My husband is an avid snowboarder. He discovered the sport as a young college grad living in New York. The rush is like no other, he often says, to express his love for the sport. A few months after I first started dating my husband, I discovered his profile on Friendster, the 2005 equivalent of Facebook. His bold tagline said: I have a passion for life, snowboarding and dancing. This left me slightly appalled. I pretty much loathed the idea of snowboarding, had endured eight masochistic years of Indian Classical Dance and speaking of life, well, I had passionately debated its worth through my repressive and rebellious teens as well as my obnoxiously scintillating college philosophy courses. I shared my concerns with a good friend and she calmly assured me that people made up most of the stuff on their Friendster profile. Something told me there was nothing made-up about the snowboarding part. I had only to bide my time until I was summoned to climb atop one such death-board.
It happened a year and a half later, when my husband (or boyfriend at the time) asked me to accompany him on a ski/snowboarding trip to Colorado. Even though I’d always known this was inevitable, my heart rate increased significantly a few days before the trip and I had ghoulish nightmares of tumbling down snow-covered mountains, landing in a heap of broken bones thousands of feet below, where polar bears carried away my carcass. All skier friends suggested that I start off with ski lessons as opposed to snowboarding because skiing was more traditional and grounding, though what was grounding about it I could not fathom. The day of my first ski lesson dawned bright and beautiful. I drank three cups of coffee after a sleepless night and breathed in fresh mouthfuls of the crisp mountain air, hoping to defy the horrors of my dreams. No such luck. I was god-awful from the moment I started. My feet refused to stay in the triangle, or the pizza shape and I was the only one in my beginners’ group who couldn’t make it two feet forward without falling, even by the end of the lesson. My ski instructor, a stern New Yorker, looked at me as if I was an insect. She might even have swatted at me at one point when I fell for the millionth time. I didn’t really blame her. I was, literally, as hapless as an insect might be on skis. The feeling of speeding through (more like stumbling in my case) the white powdery snow, the behemoth and silent mountains whizzing by, the vast, serene sky unfolding endlessly above—all of the mind-blowing sensations that skiers so cherish—none of those happened to me. If anything, I longed for the feel of hard ground under my feet, I craved warm air and blue skies, greenery and the sounds of birds. I wanted to be anywhere but there, doing anything but that.
Fast forward to twelve years later. I have married the snowboarder and we now live in Hong Kong with our eight-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. But even though we have moved to the tropics, somehow, I have not escaped the cold grip of the snow-loving culture here in Hong Kong where the city dwellers hanker to be master of all things. A true generation of tiger children brought up by tiger parents, Hong Kongers need to do it all, from hiking to camping to surfing to skiing. And so, my husband finds it not only befitting but kind of necessary to book a trip to the nearest ski resort in Japan and introduce our children to the holy grail of sports holidays. The only question was, what about me? The children were still young, and it would be virtually impossible for my husband to manage them alone on a ski trip in a foreign country. But I didn’t ski! As a girlfriend and even as a wife, my duties did not extend beyond “getting a taste of it” and renouncing it as “not my cup of tea”. As a mother, though, my duties seemed broader, less defined, pushing boundaries that I had set in place a long time ago. I would have to go on this trip not only for their safe keeping but also to cheer them on, to help them love and commit to something that I clearly was not able to love or commit to. How was I expected to do this? How do you inspire others to do something that your own heart never warmed up to? I dug out every bit of warm clothing I owned, prayed to the gods for mercy and once again boarded the flight with horrific visions of tumbling down steep, snowy glaciers.
I sit in the middle of a buzzing cafeteria at Hanazono International Ski School in Niseko, Japan and stare at what feels more like a party than a ski resort. Men and women waltz in for a big glass of beer in between their runs, looking charged and exhilarated. Children guzzle their hot chocolates, acting as if they couldn’t wait to go back out in the billowing blizzard. This is our third morning here and every day I choose a table by the window despite the bone-chilling draft that seeps in through the invisible cracks in the glass and into my equally porous joints. By mid-morning my limbs grow as stiff as the icicles on the leafless trees outside. Still, I choose to sit by the window because I want to watch my family along with all the other brave souls who find it so heart-warming to be engulfed by the freezing whiteness and who find such freedom in giving up their bodies to a series of balance-defying acrobatics. Every day I watch the never-ending snowfall and the lithe figures zigzagging down the meandering slopes and I feel lonely. I feel lonely not because I cannot share this experience with my loved ones but because I don’t really want to. It is a strange feeling, empty and uncomfortable. I am still the sun in my children’s universe and yet here’s an important chunk of their lives where I am unwilling to shed my light. What kind of mother does that make me? And what right do I have to persuade my little daughter to go back out there in the blinding white, when on her first day, she suddenly finds it all too overwhelming? I sit her on my lap, her tiny body lost in her heavy gear and I tell her that she must finish her lesson because she is the bravest and strongest little girl I have ever met. I’m not, she says, in between great sobs. You are, I insist, holding her tight, imagining her small form gliding down a gentle slope. In that instant, I also realize that being a mother has ripped me so far away from my comfort zone that I can now believe the unbelievable, a practice that might have helped me in my first ski encounter.
Our fifth and last day in Niseko dawns bright and beautiful, just like my first day of skiing in Colorado, many moons ago. But unlike me, my son and daughter are both flushed with excitement as they get into their ski gear one last time. They are more confident on the snow now, their agile bodies poised for what must be the proverbial ski rush; unlike me, they have embraced the experience fully. I feel a twinge of regret as I listen to brother and sister exchanging notes on their various skill levels and which trails they might try the following year. Maybe if I’d pushed through on my own fateful first lesson…maybe if I’d known that one day I’d have two little people to frolic with on the snow…. maybe if I’d been a different person altogether… I strap on their ski boots and helmets and my heart swells with incredible pride as they glide smoothly out on their little skis. In another two decades, when they plan their own ski trips with their own friends, will they remember me, waiting for them patiently at the ski school cafeteria with hot chocolate and cookies? Will they remember me removing their wet gloves and gently rubbing their frozen little hands between mine? Will they remember me wrapping my scarf around every snowman they made? Will they remember me as a warm reassurance in their hearts when they plow through the cold? Or will I simply dwindle into an unimportant detail in their early memories of an experience in which I ultimately have no role?
The children are out of sight now. The elderly Japanese lady next to me smiles with empathy as I brush off the snowflakes and tears on my cheeks. Next year, I think to myself, next year I’ll give skiing another go. But there is little conviction in my resolve, I don’t really believe it myself. What I do believe is that I shall be back with my family and probably wait right here for them at the little table by the window. I may or may not be of much use to them as the years pass, my body may seem futile to them and my presence superfluous, but I shall return, time and again, as the face by the window. For love, like the sun, shines no matter what. It oozes indiscriminately from our hearts, regardless of recognition, reciprocity or even reason. While we humans try desperately to leave an indelible mark on those we love fiercely, love itself works silently and often without a fixed intent. Maybe skiing is a little bit like that too—you surrender to the surge and flow of it, you do not resist it and it carries you and leads you where it will. But what do I know?
Maria Chaudhuri is a Hong Kong-based writer born and raised in Bangladesh. She has an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College, Vermont. Her book, Beloved Strangers: A Memoir (2015), was published by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.