Here is what I learned about breaking through the ice on a winter river when I was five. When the ice gives way, and there’s no one to see, the cold water is a sledgehammer to your senses, iced lightning to your lower limbs. Your blood becomes slush, but a second later, you are uncannily warm, and all will to resist is suddenly gone.
The river rarely froze all the way across in the winter, but it routinely froze enough along the shore and several hundred yards out for skating. We were never allowed on the ice until Dad deemed the depth safe, but that morning, left to my own devices, I decided to test it on my own. Curiosity outweighed any fear I’d fall through, and I stayed close to shore just in case.
And that’s how I first learned that when you’re freezing, cold becomes warm and that my connection to life is kind of thin. It makes me wonder sometimes, even now, how little it would take for me to relinquish my hold. Sometimes it makes me wonder if I’m fully here.
On that occasion, I could scramble to shore in my red rubber boots (the kind your mother had to force over the heels of your shoes with wax paper). I sloshed back up the hill to the house as if trudging in buckets, eventually pulling my socked feet out of shoes now soldered inside my boots. I never told anyone, of course. Until now.
Generally, after a week of below-freezing temps, Dad would head down to the beach with a hatchet and yardstick to test the ice. Four inches thick was enough, but I think he insisted on six. When he gave us the go-ahead, my sisters and friends would grab skates and head to the river. But as one of the youngest in this group, I didn’t actually have skates. I had to slip around in my shoes and pretend. Self-aware enough to know I was ridiculous but wanting to be included, I stoically bore this indignity. Add to this performance a snowsuit so thick I couldn’t bring my knees together, and you’ve got the picture.
Then, one day, I was presented with “skates,” a disappointing set of twin blades you strapped to the soles of your shoes. It was like skating with train tracks clamped to your feet, only slightly less embarrassing than shambling about in shoes. I belted on the upgrade and headed out on the ice, coveting the white leather lace-ups of the older girls the way I would one day long for lip gloss and hip huggers. When the older boys skated in aggressive circles around me, I’d close my eyes and freeze like a squirrel in the road.
Just as I entered adolescence, we moved from our house on the river to a house near the river, and I was given my first pair of white, lace-up figure skates. They were as pure and unblemished as cumulus clouds. To sail out on the ice in figure skates was to my strap-ons, as a pirouette on pointe is to dancing in flats. And I took to it, although river ice is a bumpy surface on which to learn and has the occasional death-defying stick protruding through.
The boys, Eddie, Chris, and Jon, wore hockey skates, which made them an impressive four inches taller than they were, but unlike figure skates, hockey skates had no metal teeth on the tip for braking. Those boys had collision control down to a science, however—coming straight at their targets at warp speed only to throw their weight onto one leg and turn sideways in the nick of time, showering their complicit victims with a rooster tail of shaved ice before coming full-stop a tantalizing 6 inches before contact.
This was flirting on the ponds of North Shore and Gray’s Creek. What do you call brakes on boys’ hockey skates?
As teenagers, the boys measured the depth of the ice, and occasionally, we built bonfires on it. I’m shaking my head as I write this because I went through the ice again then but, ironically, not near the fire. The surface gave way near the pilings as I climbed from the river onto Mahlstedt’s pier, so with something to hang onto, I only went in up to my thighs.
An energy reader, a healer, once said to me, it is as if you have one foot in this world and one in the other. It is as if when you were born you never fully committed to being here—and intuitively, I knew that felt true.
And sometimes it shocks and puzzles me how easily I am willing to let go of life when in fact, I’m quite in love with it. With its beauty, its charm. It’s unrelenting potential for goodness. With you.
Years later, in labor with Emily, I was about to give up. She was nearly ten pounds to my 112. The placenta had partially detached during the final stages of labor, and a movie-star handsome anesthesiologist had appeared on the scene. I heard him say pressure’s dropping– 60 over 40— and felt a rush of movement around me as the delivery table was abruptly titled headfirst toward the floor. I remember thinking, “Well now, this is nice, I like this; goodbye, goodbye, everyone! It’s been lovely. Goodbye.”
Later, I thought, why on earth didn’t I fight? I was ready to leave this life without a backward glance or the slightest regret, and now I feel bad about it. I had two children to live for and a third doing her best to join them—yet there I was, the equivalent of the Von Trapp Family singers slipping off stage for a run to freedom as the youngest sang to distract their Nazi audience. So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodnight.
As a young Navy wife living in Naval Academy housing, I took skating lessons. I wanted to finally learn form and technique– to spin and spiral in place.
What I learned is falling is inevitable.
It’s staying on the ice and getting up again that requires grace.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.