“Granite Chief” by Susan Bonetto

When did it begin to creep back? For more than two years, my doctor routinely smiled through his “everything looks clear” reports; more than that, it felt clear as I felt good. Ken and I bought a kayak and paddled through mystical morning mist on Lake Tahoe. We hiked down Squaw Valley, stepping over and around icy patches in July, pausing at Shirley Lake so that I could humor my lifelong passion for swimming in any lake regardless of conditions and plunge into water that was nearly the temperature of the ice we’d just avoided. We snorkeled among fish rainbows in the Fiji Isles, my second home and place in this world where my heart was full, before my optimism broke into shards, before I lost my husband, my first love, to a lengthy illness while our teenage son struggled through a brain tumor; before Ken appeared and proved that second love is a miracle in itself.

Was it budding inside my supple, strong body when Ken said, “You’re handling the intermediate ski runs so well, you should try Granite Chief soon”? I hesitated for a few weeks though remained true to the mantra of not letting age dictate. During our next trip, I nodded and joined him on the lift; ascended to a height I had never met, calm and collected yet laughing, joyful for these days, the opportunity for revival. I slid off the lift over to the left, toward a sign that points out the least steep section of the mountaintop—”Easiest way down”—only to find there was none. And smiled. I have conquered so much; why not give a Black Diamond run a try? Gingerly, I skied to the edge of the cliff and grasped that it wasn’t hard, it wasn’t daunting; it was purely dreadful. And no better options existed. 

If it was there inside me at that moment, it didn’t hold me back. I side-slipped down a quarter of the massive incline, halted, took in the vista, panned left then right, sought an area that appeared predictable, took a breath, and gave in to destiny. I turned my skis and skidded over to one side, turned to the left and skidded there. I zigzagged to the bottom, fearful but keen, hopeful of making it there without a bad fall. Or any fall. Mission accomplished, I told Ken it was too much for me. Glad of survival, glad to be healthy and able to attempt this crazy challenge, but I had not gained confidence. I vowed not to take on another test like this.

The second time is the hardest as truest knowledge comes from experience. I know now what I didn’t then. And, I should be fine; I was a master at chemo. I biked miles, kayaked, skied. We traveled for fun; I traveled for work, pulling all-nighters for those crazy due diligence meetings. Even when my blood count became ghostly low, I returned time after time to sit in the blood transfusion chair, chatting cheerfully with the nurses; one gave me a $2.00 bill for good luck and sent me home with another for my son.

The day after I wavered down Granite Chief, we returned to Squaw Valley for another ski day. I took leave of Ken saying that I’d ski on my own for the morning. He could do the Black runs while I kept to my comforting, intermediate Blues. He nuzzled and sniffed my neck, perhaps right at the spot where the invisible tumor lived, kissed my nose, and whooshed off. If it was already inside of me the previous day, I guess it was bigger now. I didn’t know; I felt healthy, happy, hopeful. I wasn’t thinking about the past chemo treatments, my year of baldness, the worry that ate at my son’s face. All that was long ago. I raced through the intermediate runs six times and then deliberately skied past their chairs to Granite’s lift line. Hard to turn back unless I wanted to side-step up a steep incline. I’m not sure when I decided to do it once more.

The second time was not easier. I thought it might be. Since I did it previously and stayed on my feet, I thought I was the stronger for it. Having done it once, at my core I understood that I could do it; I’d already been up, or down, this mountain. Yet, no. I skied a rerun. Neither better nor worse. I didn’t fall. I wasn’t hurt. But it terrified me as much as the previous day. Afterward, I put on a face, triumphantly met Ken for lunch, told friends the following week how I skied Granite twice with exclamation points on my sentences. As though I dominated, as though I conquered and have become friends with this mountain.

Now I start round two. If this were boxing, and the opponent my equal or less, the odds would be with me. But it’s my Granite Chief, and I’m petrified. I will put on that face and dress in optimism; I will kayak, and I’ll bike. I’ll get my hair highlighted once more before the treatments begin, before it falls out again. I’ll pray to a god in whom I don’t believe. I’ll sit in the chemo chair. Ten days later I’ll sit in the transfusion chair. I will ski Granite Chief again.

Susan works as a Human Resources’ consultant, is active in numerous sports and writes short stories, often influenced from her global experiences living in Fiji, the Philippines and Argentina. She has a wonderful 27 year old son, Alejandro, and a loving partner, Ken. Susan has been published in BioStories, Transitions Abroad, the Stonecoast Review and Every Day Fiction. She has also been a finalist or received honorable mentions in three New Millennium contests, Tahoma Literary Review, Exposition Review and Ink Tears’ contests.