This morning, I was talking to a massage therapist-turned wonderful friend who has an awesome daugher with Down Syndrome. I told Anna Maria all about the adaptive ski program, Ignite Adaptive Sports, at the local Eldora Resort and about the National Sports Center for the Disabled, based in Winter Park, Colorado. I get very animated when I talk about these programs--adventure programming for people with and without disabilities was my deal for many years, even helping with trips with Wilderness Inquiry. (If you don't know of these programs yet, please check them out!)
Anyway, our conversation reminded me of this essay I wrote a while ago, about an unforgettable experience I had in the mid-nineties. The photo is of myself (oh wow, is that a permed ponytail?) and David, whom you meet here:
When I first see David, I think, uh oh. He is blind, developmentally disabled, nonverbal. But he can walk. His group home supervisor tells me that he does have the capability to understand other’s words. Still, in my seven years as a volunteer ski instructor for the National Sports Center for the Disabled, I have not worked with someone like him.
I have skied with visually impaired people, me skiing backwards, tapping my poles so the student knows which way to turn. Over the years I’ve had the privilege of skiing with many different people, all of whom dealing with one kind of challenge or another, some more visible than others: cerebral palsy, stroke, paraplegia, HIV, depression, autism, Down’s Syndrome. But David presents a multitude of concurrent challenges, and I’m more than a little bit nervous.
Thankfully, I am paired up with another volunteer for this lesson, a handsome man named Mark who looks like Kurt Russell (the chin dimple and all, not too shabby.) I am oh-so-single, and feel excited to be working with an attractive guy, as opposed to the kindly older women I usually get paired with.
David is a tall and lanky eighteen-year old, with wild brown hair that insists on escaping from his rag wool hat. I gratefully notice that he is not overweight because it appears that we’ll be “skiing” him for most of the day.
That morning we take all green beginner runs. Mark and I trade off who holds the reins (tethers which are attached to David’s ski tips) from behind. David surprises me. While he has no words, over the hours we spend together he reveals parts of himself. He keeps his hat completely pulled over his eyes. At first I think, um, that looks ridiculous. But then I get it. He can’t see, it is pretty dang cold. Why NOT keep his hat pulled over his face? I like his style.
After lunch, we decide that David is ready for a blue intermediate run, something with a bit more challenging terrain. We un-load at the Looking Glass chairlift and decide to go down Mad Hatter. Yes, these are the real names of runs at Winter Park, here in Colorado. It is my turn to “rein” David. Mark says something funny, maybe a bit coy. I turn to him to make what I am quite sure is a dazzling, flirty retort and inadvertently let go of the reins.
The next thing I know, David, hat pulled over his eyes, reins flying behind him, is shushing down the hill. Solo. Mark and I race off to catch him. We do, but not before we hear this sound, this brilliant, lovely, surprising song: “WHEEEEEEE!” Mark and I reach David just as he is heading towards the boundary line… and a big drop into nothingness. He surrenders to the hill, rather gracefully I think, and falls into a fit of giggles. This beautiful, peculiar sound from the boy who had uttered not one word all day. Not one peep.
It occurs to me that while yes, this could have been disastrous, it wasn’t. It could have resulted in injury or worse, but it didn’t. I’m reminded of Alice in Wonderland, the story of the girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantastic realm. And how when we say we’re going "down the rabbit-hole," it usually means we are going on an adventure into the unknown.
That day brought gifts. David experienced perhaps the greatest single moment of freedom and uninhibited joy—a rarity—in his short life. And I learned that sometimes it’s okay to let go.