Tuesday’s Child is Full of Grace
I slid across the ice and crashed into the boards, my shoulder and hip taking the brunt of the blow. My thigh stung enough to let me know I had torn through my tights and would have a nice scrape to show for my latest wipeout. I hated Axels. Who in their right mind would ever invent a jump where you had to take off from a single forward outside edge, spin one-and-a-half revolutions in the air and then land on the back outside edge of an eighth-of-an inch blade?
“How can someone so graceful be such a klutz?” My coach’s voice rang in my ears. “C’mon, get up. Let’s see it again.”
Lying on my back staring up at the rink lights flickering overhead, I wondered if I was seeing stars. I hadn’t hit my head this time, but after a couple of mild concussions it wasn’t a stretch to imagine my brain wouldn’t be fond of any kind of trauma. George stood over me staring into my face, the upside down view making my head spin. “I can’t do this,” I said in frustration, dragging myself to sit up.
He reached out a hand, not an ounce of sympathy in his voice. “There is no such word as can’t. You know better than that.” He eyed me with contempt as he lifted me to my feet. Middle-aged and balding, George was one of the best pros on the ice, but he had the patience of a teenaged boy on a first date—not that I would know anything about teenaged boys or first dates. I had no time for either.
I brushed off the caked-on snow that soaked through my skating outfit and rubbed my thigh where, yes, I had ripped my tights, and yes, I had a nice deep scrape to add to my growing patches of abused and scarred skin. It didn’t hurt so much as burned—nothing I couldn’t ignore and work through. I sighed.
If I said I was hurt, George would send me off the ice and then I would have to answer to my mother as to why I had quit early when she had already paid for my ice time and lesson—money that I was assured did not grow on trees and could have been spent in many other ways, not the least of which was food for the homeless or a donation to shoeless kids in India.
“Fine, let me do it again,” I huffed. I took off and turned backwards, picking up speed with several rounds of back cross-overs, waiting for an opening in the corner of the rink where it was safe to jump without taking out any other skaters. I zipped past the younger kids who stared at me in awe as they did their waltz jumps and two foot spins.
My mind flashed to a time when skating was easy. Back when I was ten–before I began competing, striving for some unknown destination that I would never likely achieve. Now at fifteen, I was considered too old for the competition circuit. Who could imagine being too old at fifteen? Most girls in my age group were already doing doubles and triples in their programs.
Mom’s cancer came to my mind, and knew I couldn’t give up.
I set my sights on my jump spot, took a nice long sweeping change from an inside to an outside edge and stepped forward, with every intention of kicking my leg through to take flight. I tucked my arms, spun in the air and came down a half a rotation too late, crashing once more to the ice.
Twelve tries and twelve falls. “How hard could it be to just kick through and wrap my leg?” I grumbled. I slowly climbed to my feet, swallowing the burning lump of frustration that threatened to come out in tears and swears that would surely get me tossed off the ice. “You never know who’s watching, Sweet-pea,” my mother would say. “Always keep that pretty smile on your face. No one wants to promote a sour-puss.”
I skated over to George, who looked like he wanted to swear as bad as I did. “All you have to do, Penny, is swing that leg through on the take -off. You have developed a habit of avoidance and you have to get over it if you’re going to compete next month. Your program requires at least one Axel and two double jumps. I don’t understand how you can manage double flips and double loops and not be able to land a simple single Axel.”
George’s idea of a pep talk left me feeling like throwing up. Taking note of my defeated expression, he patted my shoulder and flashed me one of his brilliant camera-ready smiles and said, “One more time, Kid. You can do this. Just kick through like you’re reaching for the stars.”
I drew in a deep breath and swallowed my emotions. I stuffed down the fear, the frustration, the feeling that I would never measure up to the expectations of my family, my coach, or even myself. I was a loser—beaten by my fear of falling—of failing—of not ever being good enough to make the cut—of disappointing my dying mother.
The air whipped my bangs and ponytail around as I sped around the rink, gearing up for one more try. There once was a time that the feel of the cold moist air on my face lit me up like a lighthouse beacon—a time when skating made me happier than almost anything else. I loved the freedom I felt as the ice rushed by and I flew around the rink, gracefully creating intricate patterns with each edge. There was nothing like the swooshing soundof steel cutting into ice that accompanied every stroke as I flew faster and faster around the rink. I held that memory close to the surface, trying to convince myself it was the reason I continued to torture my body this way.
I lined up for my jump and stepped onto the forward outside edge, holding my breath and willing my leg to follow through—to cooperate with the instructions my brain sent to my limbs. I lifted off the ice and had a moment to realize I’d jumped higher and farther than ever before, and then the world tipped upside down. A splitting pain went through my head, and all I saw was darkness.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
A pinpoint of light appeared and grew steadily before me until I had to squint to protect my eyes from the blinding light that engulfed my field of vision. Did I have another concussion? Maybe, but somehow this seemed different. As the light began to dim and my eyes adjusted to the brightness, I saw the form of a woman. At first, she appeared as a silhouette in a flowing robe, but then I noticed something odd. I blinked until the image became clearer and I saw that the woman had wings—white, billowy, fluttering wings.
“Who are you?” I whispered, afraid of her answer. Had I died? Was this heaven?
“I am a messenger. I was sent to guide you.” She floated in the air above me coming in and out of focus. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t see her face. She had long, golden hair that floated around her head and shoulders as if she was caught in a storm. Her voice hummed with a melodic vibration, reminding me of church bells and Christmas music.
I shook off the confusion that muddled my mind. “Guide me? Guide me where? Am I…dead?”
“You are in the ‘In-between-place’,” she said. “I have come to show you the way.”
“Show me the way where?” Regret instantly rose up in me. I was too young to die. I should have a lifetime ahead of me. If I was dead, I would miss out on my first date, my first kiss, my graduation from high school, a career, kids…everything. Then, I saw it clearly—the life I wanted was still in front of me, even if skating wasn’t a part of it—even if my mother wouldn’t be there to share it with me. I knew she didn’t have long to live. The cancer had spread from her lungs to her brain and she was going downhill fast. It suddenly became crystal clear that I was competing for her. I was pushing myself to do something I didn’t want to do so that she would hold on for a little longer. I wanted her to see me succeed.
My angel floated in and out of focus. I latched onto the image of her golden hair flowing around her face. “Please, tell me. Is there any chance that you could ask God to give my mom some more time?” I felt stupid asking, but I figured maybe there was some deal to be made since as of a few minutes ago, I hadn’t even been quite sure there was a God. “I’ll go with you now if you could just promise me that she’ll get better and live a full and happy life.”
The angel closed in and the warmth of a summer breeze touched my face as her wings fell over me. Her words whispered in my ear. “Your willingness to sacrifice for your mother has earned you another chance. I cannot grant your wish that your mother will live on, for her destiny has already been written. But know this, my little one—you are loved, no matter your choices. Although you cannot change the path of another’s destiny, you can love and accept love, and be happy with the blessings and gifts you are given. That is the mark of true grace.”
The angel moved away on a mighty wind, growing smaller as the darkness closed in around me. “Wait!” I called. “Don’t go. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to keep living like this.”
I knew it was true. The life I had chosen to live, hoping it would somehow make my mother’s final days happier, was making me miserable. I was starving myself, losing weight to get thin like the other skaters and I hadn’t slept through the night in months. Time after time I would dream that I would fall through the ice and be unable to get my skates off under water, the weight of them pulling me down. Or I would see my mother drifting out to sea on an iceberg, disappearing in the distance even as I called out to her to come back.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
“Penny…Penny, are you okay? Oh, Sweet-pea, please come back to me.” My mother’s voice reached my ears and I became instantly aware of a throbbing behind my eyes.
My hand came up to touch the back of my head and I winced. I found a large, painful lump and rubbed gently, sucking in another deep breath and opening my eyes gingerly against the bright lights of a hospital room. My mother sat beside my bed, her head covered with a brightly colored scarf to conceal her baldness. Dark eyes filled with concern stared down at me. “Mom,” I croaked. “How did I get here?”
“Oh, thank God, you’re all right.” The relief in her voice gave me a mixed jolt of guilt for having worried her, and happiness that she loved me that much. “Your father is on his way. We were so worried about you.” Tears flooded her eyes and she gripped my hand. “That’s it, Penelope. No more axels. Do you hear me? I know you love skating, but this is getting serious. You can’t keep doing this to yourself. I know you have your heart set on it, but competing is not worth it.”
“What?” I blinked several times, trying to make sense of what she was saying. “I thought…but you wanted me to compete…didn’t you?”
“I just wanted you to be happy. I wanted to give you everything I could before I…left you. I thought if you were set on a skating career, I wanted you to have the best training and the brightest hope for a future.” By now, her tears were streaming onto my fingers which she had clutched to her lips, kissing them like I had been brought back from the dead and given a second chance. Maybe I had.
I thought about the angel, my offer to sacrifice myself for my mother, and her reminder that I was loved, no matter what. Even
if it was all a dream, I couldn’t waste this chance to make things right. I mustered my courage and said the words I’d held back for too long. “Mom, I know how much you want me to keep skating, and I do want to skate, but I don’t really want to compete anymore. It’s taking up so much of my time and there’s so much pressure…I just want us to spend whatever time we have left….”
The words caught in my throat and I couldn’t finish the sentence.
My mother spoke in a soft but firm voice, the one she used when she wanted me to pay attention. “From the first time I saw you skate, I knew you were going places. But it doesn’t matter to me if you win some stupid competition or not. It only matters that you are happy and healthy and that you have a skill that will ensure your future. I thought I was doing the right thing by supporting you, but I realize now that I’ve been pushing you so hard because I was afraid. I thought if you had something else
important to focus on, it wouldn’t be so hard when I…died.”
It was the first time either of us had said it out loud, and the word hung in the air like a heavy dark cloud. Tears burned behind my eyes, making my head throb mercilessly. I squeezed her hand. “Nothing is going to make it any easier, Mom.” I looked down at our joined hands. “I thought the only way I could make you happy was to compete. I tried my best, really, I did.” My voice cracked and I looked away to hide my desperation and shame at failing her.
“Stop right there.” She lifted my chin so our eyes met. “Don’t you know what a gift and a blessing you are to me?” She straightened her shoulders in determination. Her words reminded me of the angel’s message, “you can love and accept
love, and be happy with the blessings and gifts you are given.”
I cleared my throat trying to sound braver than I felt. “Then I think we shouldn’t waste any more time on regrets and trying to be something we aren’t. Can we maybe take a vacation and go someplace we’ve never been…spend some time doing whatever makes us happy?” I asked, hoping she could see what was most important.
My mother hugged me, both our bodies much thinner than the last time I had hugged her. She held me tight and we cried on each other’s shoulder, the two of us finally meeting on some common ground. She whispered against my hair, “We can go anywhere you want and do whatever you want to do.”
I pulled back, wiped the tears from my cheeks, and smiled. “You should have first pick. I don’t care where we go, as long as it’s someplace warm and I don’t have to bring my skates.”
She laughed and pushed my bangs out of my eyes. “Deal.”
I hugged her again and looked up toward the heavens, thanking God for a second chance, and understanding the true meaning of grace for the first time.