Usually by this point in the season I have almost fifty days of skiing logged on the little yellow post-it note that sits tucked in the visor of my car. But here we are, almost into March and I am just packing up my ski things to go to Ellicottville for the first time. I reach deep into the pockets of my snowpants looking for crumpled dollar bills that will be traded for the overpriced but oh-so-delicious sugar waffles sold from the hut at the bottom of the hill.
Digging further into the box of winter clothing, I spot the bright red of my patrol parka and feel a sudden flush of grief. I haven’t looked at it all year, keeping it safely tucked away, like a dagger wrapped in thick cloth. To look at that jacket is also to look directly at loss…the stabbing pain of missing out on something that I love.
I’ve been skiing since I was five, learning how to race in elementary school and then working my way up to instructor. In college I founded a snowsports club, and when I graduated, I moved to Buffalo because I wanted to live somewhere even colder and snowier than Grand Rapids. I completed my patrol training during that first winter here in New York. My classmates and I trained from September to March to gain our Outdoor Emergency Care and Transportation certifications. Hundreds of hours and dozens of bruises were eventually traded for bright red jackets and the opportunity to help people when they get hurt, or scared, or both. During the last three winters I’ve spent every spare minute in that jacket, but this year, it stayed tucked away because the body that could once manage a fully loaded toboggan on a moguled black diamond stopped working until all that it could do was move from the bed to the couch.
I missed a lot of things this year while I was trying to coax my body back to wholeness. Illness, especially prolonged or chronic illness, is painful in part because of the many losses that stack up over time. First it was missing dinner out with friends, and then having to leave a small group, and then dropping out of the membership process at church because I couldn’t make the classes. New anxieties came with missing work and the concurrent opportunities to advance a career, and then came the loss of identity as my hobbies became more and more difficult. The grief compounded with each new loss, and some days, it felt like I was losing my whole life, or at least, life as I knew it.
February brought new hope, or at least some fresh strength. A surgical procedure I had at the beginning of the month is showing some promise, and after a few months of steady nutrition, my strength is finally coming back. I was able to move back to my apartment in Buffalo, I was just cleared to return to work, and in a few days I’ll turn twenty-five, which feels like a perfectly timed fresh start. It would seem that the tides of loss are turning, and yet, I find that the fights for joy and courage continue.
I thought that being able to ski again would be a moment of ecstasy. I thought that I would be singing and dancing and happily pulling my boots on just to make sure that they still fit. But instead, I was holding those same ski boots with tears in my eyes because as strange as it sounds, it takes a lot of courage to allow yourself to get better.
For so long I’ve been focused on all of the things that I can’t do. I’ve had to exercise enormous amounts of discipline in order to get well, denying myself certain foods and almost all of my hobbies. I have dutifully gulped tube feeding formula in order to gain weight and taken buckets of medications with dubious side effects. And now, all of a sudden, I’m going back to a life that I’m not certain I even remember. It’s like merging onto a highway when you’re not sure you remember how to drive.
As someone who values narrative and studies stories, I’ve been surprised at how difficult it is to narrate illness. I long for the tidiness of categories like “healthy” or “sick.” But illness doesn’t work like that—not even the common cold is so satisfyingly linear. I have come to believe that all people, including me, sit somewhere between well and ill, and we need permission to slide along that scale hour by hour, or even minute by minute. My anxiety comes from this feeling that I am no longer allowed to struggle—that the world expects me to raise my hands in triumph and declare full health. I hope that I can do that someday, but for now, I’m walking to the tune of a hopeful “on the way.”
I did eventually try on my ski boots and make the drive to Ellicottville. I clicked into my bindings and skated toward the lift where I was greeted with hugs from some of my favorite patrollers. I skied most of the day and was surprised and joyful to find that my legs had enough strength to power through a turn. And then I took my nausea meds and drank tube-feeding formula for lunch. Always, ever, on the way—somewhere between sickness and health, mostly just deeply grateful to be alive and on that scale for another day.
Ansley Kelly (‘16) is a Department Manager at Wegmans in Buffalo, New York. She is passionate about her work as a leader and often describes her job as “creating environments for talented people to be successful.” In the summer you can find her training as the bowperson on a competitive sailing team, and in the winter she volunteers as a member of the National Ski Patrol. After both of those activities you can find her sipping bourbon (neat, of course) and working on puzzles.