How to Watch Your Son Jump Off a Cliff

ski flip

Illustration by Keith Svihovec

First of all, remember: You were the one who taught him how to ski. You were the one who wanted him to know the freedom of letting go. Of trusting your body to the downhill thrust of gravity and speed.

When he was just a baby, you were the one who stood at the top of Big Mountain and pointed your skis down the chute. You were the one who chose a line and committed to it. You were the one who pushed off, tucking tight, letting your knees absorb the shock of the moguls, the falling away of the gullies. The one who let the speed build and build until there was no you left — just the push of wind peeling back the skin of your face and the snow plummeting away beneath your feet. Seventy miles per hour from top to bottom, holding on to that razor-thin edge between being in control and losing it all. When your friends at the base stared at you aghast, you knew you had been irresponsible, with two small children, to take such a risk. And yet …

So you stand calm at the bottom of the snow-dusted rocks that reach up 15 feet into the clear blue sky. And you consciously even out your breathing as you see your son side-stepping up the long steep approach to the jump.

Though you try not to, you think about your friend’s son last summer. The one who had gone swimming in the Blackfoot with this buddies. The one who always approached life as if it were a desert bar, sinking his teeth deep into whatever was on offer. The one who had been climbing along the cliff trail to the jump where generations of fearless, immortal young high school and college kids plunged into the deep pool below. That very same pool where your own sons had been so many times. Your friend’s son had paused on the trail that day. No one is sure why. Some thought it was to tie his shoe. But suddenly his feet went out from under him and he plunged headlong down onto the rocks … no, you will not think about him.

You see that your son stands at the top of the approach, not moving, his skis turned sideways to the hill. You wonder if he’s scared. You know you could not do what he is about to try. In spite of your daring on the slopes, you have never jumped off a cliff like this one, could not imagine trying a back flip, letting your body leave the earth and spin upside down in empty space, not knowing where you would land.

You think of another boy, Tray, who lived along the river. How your son had been playing at Tray’s house and you’d gone to pick him up. The two boys, 13 years old, were wading in a small channel of the river. While your son’s brown body shimmied through the water like a sleek muskrat, Tray stayed near the bank, decked out in the helmet and water wings his mother had forced upon him. Tray had been a brilliant kid, full of promise, but when he’d gotten a full-ride scholarship to Harvard, he couldn’t go. He was afraid to leave home. And so he works at a nice safe bank job and still lives with his parents, a middle-aged man at 20.

The flash of light from your son’s ski poles catches your eye as you see his skis turn downhill. In a no-turning-back moment, he is plummeting down the chute toward the jump. There is nothing you can do now to stop him, no way to catch him if he falls.

Your older son stands by your side and watches too. For a moment, you let yourself feel the miracle of that. Just a year before, he had laid in a hospital bed between life and death and you’d had  the same knowing, that nothing you had done or could do would change what was going to happen.

You hear the battle cry as your son nears the lip of the jump. He is going full-bore and your body memory takes over, feels what his body is feeling. As the tips of his skis come off the edge, his body is thrown backwards. His skis arc toward the sky and he hangs upside down, suspended  in emptiness, crossing that line between doing and being into the exhilaration of letting everything go. And you cross it with him.

Peggy Christian is an amateur naturalist, essayist, blogger, hiker, photographer and beginning trail runner. She lives in Montana and at www.backwoodsandbeyond.com.