, and how quickly I can turn. After lessons with two other instructors and hundreds of runs down the slope, Gunther’s words are the only ones that echo in my head, guiding me down the mountain, and picking me back up when I fall.

Photo courtesy of  Unsplash.

A Lesson in Speaking Up and Saying Sorry

The neighborhood I grew up in doesn’t look quite like it used to when I was young. Sure, the tiny bungalows and ranches of blues, yellows, whites and brick continue to sit close to the sidewalk with cement slab driveways and manicured lawns framing each one. Mature trees anchor the street firmly in its blue-collar place. And, even today, I could set my watch by the freight trains chugging along two streets over. But it has changed in other ways.

Most noticeably, the neighbors inside the houses seem farther apart. The kids I played with as a child moved out long before I finished high school, and now they have moved on, making families of their own. The houses have changed hands to an older generation who care less about connecting with one another and more about their own to-do lists.

On any given day when I was growing up, a herd of neighborhood kids would congregate in front of my house to play hide-and-seek, red rover and tag. 

I remember one day, in particular, where we were all taking turns with the jump rope and skip-it.

“I dare you to jump rope from the top of the steps,” I said to Douglas, my next-door neighbor. Before the words even finished running out of my mouth, I regretted saying them.

“Yeah, I double dare you!” my step-sister, Steph, exclaimed.

With a wobbly voice, he accepted. I kept my mouth shut and held one end of the jump rope while my stepsister held the other.

We swung the rope around, making it soar up towards the sky. The first couple of times it came down, towards his feet, he cleared it – no problem. But then on the third or fourth time, something happened. I couldn’t tell if he tripped, or maybe lost his footing against the step, but before I could stop it, he fell backwards onto the concrete. It happened in slow motion. First he was midair, face contorting and arms flailing, then he was slamming against the ground beneath him.

Douglas’ head hit the jagged corner of the bottom step, with a loud thunk. Blood started gushing onto the concrete. His face turned chalky as he opened his mouth into a strange shape and screamed. Razor blades scraped against my ears. My feet weighed ten thousand pounds, but somehow I managed to pick them up, one after another. I ran to find my mom.

I thought he would be broken forever.

Another neighbor, Josh, ran over my driveway and through the next front lawn to find Douglas’ parents.

When the adults met back at my steps, harsh words were shouted and all fingers kept pointing to me and my step-sister. My face was hotter than the blood in front of me, and knew I was responsible. I should have spoken up, but I didn’t.

“It was my idea,” I said, accepting the blame.

Douglas was rushed to the hospital and I was sent to my room where I buried my face against the coolness of my favorite pink pillow. I tried to bury my regret, too, but it kept welling back up through my eyes, streaming down my face in hot spurts.

I wanted to hide there forever, but my mom didn’t let me. After my step-sister went home, she took me to the dollar store. She loaned me four quarters and a dime to buy a toy for Douglas as an apology. I picked out a bag of green toy soldiers because soldiers were strong, and so was my friend.

When we got back home, she made me knock on his door, present in hand. A red-faced Douglas answered with his parents at his side.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he responded.

“Are you okay?” I asked sheepishly.

“I got stitches,” he said, pointing to a freshly shaved spot on his head, sewn up with thick black thread. Looking at it made my belly feel like I just went down the first hill of a roller coaster at Cedar Point.

New tears burned the corners of my eyes. “I’m so sorry,” I said, handing him the bag of plastic army men as an olive branch.

“Cool,” he shrugged. “Wanna play with them?”

I looked up to my mom and she nodded, nudging me into the house. Douglas ripped open the bag and the little plastic soldiers spilled onto the wooden floor. We played with them while our parents drank fizzy cans of R.C Cola and mended the wound festering between them. When I looked up, my mom smiled, letting me know that everything was going to work itself out.

Though many things in my neighborhood have changed over the last thirty years, the bloodstain on my stepdad’s front step remains. It has faded only slightly with time.

Each time I see it, it reminds me to speak up, say sorry, and take care of my friends and neighbors.

***

Right now, more than ever, I need my mom to reassure me with that smile that everything will, again, work itself out.

I tried. I tried to speak up. To do my part, but it wasn’t enough. That roller coaster feeling in my belly won’t go away this time. I keep worrying about what the future holds for my girls, my neighbors, my friends.

Will more blood spill, because we didn’t speak loud enough? What can I do now?

Little plastic soldiers won’t work this time.

Photo courtesy of  Tim Marshall/Stocksnap.io