Birch Whisperer

By Debbie Hagan

iStock_000027977692SmallAbove the black pines, above the rock crags, above the frozen streams I soar.  Eyes shut, I am armless, legless, bodiless, weightless—a spirit cut loose, suspended over treetops. My nostrils fill with the sparkles of mountain air, and miraculously this lifts me so I’m floating higher and higher to a sunnier, more joyful place.

A sharp jerk and I awaken to realize I’m in a chairlift scaling the side of Sugar Loaf Mountain—ascending 1,400 feet. From a small cable, I dangle with my fifteen-year-old son who wonders why we’ve stopped. A pile-up on the off-ramp? A ski patroller loading a gurney? A mechanical failure? I look to the tiny cable that holds our enormous weight, and I think it’ll start in a minute. It always does.

I look to my son. Icicles dangle from his blonde chin hairs. He’s strangely stiff, his ski gloves iced to the restraining bar. I consider poking him just to be sure he’s okay. Then fog rises behind his goggles, and I know at least he’s breathing.

“Are you having a good time?” I ask.

I listen for that Mickey Mouse-high, ever-chipper voice that used to beg me for one more ryn.

He grunts, and his frozen face expresses what his lips can’t seem to say, Yeah right, Mom, I’m lovin’ this—freezing my ass off, sitting in a God-damn metal chair blown about by a Nor’easter.

Two more runs, I tell myself. Then I’ll let him go back to the condo, play his video games—whatever makes him happy. I just want this to be fun.

Then my heart sinks. I see poking out of his left ski glove, his hospital wristband, the one he wore four days ago in the psych ward.  I try to think of something happy, like the time we raced down the slope to see who would end up in the lodge first. We’d hockey-stopped almost simultaneously, defrosted over mugs of chocolate, and then laughed at our whipped cream mustaches. It was fun, wasn’t it?

Now I take my fingers from my gloves, roll them into fists, and think, Oh God, when will this chair ever start?  I can’t stand this endlessly waiting. Finally, I explode, “I see you’re still wearing your hospital bracelet.”

Instantly I want to take this back.

Connor stares at me.

I expect a snide remark, but he just lifts his shoulder. “I don’t know why I wear it. My name’s worn off.”

“Oh.”

Minutes drag by. More silence, more waiting. We dangle as I stare at the ground—at least 100 feet below. So close, but so far.

“How long are we going to be stopped?” Connor asks as if he thinks I have a hotline to the lift tower: Let’s see, one minute, thirty-two seconds.

The truth is I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen today, tomorrow, or even within the next thirty seconds. I hope. I wait. I guess. But nothing is certain. There’s nothing to do, but sit here in the cold and wait.

Suddenly the chair lurches, and we’re moving—skimming above trails cut by skiers and rabbits whose prints crisscross as if they can’t decide where to run.

Another minute passes, and I see the off-ramp—and I feel confident, just fifteen seconds and we’ll be free. I push up the restraining bar, which groans as it hits the back of the chair and gives us a good shake. I organize my poles, straighten my skis, and imagine us turning around the bend, sailing down the ridge, flying in the face of all our worries, letting them blow right over us.

But the chair stops again. We bob up and down. I grab the side. There’s fifty-foot drop in front of us.

My eyes shoot to my son.

He doesn’t appear scared in the least. In fact, he looks as if he’s caught up in a dream, staring down at the gnarled birch branches. I follow his gaze. The dark, wind-twisted limbs look like devil fingers curling towards us, coaxing us down.

Connor leans slightly forward, and then cocks his head as if he’s trying to hear them whisper.

He asks, “Do you think I’d be hurt if I jumped?”

Debbie Hagan is a freelance writer with more than 500 published articles and columns, she is also a Manuscript Consultant at Grub Street in Boston, Massachusetts.

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  • joancalder

    I just revisited this article Debbie. And it is still amazing, thought provoking, and heart wrenching all at the same time.