We sit together on the chairlift, me and my post-Millenials: sunshine Zoe and her boyfriend Emmett, who opt into any outdoor adventure; Zoe’s twin Natasha, who’s filled the kitchen in our hotel suite with vegetables; towering Christopher, making a rare appearance off the golf course; and chill Thomas, the indecisive nineteen-year-old baby of the family who, when faced with the choice of window or aisle, asked google which is better.
As our adult kids prepared to leave home after Covid quarantine, I yearned to extend our time together—not another pandemic, but a fun memory to stand out from ten months of lockdown monotony. A week of snowboarding in Colorado is either a brilliant seizing of the opportunity to work remotely or the worst decision of my life. If I get sick, the kids will have to drive me 31 hours back to Boston to recover in the guest room, apart from my older husband who has opted out of the trip. Getting or transmitting Covid would be bad enough, but so much worse if due to my choosing to travel just weeks before the vaccine release. Still, my mission is to accumulate memories. I’m greedy that way.
Up on the chairlift, tiny snow crystals float in the air, invisible until the sun hits them just so, causing clouds of airborne twinkling. It’s magical. When I mention the altitude, Christopher pulls out a can of oxygen and sprays it into his mouth.
“It’ll make you less foggy,” he says, handing it to me. “You’ll sleep better.”
So, I pull down my balaclava and take a hit.
At the mountaintop, Christopher bounds off the lift, even though he hasn’t snowboarded for years. The loss of his final Division III college golf season due to Covid gave him an extra year of eligibility, so he’s getting his Master’s degree while realizing his dream of playing on a Division I team. A snowboarding injury could cut short that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but Christopher is cavalier, trash-talking Thomas about who will get down the mountain first. Thomas, as always, remains unflappable.
On the slopes, I take some epic falls, giving me a peculiar comfort that my trip to the hospital will be with a pile of broken bones, not Covid. That evening, my sore muscles remind me that I’m alive. But later, in the middle of the night, I sit up in bed, dumbstruck by my idiocy in having shared Christopher’s oxygen spray. What if he has coronavirus which shot all the way down my throat and into my lungs? Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. After all the care we’ve taken—the wipes, the masks and the distancing—it’s as if I forgot there was a pandemic. I toss and turn. The oxygen does not help me sleep—not at all.
In the morning, although the virus could be incubating inside me, snowboarding in the sunny mountain air liberates me from the sense of impending doom. By Thursday, I’ve forgotten about the pandemic entirely as I find my groove, boarding with Thomas before heading back to the gym.
After my workout, Thomas is the only one who still hasn’t appeared in the hotel suite, so I text him, but he doesn’t respond. While Zoe and Emmett discuss the latest inspirational podcast about tech startups, Natasha is boiling lentils, and Christopher is in his room recording his golf podcast. I sit in my sweaty workout clothes waiting for Thomas. He’s an easy teenager who opted out of a rebellious phase. His first semester at Case-Western had to have been subpar, living alone and taking most classes online, but he never complains. Hopefully Spring will be more normal. But where is he? It’s twenty minutes before he finally calls.
“I feel a little loopy,” he says. “I’m not sure what to do.”
“Where are you?” I ask.
“At the top of Mountain Express,” he says, so I tell him to get a ride on the chairlift back to the base.
“Am I okay?” he asks.
“Just get a ride down. People do it all the time.”
“So, you think I’m okay?” he asks again.
By this time, some of the kids have gathered in the kitchen to listen on speakerphone. Zoe, whose grit knows no bounds, thinks Thomas should suck it up and snowboard down. I glare at her.
“Did you fall and hit your head?” I ask Thomas.
“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
He’s all the way up at the top of the mountain, which is thirty minutes away, after a complicated trek involving several lifts. There’s no way to get to him. I’m powerless except through his phone, which probably isn’t even fully charged.
“You need to find someone to help you,” I say.
“Do you think I’m okay? Maybe I’ll rest.”
When we snowboard, we never rest. This isn’t Thomas. And what about the weather? If he sits, he’ll freeze.
“Or I could take the easy slope down,” he says, which makes me picture him hitting his head again and causing a brain hemorrhage.
“No, no, you shouldn’t be snowboarding. You need to talk to someone and get a ride.”
Images fly through my mind of Thomas stuck in some remote wooded area where nobody can find him.
“Do you think I’ll be okay?”
Thomas is the kid who can beat anyone in the family in a logic game. His passion is computer coding. Hearing him repeat the same question makes me queasy.
“Thomas, get up and look for the ski patrol. It’s right by the trail map. You need to find help.”
“What should I say?” he asks.
“Tell them you need a ride.”
“Okay, I see it. I’ll hang up now.”
“No, no, don’t hang up. Just go find someone. Stay on the line.”
I try calling out to him to keep his phone in his hand, but he doesn’t hear me, and we hear him put the phone in his pocket. We wait, hovered around the phone with its muffled noises. After an eternity, we hear the zipper as he pulls the phone back out of his pocket.
“Okay, I found someone,” Thomas says.
“Hi, I’m Matt from Ski Patrol.”
“Something’s wrong,” I say. “I think Thomas got a concussion.”
“Yeah,” Matt says, “he couldn’t remember his birthday.”
Thomas’s birthday is Christmas—which was ten days ago. How could he forget that?
Matt says they’ll take him down on a toboggan to the ski patrol and from there to the hospital. “I’ll call you back with an update.”
I take a deep breath. “Thank you.” My voice is shaking. “Thank you for taking care of my baby.”
As soon as I hang up, we try to figure out what happened. Mountain Express is on the way to the Bowls on the backside of the mountain. But Thomas wouldn’t have gotten a concussion at the top of the mountain; he would’ve gotten it boarding, which means that after he fell, he went back up on the lift. My mind is spinning, playing out possible scenarios. I want to be at the base when he comes down, but I’m still in my sweaty workout clothes, which are giving me a chill, so if I’m going to spend all afternoon in the Emergency Room then I need to shower and grab a bagel.
After washing up, I fill my backpack with reading because Thomas isn’t going to be much of a conversationalist in this state. As I head out to meet him at the base, Matt calls to say that Thomas is already on his way to the hospital. How did they make it down so fast, and why didn’t Matt call me earlier?
Christopher insists on coming with me to the hospital. He’s very protective over his little brother when he’s not tormenting him. Despite their three-year age difference—or maybe because of it—they’re extremely close. They spend hours together playing video games, golf or basketball, and debating issues like whether Tiger will stage a comeback and which magical capacity—teleporting, elastic limbs, invisibility, etc.—would be their chosen superpower.
We get a ride from the hotel car service to the hospital, but the nurse stops us at the door. We’re not allowed inside due to Covid. If I’d known we’d be shut out, I would’ve made sure to be at the base when Thomas got down, but I’d assumed we’d have all afternoon together. I curse myself for taking so long to get ready. Now I can’t see him.
I wonder about the competence of this hospital in this small town, and whether, given their relaxed culture, they’re wearing enough viral protective gear. Colorado has been hit hard, and we felt comfortable coming here only on the assumption that we’d be outside in the fresh air, not confined in a building with sick people in a town marked blazing red for Covid risk.
Standing outside on the sidewalk by the hospital doors, the nurse tells us that Thomas won’t be discharged for at least a few hours. They’re going to do a CT scan, and, depending on the results, possibly an MRI. Apparently, Thomas keeps asking if anyone called his family, a punch in the gut for me not having been at the base when he came down. I should’ve been there, even in sweaty gym gear.
“Tell him we came,” I tell the nurse. “And we’ll be here when he gets out.”
She promises to call me when they know more, not before early evening.
Christopher and I head back to the hotel, a ten-minute walk from the hospital, a straight shot along a brick path. The sun is blinding against the snow. As we walk, Christopher asks, “When Thomas called, why was everyone in the kitchen talking to him and you didn’t tell me?”
He’s visibly worried for his little brother.
“I wasn’t hiding it from you,” I say. “I was just focused on helping him.”
We walk in silence.
“Want to see something?” he asks.
Christopher stops to pull out his phone and show me a video from when they were little. Thomas was quietly watching TV when Christopher pounced on him out of nowhere, knocking him off his chair. Thomas’s little voice says, “Ow!! Why’d you do that??” We can’t help but laugh, a welcome relief from our anxiety. The clip reminds us of Thomas’s resilience. He’ll bounce back. Right?
At the hotel suite, we have to plow through a few hours until we’ll know anything, so I do some research. Turns out repeated questions are common for a concussion, and there’s little to be done except try to prevent another.
More broadly, memory is key to survival, enabling us to learn from our experience so we make better choices. Sensory memory, like smelling a roasting marshmallow, lasts a second or so. Short-term memory, like remembering a grocery list, has a limited capacity of about seven items, and lasts only 30 seconds. Events and facts are rapidly placed in temporary storage in our hippocampus, and then reactivated to gradually transfer to the neocortex for long-term storage. Repeated reactivation of new memories during sleep strengthens them and consolidates them with preexisting long-term memories. Hopefully my absence at the base of the mountain will conflict with Thomas’s other memories of my caring for him, and so will not be consolidated.
Sensory cues help trigger memories. I’ll never forget a trip to Mykonos as a teenager, standing on the ferry’s deck, taking in the intoxicating smell of men’s cologne and sea air. I devoured a bag of plums being sold on board, and when the sea got rough, I hurled pink vomit over the side of the boat. Later, my friends and I danced to blaring EDM and flirted with European guys we’d never meet again. In the morning, we drank cappuccino and ate watermelon to revive ourselves before feasting on packaged ice cream cones from the kiosk while lying out on sandy beaches in our bikinis, overdressed beside the nudists. Certain men’s cologne transports me to that weekend. Ever since that trip, which I almost bailed out on at the last minute, I’ve accepted Mark Twain’s philosophy that “in twenty years you’ll be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the things you did do.” Twain assumed, of course, that you won’t do something really stupid.
Maybe Thomas did do something stupid, like snowboarding too fast or taking a jump. How ironic to try to make a memory by taking a jump that leads to memory loss. All this time, I was worried about Covid, when this injury is potentially worse. After missing a normal first college semester, Thomas might miss out on Spring now. What if he has brain damage? I can’t focus on the research. This was supposed to be an investigation of memory, not a fanning of the flames of my anxiety. I’m freaking out and need a reprieve; we still have hours to wait for the results. Any diversion will have to be powerful enough to clear my mind. Snowboarding is still challenging enough to consume my attention, so Zoe and I head up for one last run of the day.
At the top of the mountain in the late afternoon, the wind is blowing snow in our faces, blocking our visibility. My physical, emotional and intellectual exhaustion cause my muscles to tighten. As I start down the mountain, I lock my knees and lean back to decelerate. Despite the slow speed—or perhaps because of it—I blow out on a turn and fly face-first into a snowbank. Snow fills my collar, and as I start boarding again, it melts down my back.
Instructions flood my mind: bend my knees, lean forward on my front foot and straighten my back. All I have to do is turn. I know how to turn. Or, rather, I did know, but my body has forgotten. I can’t turn. Could I have lost that skill since morning? I know what I’m supposed to do, but I can’t. I won’t. I try to recall what I’ve been taught, but I’m panic-stricken by the speed, so instead of turning, I waste the precious vertical by flattening my board to scrape down with a rasping clamor.
Halfway down the slope, I recall my research from earlier. Motor skill memories involve different regions of the brain than memories for facts and events, and they can be acquired without awareness, although the learning is slow. (In my case, learning how to snowboard has taken decades.) Christopher was talking last night about getting the “yips”—a brain spasm that makes golfers miss short putts. He used to overthink all the technical details before his putts until he realized that his body knew what to do. He had to trust his muscle memory and stop thinking. “Just feel it out.” So, I lean forward, commit, and instead of remembering words, I remember the feeling of the g-forces pulling me through my turns. I’m finally snowboarding again, flying free.
Later, back at the suite, I call the nurse who tells me that the CT was worrying, so they did an MRI. Thankfully, that showed that he’s “fine,” whatever that means. We can go get him.
Christopher walks with me to the hospital, but the path has choices in this direction that we didn’t face in the other direction. This reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, read by a friend at our wedding, back when I believed the poem to be about individualism. As I ponder the possible implications of what’s happened to Thomas, I can’t help but think about the poem’s deeper inference that any choice we make permanently changes us so that we can never go back to the person we were before.
Wait—where are we? The path was so obvious on the return trip from the hospital. How do I not remember such a simple thing from just a few hours earlier? Christopher heads back to the hotel for a ride, but I insist on speed-walking to see Thomas as quickly as possible. I race up the hill, turn toward the road and land by a bus stop. Christopher calls to say he can pick me up in the hotel car, but I don’t know where I am. My battery is dying because I forgot to charge it, and I can’t remember how to share my location. I’m hysterical. All I want is to see Thomas.
Christopher locates the bus stop and picks me up, just a hundred yards away from the hospital. At the hospital entrance, the nurse inexplicably allows me inside this time, where Thomas is bleary-eyed on the bed. The doctor explains that he had a concussion and may have memory lapses, so he’ll need to rest his brain over the next few weeks.
Outside, as we climb into the car, Christopher asks Thomas, “Who’s the new U.S. president?”
“I’m not sure. I guess Trump?” Thomas says.
“What about Biden?” Christopher asks.
“Oh, right,” Thomas says.
“Are the Patriots in the playoffs?” Christopher asks, tossing him a lay-up.
“Um, yeah, I think so,” Thomas says.
“Not this year,” Christopher says with a gentle chuckle, and I’m not sure if I should make light of it and laugh or give in and cry. What if Thomas never recovers?
In the hotel suite, we set him up on the couch in the den and turn off the lights. He says he’s troubled because he wouldn’t be able to code a Python program in his current state.
“Am I going to be okay to go back to school?”
“When are you going back?” Christopher asks.
“I don’t know,” Thomas says, even though that information is actually written somewhere inside the recesses of his brain; it’s simply out of his reach.
When I tell him that his flight is in a couple of weeks, he nods.
“So, am I going to be okay?”
“You’ll be fine,” I say to comfort us both, “although it may be a bit before you regain your edge.”
“No edge?” he asks. It’s the first time he’s acknowledged his intellectual competence, which may be lost. Thomas wouldn’t admit it, but his sense of self rests on how easily things come to him. You’d never guess his top grades in tough classes if you saw his lack of stress, his hours playing video games and his backpack jammed with crinkled papers he’ll never review. His mind is what sets him apart. It’s what makes him who he is.
I bring him a glass of water and sit beside him on the couch.
“Matt texted to see how you’re doing,” I say.
“Who’s Matt?” Thomas asks. He doesn’t remember calling me from the mountain or finding Matt in the hut. Even the hospital, just thirty minutes earlier, is just a memory of a memory. And the rest is only what we’ve told him. He was the star of a movie that he never got to see. In fact, he has no memory of the toboggan ride down to the base. So, even if I had been there to meet him, he wouldn’t remember it. It doesn’t matter, after all. No need for my guilt.
His last memory before the concussion was a moment by the lift line before Christopher left. That means that his concussion erased his memory before and after it happened. Four hours of Thomas’s conscious life have been deleted, as if they never happened. We’ll never know what slopes he snowboarded, what he hit, or how long he was sitting on the bench before calling. Then again, what percentage of our lives do we ever remember?
Over take-out Asian fusion, Natasha says, “I’ve decided my New Year’s resolution.”
Instead of adopting a new rule, she’s decided to ease up on all her existing rules, which include: no sugar, no alcohol, no fat, no staying up late, no slacking off on workouts, and so on. The point of her rules was to make her feel better, but her infractions make her feel worse.
“Plus, it’s the infractions that make the best memories,” she rationalizes, and we agree.
Christopher asks about the Patriots, and this time Thomas says, “We suck because of Cam Newton.” This sounds like a good sign for Thomas, if not the Patriots.
Christopher asks, “Who’s a better boarder, you or me?”
“I am,” Thomas says, devouring the chicken. “Obviously.”
Christopher shakes his head. “Get him back to the hospital.”
Thomas seems fine by now, but we want assurance, so we go online to test his memory compared to mine. Great results for him but not me. Maybe I’m the one with the concussion, after all my falls these last few days. Or maybe, I was always this way. My memory is the family joke. We’ll never know when I start losing it, because I’ve never quite all-the-way had it. I forget everything: names, faces, funny stories, and titles of books I love—even while I’m reading them. What I remember is completely useless in my daily life, like pi, the quadratic equation, and my high school boyfriend’s phone number. Apparently, I once said that the reason we write is to discover ourselves. Brilliant, right? Too bad I don’t remember saying it. I’ve had so many great experiences that are now lost. Yes, I was there, but if I don’t remember, then it’s as if it never occurred. Maybe the trick is to document memories before they expire—through writing, photography, or however.
Bad memory does have some benefits. For example, I don’t hold grudges. Sure, I remember being wronged if I stop and think about it, but it’s not right there on a handy shelf in my mind. Plus, my inability to retain information has led me to depend on logical deduction.
Still, my results on the memory test make me wonder if I’m aging along my father’s path. My children were just hitting their teens when my father began declining. While he forgot their names, they forgot his prior persona as a professor, economist and entrepreneur.
If our experiences define who we are, is this true for the experiences we don’t remember? Despite my father’s loss of memory, his peaceful old age reflected his happy life. Our forgotten childhood love (or trauma) shapes our adult perceptions. This makes me re-think my self-clemency about missing Thomas at the base of the mountain. Even if he’s forgotten, it must have impacted his emotional well-being. He could’ve used my comfort. I should’ve been there. When I confess, Thomas says it didn’t matter, but he doesn’t know that because he doesn’t even remember. My only solace is the pile of positive mothering memories that will hopefully make his brain reject this incongruent event.
We sit by the fireplace to play Salad Bowl, reviving old stories and embarrassments, which make me laugh so hard I can barely breathe.
When I take a picture, the kids groan.
“I want to capture this,” I say.
“Just live the moment,” Christopher argues.
“Taking pictures helps me do that,” I say. “I have to stop and see what I’m seeing.”
Later, we read while Thomas lies back on the couch. Trying to process the day, I think back to Frost’s poem. Maybe it’s saying that we delude ourselves that our lives unfold from our own choices, as opposed to outside forces or chance. Was Thomas’s concussion a result of his own misstep (if a misstep is even truly a “choice”), someone else’s behavior (i.e., some stranger’s recklessness on the slopes or even my decision to bring us), or just bad luck? Maybe it was all three. Here I was worried about Covid, when it was snow that took him down. Not that Covid couldn’t still pile onto our situation from the shared oxygen or any other potential exposure. I bring Thomas more water, which he drinks, eyes half-shut.
Whenever something bad happens, I look for a lesson to take away—a sort of consolation prize to gain something from the experience. After all, that’s the evolutionary purpose of memory. I sit on the couch and look at Thomas. The obvious moral to this story is that we should stop snowboarding because it’s too dangerous. I feel this fear, but I also resist it. Everything is a risk-return calculation. A life of zero risk isn’t worth living.
We all have different cost-benefit profiles that guide our behavior, taking into account our delights and how much we suffer in adversity. None of us operates without risk. Falling in love is risky. Having kids is risky. Without risk, our life is nothing more than dull hours, vacuous days, and meaningless weeks on auto-pilot. That passage of empty time is a waste—like scratching down the mountain without turning, squandering all that precious vertical.
The question is how much we can forgive ourselves for the possible negative consequences of taking a risk, knowing that it was our own choice. We have to balance that regret against the regret we’ll have for all the roads not taken. Frost’s poem may be about FOMO (fear of missing out); we always wonder about those opportunities we didn’t seize. I cover Thomas with a blanket while the others break open the tequila.
My friend Nadia once asked a question that keeps nagging me, even now: “Did we have enough fun?” Impossible to answer, and disturbing in its use of past tense, as if it’s too late for us now. Fun to me is a broad term, encompassing joy: laughing so hard my face hurts as Christopher relays a story about Natasha’s questionable high school crushes, watching the twins race around the shop as two-year-olds after their first ice cream cones, or glass-blowing with Thomas on a mother-son trip to Newport when he was little. Fun is not a basic need, like food or water, nor even a higher-level need, like love or purpose. Fun is unnecessary. It’s the cherry on top. But it’s also the treasure of our existence.
After we check out of the hotel, I ask the taxi driver to take our picture before everyone scatters to their adult homes. Covid put off the empty nest, as the older kids spent months working within the larger Covid prison cell of our house instead of their tiny apartments. For us, the lockdown was family time, but this gig is over and they’re all heading back to “real life”: Zoe and Emmett to their tech jobs in San Francisco; Natasha to her coding work in New York; Christopher to complete his Master’s program in Boulder; and Thomas to a Covid-compromised Freshman social scene in Cleveland. The six of us stand by a wall, with Thomas complaining that the sun in his eyes is giving him another concussion.
Alone on the flight to Boston, I look at the picture of the six of us in the sun. Thomas’s eyes are not just squinting but are actually closed, which makes me laugh. This treasured picture will join my terabytes of photos—the evidence I have of my fleeting presence on this earth. Returning to a house without children feels like turning the corner to a new block, one step closer to The End, which is not necessarily imminent but can now be seen in the distance, although somewhat fuzzily since my eyesight isn’t what it used to be.
Long-term memories have no inherent lifespan, but they can change or disappear, as new information writes over the old, allowing us to reach better conclusions. Scientists have established that emotionally rich events—particularly pleasant ones—are remembered better, even when they’re not important. Yet even these memories can dissipate. I believe that what remains steadfast, even after the events are forgotten, are our feelings about the experience.
When I’m old, on the backside of life, flipping through all my photos, I’ll stop at that picture of us squinting by the brick wall. I may forget the bruises on my legs, the bitter hotel coffee, the smell of the damp balaclava on my nose all day because we were in the middle of a pandemic, the chill on the sliver of exposed skin on my face, or the sound of the snowboard scraping through the snow. I may even forget where that photo was taken. But I’m quite sure I’ll always remember my fear when Thomas called and my urge to tend to him. I suspect I’ll also remember our days of carefree outdoor play. These hit on several of the seven basic emotional systems concentrated in ancient subcortical regions of all mammalian brains: seeking, fear, grief/panic, care, play, rage and lust. (Thankfully, rage and lust were not a part of this trip.)
I believe The Road Not Taken is about how we construct a narrative for our life in order to give it meaning. When I’m very old and can no longer descend the stairs, never mind a powdery slope, I expect I’ll use all my photos and my writing to create in my mind the story of my life——an attempt to answer my friend’s haunting question: Did we have enough fun?
Photo by Yann Allegre on Unsplash