Today, my son Romeo turns 8 years old. Or he would have if he hadn’t died when we was just 17 days old. He should have come in April, on Marathon Monday to be exact, but for some reason he couldn’t wait. So he came in the thick of winter instead. In the dark of night, at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, during a snowstorm, during the snowiest winter in one hundred years.
The snow was a burden and a nuisance that year. Every day, several inches to clear from my car and driveway just to drive to the NICU to see him. The streets of Boston, a cluster-fuck to begin with, were choked with snow, narrowed to a lane or two. So much snow, there was nowhere left to pile it. One day, there was even a blizzard and we couldn’t even leave the house and I considered making the trek to the hosptial on skis. But no, the nurses and doctors said, no need to come in. He’ll be fine.
He came into this world tiny but loud and full of fight. After two weeks, he was exceeding all expectations: putting on weight, eating, breathing on his own. We were talking about moving him out of the hospital. We were talking about bringing him home. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the night, during a snow storm, he got sick.
I still remember the phone call at 1 AM. I slept through it, heard it go to the machine. I tried to call back, again and again, couldn’t get through and finally got in the car and drove through the snow, into the city, to be at his side. We tried everything. When it became clear that there was nothing we could do for him, we did what we could to make him comfortable and to ease him from this world.
It was hard to find any equilibrium in the days and weeks and months that followed. Some days, I struggled just to get out of bed or to keep my car on the road. Winter was relentless and unyielding and it was crushing me. I became afraid of the dark and the snow. It was unclear how I would survive that winter or all the winters yet to come.
I refused to fight winter. I opted to embrace it instead. I found Weston Ski Track. At night, after everybody had gone to bed, I skated around the tracks and trails at Weston. I was usually the only guy out there, alone with my thoughts and my ghosts, often past the time they turned the lights off. I would ski for a while. I would cry for a while. It was better than wallowing in it at home. It was better than laying awake in bed all night, listening for a phantom phone call, hearing the ring only to pick it up and find nobody there.
Years later I would read an article in Outside magazine that said for people suffering from post-traumatic stress, “the most helpful sport of all seems to be nordic skiing.” Something about the repetitive motion helps the brain to process these difficult memories, to reprogram it and make it healthy again.
Every winter since then, I’ve looked forward to the snow and getting back on skis. It reminds me of Romeo, of the brief time that he was mine to hold and the how it was to go on without him. In the years that followed, I devoted myself to skiing and much of what I do is connected to him, whether it’s the suffering in races that I’ve written about before, or coaching young skiers, or just going for an easy ski on my own.
None of it will bring him back. None of it will make up for his daily absence or restore his future or fill in all the blank memories and milestones. But it does make it bearable. Somewhat. There are still days where the thought of having lost him cripples me. When the thought of it still fills me with rage. And there are days when I am at peace with it.
And then there is today, when he would have turned 8, when I would have taken him skiing with me but instead I’m writing about him not being here.