I believe in winter, with clean, fresh piles of snow, cold wind and clear bright skies. I learned more about the restorative power of winter five years ago when my son was diagnosed with leukemia.
It was February, and a gray, damp winter was already underway — with no significant snowfall. Our lives had just been turned inside out. What we thought was just a bad flu, with aches and fever, was eventually diagnosed as leukemia in our 13-year old son. He immediately began intensive chemotherapy that would last more than three years. It felt like being thrown onto a speeding train, with no stops allowed.
As Adam endured the trauma of the diagnosis and treatments, we tried to keep his spirits up. He bravely accepted that skiing was out for the remainder of the winter. “It’s a lousy season, anyway,” I told him, “Next year, you will be skiing, I promise.” (I said this, not knowing the effects of the treatments, but with the need to believe that we had a future.)
At the hospital, a chaplain visited us. This kind man talked with Adam about skiing, a favorite mountain in upstate New York and the particular runs that Adam was never allowed to do, because “My mom says they are too dangerous.”
“Next year,” Reverend Dan said, “your mom will let you ski The Rumor.” (Again references to the future – that we would, indeed, have a future.)
Time progressed, with weekly visits to the pediatric oncology clinic for infusions, spinal treatments, blood and platelet transfusions and hundreds of pills. In the fall, we decided to buy new skies –- an affirmation that Adam would be skiing in the winter. We even planned a December ski trip with cousins; Adam was determined. We finally completed the “worst” part of the therapy and were just about ready to move into an easier phase of treatment, when the toxicity of the treatments took their toll on Adam’s legs. Painful spasms associated with neuropathy landed him back in the hospital on a morphine drip for several days.
“He might be ok to do a little skiing,” his doctor mentioned “but nothing aggressive,” and then she smiled, knowing that Adam only knew one speed.
During this time we met a family with an ill child staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Albany. They owned a small ski resort in the Catskill Mountains, and they gave Adam a season’s pass as a motivation to get his legs strong again. It sure worked. Adam pushed through the pain and was able to be back on his legs for that whole season. On one occasion, when he took off his helmet in the lodge, he looked around, remembered he was bald and then asked me if I thought anyone noticed. My response was that people were probably saying, “Hey that’s a cool kid who is not letting the cancer stop him from having a great day.” And that is what I truly believed.
The snow was awesome that season. We even talked his doctor into joining us for a ski date, during which she and Adam raced down the mountain –- Adam triumphant at the end. While neighbors and friends complained about shoveling snow, we just skied. The visions of my son lying in a hospital on a morphine drip as opposed to the wind in my face as I raced behind him healed my heart and soul.
We have passed the five-year mark since the diagnosis. Adam is thriving and strong. In fact, he finally skied the “Rumor” this winter. As I watched him tackle that scary, steep slope, I remembered that dark February day when we stepped into the cancer world and how we needed to believe that the next winter and winters to come would indeed bring us joy, hope and strength.
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