There is in mid-winter, after weeks of muffled gray skies that banish the sun from the plains, a fierce wind that comes at night to shake the trees and rattle the window frames, to make the soffits moan and the walls to creak in distress. And in its howling through the night, it shatters the gray dome engulfing the earth and blasts the pieces thousands of miles away so that by morning, when it dies, all that remains is a cerulean blue canvas upon which the sun ignites tiny airborne ice crystals that spin in dizzying, translucent constellations that float above the snow-covered fields.
On just such a morning, Mary, her eyes an icy blue that matched the sky’s, watched the jeweled air as she had so many times before. She traced the familiar lines of the bare cottonwood towering over the back yard, of the empty and icy clothesline stretched beneath it, of the vegetable garden with its rusting chicken wire and the barn and silo beyond it, and of the snow-covered alfalfa field that rose in a soft slope until its crest kissed the rising sun at the horizon. She saw all, but named none of it. Draping words on what she saw would only have removed her connection to the things themselves. Such mornings left her breathless, deeply aware of her finitude but sensing the Spirit of God condescending to meet her, somehow, in this little corner of creation, and it overwhelmed her with joy until her heart cried out, Let it be unto me as thou hast said.
So it had always been for Mary, and so it was now. Even now, as she lay on a twin bed in her living room, her eyes alert and hungry. Her heart longed for the crest of the hill outside. Nathan, her only child, sat in a recliner beside the foot of her bed, leafing through a financial magazine. He did not look up.
She turned her head on the pillow to study him. For a moment, before language rushed in to steal the numinous from her, the balding, slightly pudgy and bespectacled fifty-year-old beside her morphed with a colicky infant and a grinning toddler and a pimply teenager and a beaming college graduate. He was all of these at once, and none of them, as a thousand memories flickered inside her. She loved him so intensely she ached.
Then the moment passed, and he was her son Nathan, the insurance underwriter, and she loved him still—no less really, but differently. She watched his gaze bounce between columns of words and numerical figures. She imagined his mind operating like a Swiss watch, small and intricate gears ticking in interconnected circles, grinding toward predictable and inevitable conclusions, and it made her sad. She felt she had failed him somehow because the way he read his finance magazine was the same way he read the language of Shakespeare, the same way he experienced the taste of butter slathered on home-baked raisin bread or understood the jolting beauty of the farm outside the window. It was the same way he would read love letters if he were ever to receive any. He processed everything with his brain, including things he should have felt in his bones.
He closed his magazine and stretched both arms above his head when he noticed Mary looking at him. He set the magazine down with a smile.
“Good morning,” he said. “Didn’t know you were awake.”
She nodded. “For a while now. I’ve been lying here thinking.”
She turned her face toward the window and swept a hand toward the blue sky, the white snows, the deep green of distant firs, the fading red of the barn. “About that.”
“What about it?” he asked.
“Just about that,” she said, knowing one cannot put into words what cannot be put into words, and knowing that he could not understand that, and knowing that she was running out of time to find a way to make him understand. She sat up in the bed, plumped her pillow, and slipped it between her back and the headboard. “Do you remember when you were a little boy, and we used to go sledding down that hill?”
He turned and gazed out the window, but where his mother saw a riot of colors that signified all there was worth knowing, he saw only a snow-covered field beyond a driveway that needed plowing.
She saw all, but named none of it. Draping words on what she saw would only have removed her connection to the things themselves.
“Yeah. . .?” His voice was hesitant. He was unsure he wanted to follow wherever she was leading. “That was a long time ago.”
She closed her eyes and nodded, a hint of a smile on her lips. She said, “The first time was the January you turned three. You sat between my legs on the sled, and when we pushed off, your little body slumped into my chest. Your blond curls peeped out from under your stocking cap, and your head, nestled under my chin, smelled like wet wool and baby shampoo.”
She was there again—the sharp breeze biting her face, the house and barn growing larger as they raced toward them down the hill, his little body pressing into her and his astonished giggles rising to her ears before being whisked away in the wind. At the end of the run, he’d tumbled off the sled awkwardly as a puppy, excited to turn to her his face, small and smooth as an acorn. His green eyes had danced above flushed cheeks and an upturned nose He’d always been such a serious little boy, stoic and tentative, but his first time sledding had opened him up to the world, to her, in ways she’d never forgotten.
Mary opened her eyes and turned her gaze on Nathan. The boy’s smooth face was gone, hidden beneath thinning hair, thick glasses, and sagging jowls. He smiled at her and asked, “Can I get you something, Mom? Glass of water? Cup of tea?”
“I want to go sledding.”
The grandfather clock in the living room seemed to tick louder as they stared at one another, his smile frozen in place. Then, as if he hadn’t heard her at all, he said, “Something to eat maybe?”
“Don’t ignore me, Nathan. I’m not hungry and you’re not deaf. I want to go sledding—with you.”
He blew a deep breath through his nostrils as he pushed his glasses back to rub at his eyes. “Mom, . . .”
“I want to go sledding, and I need your help,” she said, her thin arms across her chest. “You don’t need to tell me that you think it’s a bad idea or that it’s unsafe or that we need to consult the doctor or any other such nonsense. It’s a beautiful morning, and I want us to get outside and enjoy it.”
“And catch pneumonia,” he muttered.
“You don’t catch pneumonia from the cold.”
“No,” he said as he pushed himself up from his chair to cross to her bed. He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “But you do from overexertion. Especially when you are battling cancer.”
“Well then, we ought to be in the clear,” she answered curtly. “Not much exertion riding a sled down a hill.”
She began to swing her legs out from under the blankets, but Nathan stopped her.
“Mom, stop,” he said gently. He lifted her legs back into the bed and pulled the covers over her waist. “You’re not going outside.”
She slapped his hands away, and he stepped back, surprised.
“Don’t treat me like I’m a prisoner in my own house,” she snapped.
“I’m not, Mom.” He smiled, and the smile vexed her.
“Don’t be smug with me.”
His smile fell, replaced by a hurt look. “I’m not being smug.”
She was there again—the sharp breeze biting her face, the house and barn growing larger as they raced toward them down the hill.
She closed her eyes and tried to collect herself. She grew tired so quickly. That fact irritated her more than anything Nathan was doing, and she knew she couldn’t let him see how tired the conversation was making her because then he’d never concede.
A forced calmness barely disguising her frustration, she said, “I am asking you, Nathan, please, please let’s go sledding. I want to feel the cold air in my face and squint my eyes against all that dazzling light. I want to feel the thrill of speed.”
He shook his head. “You haven’t been on a sled in years. Decades.”
“All the more reason to go,” she insisted. “I’m running out of time.”
“You can’t. What if you fall off, Mom? You could break an arm or a leg.”
“It’s never happened before.”
“And you were never seventy years old before. We’re not doing this, so drop it.”
“You are a coward.” Mary spat the words out like a curse as she slumped back into her pillow. Then she turned from him to gaze out the window. And nothing he said could get her to acknowledge him again.
The late afternoon sun slanted through the window, casting a hazy glow on the varnished yellow wood of her bookcases and gilding lazy swirls of dust motes whenever the furnace fired. The intense blue sky that had predominated earlier was now pocked with clouds, and even more gathered on the western horizon, threatening to turn the evening sky a dull, gunship gray. In pained silence, Mary had watched the day roll by.
She had ignored Nathan that morning, refused to eat the tomato soup he’d prepared her for lunch, refused to answer to him, refused to acknowledge when he said he was going to his office to get a bit of work done. But in his absence, her anger had dissipated.
She heard his car pull into the driveway, the car door slamming shut, the scratch of a key sliding into the front door deadbolt.
“I’m back,” he called from the other room. She heard him set something down in the kitchen and shuffle down the hallway to hang up his coat. A moment later he poked his head around the corner. He squinted at her as he cleaned his glasses with a handkerchief.
“Are you speaking to me yet?” he asked.
She smiled sadly and waved him over.
“I’m sorry, Nathan. Come sit here with me. We need to talk.”
Sliding his glasses on, he moved toward the recliner, but she stopped him.
“No, sit closer here,” she said, tapping at the edge of her bed. He grabbed a wooden framed kitchen chair that was also in the room and sat beside her waist. She held a hand toward him. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, and took it.
She looked out the window at the fading light, sighed deeply, and turned her eyes back to him.
“I love you, Nathan, and I am sorry that I called you a coward. That wasn’t fair.”
“It’s okay, Mom.”
“No, it’s not, Nathan. I’m too old and have too little time left to use words carelessly and in anger. And I don’t want us talking past each other anymore. I want us really to hear each other. So, Nathan, you are not a coward. But this morning you did act cowardly.”
He sat up and slid his hand from hers. “I did?”
“You most certainly did, Nathan. I made a simple request, and you refused even to talk with me about it.”
He leaned back in his chair and softly snorted. “Because it was ridiculous.”
She knew she couldn’t let him see how tired the conversation was making her because then he’d never concede.
“No,” she answered, her voice even, her blue eyes piercing, “not ridiculous. You are doing it again. Rather than talking to me, you are talking at me. You think going sledding would be ridiculous. Tell me why.”
He shook his head and said, “You know why.”
“No, I don’t, Nathan. Tell me why.”
“Tell me, Nathan.” Her voice was quiet but firm. “You don’t have to be afraid to say it.”
Staring at his hands in his lap, he said nothing.
He lifted his eyes to hers and said, “It’s a ridiculous idea because you could die from it, Mom.”
She smiled sadly and said, “Nathan, I am dying. Nothing’s going to change that.”
She reached toward him, and he took her hand again. Both were aware how thin and loose the skin on her hand felt, like onion-skin paper wrapped about a little cage of bone. His hands were thick and warm, and with his thumb he rubbed little circles on the back of her hand.
“That doesn’t mean we should take unnecessary risks,” he said.
She barked a sharp laugh and replied, “Actually, that’s exactly what it means. Oh, Nathan, you’ve always been my ‘safe’ little boy. You have a tender and good heart, and you’ve done your best to protect it, using numbers and logic to mitigate risk. You conceptualize things to try to control them. But life isn’t an algorithm, sweetheart.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Take my request to go sledding. At the word sledding, your brain turns the activity into a concept, arranges any number of random variables along a matrix, and tries to calculate whether there is an adequate return on investment. You fool yourself into thinking that doing so gives you some type of control, but it doesn’t. Random variables are just that—random. So you don’t gain control; you gain an illusion of control. And it comes at a steep price because you lose sledding. I mean the actual thing—the wind snapping at your coat, the hiss of steel runners on snow and ice, the brace of the cold, the pull of gravity.”
Nathan blinked and shook his head.
“I don’t understand.”
“I know, Nathan. That’s why we need to go sledding.”
He started to protest, but she cut him off.
“You conceptualize things to try to control them. But life isn’t an algorithm, sweetheart.”
“Uh-uh,” she said, squeezing his hand and smiling. “Even on your terms, Nathan, you’ve no reason to say no. I’m seventy years old, I have stage four breast cancer, and I’ve started hospice. We both know I’m likely to be dead in the next month, so the risk of our going sledding—well, there is none really. Only potential reward, for both of us. From both a quantitative and qualitative perspective, the risk is acceptable.”
Nathan looked at her, sighed heavily, then nodded. He would take her sledding.
As Mary dressed for the outdoors, Nathan climbed into the attic above the garage to find the old toboggan. He wiped the cobwebs and dust away with a rag and was surprised to find it looking as if it had just been waxed only a few weeks ago though he knew it had not seen the light of day in thirty years or more. The tow rope was dry-rotted, so he cut it away and threaded some nylon rope through the holes. Then he set it outside.
Back in the house, he helped Mary into her coat and gloves, pulled a stocking hat over her thinning hair, grabbed a wool blanket out of the closet, and met her at the back door to help her down three steps to where the toboggan waited. He settled her on the sled, placing the blanket over her lap. He grabbed the rope and began trudging across the backyard toward the hill, his mother in tow behind him.
The sun, now obscured by clouds, would set soon. A soft snow began to fall in big flakes that stuck momentarily on the wool blanket where Mary could study their crystalline intricacies briefly before they melted.
“They’re jewels,” she whispered, and Nathan, who could just hear her above the sound of the sled gliding over the snow, looked over his shoulder to see her face turned up toward the sky, her tongue sticking out to catch flakes as she had done when she was a girl.
Past the barn, they began their ascent. The hill was not steep, but its rise was long. Nathan marched forward with even and easy steps.
They made the top of the hill, and he turned the sled perpendicular to the drop so that it wouldn’t slide away. He sat on the sled beside his mother in the gathering dusk. Their breath rising before them, they looked over the homestead below, its buildings turning into soft silhouettes, the inside lights twinkling through the windowpanes.
“That farm represents the better part of fifty years of life,” Mary said wistfully.
The snow began falling harder in big, wet flakes that coated their hats and shoulders, and that caught in their eyelashes. Looking down on the snow-covered roof of his childhood home, its inside warm and snug and inviting, Nathan said the only thing he could think to say: “It’s beautiful.”
“It is,” she agreed, “and I’ve really wanted to see it one more time from up here on the ridge. And this pretty snowfall, well, that’s just frosting on the cake.”
She leaned her head against his shoulder. “Thank you, Nathan.”
They sat together in silence for nearly a minute. Then through her blanket she found his knee and gave it a playful squeeze.
“Now about that ride you promised,” she said.
With great care, Nathan rose and gently turned the toboggan until its turned up nose pointed toward home. Holding the sled in place by the rope, he straddled it and slowly lowered himself behind his mother. He planted his right heel firmly into the hill as he folded his left leg onto the sled, his knee forming a sidewall for his mother. He pulled her back into his chest. Carefully then he picked up his right foot and did the same. Now they rested precariously on the fulcrum of the hill.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
When she nodded, he leaned them forward, the toboggan tipped off its equilibrium, and they were off.
The cold wind whistled in their ears, and though it was getting darker, Mary swore the sled threw up plumes of sparkling light. Everything was radiant. Mary’s eyelashes, thick with snow, whisked up and down. The cold wind forced itself into her lungs and she felt that she, and perhaps even he, was on the brink of discovery.
Then she was a young woman laughing again, her son nestled between her legs as she took him sledding for the first time. And inside that woman was a little girl, rushing through a world of white on a sleigh with her father, and like nesting Russian dolls, both of these were in the withered but wide-eyed septuagenarian racing down the hill. Time collapsed on itself and then exploded outward—a lifetime behind, a lifetime ahead.
And then she felt the toboggan grow solid again beneath her, and the snow was snow, and time was running out. But she also felt Nathan’s arms around her, and as she came to herself again, she heard the most beautiful thing she’s heard in years—his laughter. She joined him, and together they laughed as they slid down the hill, while they saw before them, growing brighter as they sped forward, the lights of home.
Author’s Commentary: Stories come to me from a variety of places. “Risk Management” started as an image I awoke to one morning, an aging mother and her middle-aged son on a sled together. I cannot explain the image’s origin, but I found it too compelling to ignore. The image felt like a beautiful mystery, a moment marked by grace—one of those things we can experience but never adequately explain. When I started writing, that idea became the driving force of the narrative.
Jeffrey DeVries is a high school English and journalism teacher. His work has appeared in River River, The Other Side, The Banner, and elsewhere.