The inevitability of the last call

I didn’t start feeling like I’ve packed 30some years of neglect, abuse, bad habits, and general existence into my body until I started skating. The screaming thighs, the constellation of bruises, the creaky ankles, the tenderized everything: My first few months back on the ice were an exercise in wondering what parts of my aging body were going to scream out for individual recognition next as muscles I hadn’t pushed to their limit in ages were suddenly submitting to moves they (and I) struggled to remember. I still feel the lingering burn of crossover drills for a day or two now but it’s nothing like the strain of my entire body reminding me that I am not a teenager anymore in those early days of getting my ice legs back.

Now, I skate three days a week and I have to take a pretty wicked fall to feel as brutalized as I did a year ago. But even when I wake up with all the pops and groans I have welcomed into my adult life, whether they’re from falling on both of my knees or doing a few too many power pulls, I take a perverse delight in knowing that I have earned those temporary discomforts and that they’re all the consequence of whatever progress I’m finally making.

This past weekend, I met some folks my husband has been telling me stories about for nearly 12 years. They’re the kind of people populating the kind of stories one can only have from once being a 19-year-old college kid who wants to try everything and live a little more loudly than their peers; they’re also the kind of people I should have probably thanked for making sure the man I would marry a few years later stayed alive long enough to make it that far. The abbreviated story behind this long-overdue reunion is that someone who once had an actively supportive, nurturing role in my husband’s life and remains a positive force with the long-ago wisdom he imparted—the much older ex-brother-in-law of a friend he’s unintentionally drifted away from over the years—has been diagnosed with cancer. He was one of those non-judgmental, neutralizing forces my husband needed during his determinedly rebellious late-teenage years, a benign soul who recognized that kids are gonna do some stupid things no matter what so they should at least have a safe place for doing them.

I have heard nothing but wonderful stories about this fellow who, given his philosophy on life, is perhaps unsurprisingly a musician who’s made a living by playing in the local bars around whatever town he’s currently calling home. And it took exactly one meeting to find out that he more than lived up to the lofty expectations I’ve cultivated. There are some people who can pack a lifetime into a comparatively shorter window while exuding an infectiously peaceful optimism, and I met their king on Saturday as we watched him playing his heart out to a crowded, familiar bar one last time.

What could have been an evening struggling under the weight of morbid finality was anything but. I overheard the phrases “they removed a tumor the size of his bladder from his bladder” and “he’s refusing chemotherapy” but those were passing conversations rather than dominant themes. The buoyancy of greetings, the genuine warmth, the constant laughter, and the unbridled joy of living in the moment were what prevailed across the two bars that our evening spilled into as I got to witness a man who clearly lived for his music absolutely pour his entire soul into the notes that poured right back out of both him and the guitar that was less an instrument in his hands and more an integral organ.

The first shades of grief didn’t creep into the evening until, really, the next morning. As my husband and I drove home at 1 a.m., the scrubby shore pines gave way to their much statelier cousins inland and our conversation grew heartier with them. I did not want this to be my only firsthand encounter with this kind-hearted creature who produces actual magic and instantly though unassumingly asserts himself as the rare soul this world can’t really afford to lose right now; my husband didn’t want this to be the last time he hears someone whose entire being is music share it with those who love him. The tragic beauty in this (and so many other things) is that a first song inevitably necessitates a last one. But how different those first tentative notes are from the lifetime that resonates in that shattering swan song is a testament to the inherent beauty of the journey between them. And we wanted to be there as witnesses as he builds up to that devastating final anthem.

I know my life’s calling isn’t figure skating, but it certainly has been one incredible lifeline in the past year. It dulls the impact of the winter blues, it gives me something to look forward to, and it’s a source of the closest thing I get to confidence. What started as a hobby and escapism has blossomed into a passion, and I didn’t know I could still fall in wild, reckless love with anything at this point in my life.

Even when I’m struggling with something new (like the loop jumps that are still glorified hops as of Sunday’s lesson), there are few places I’d rather be than picking myself up off those ice. As someone who’s probably close to obsessed with my own mortality, nothing quiets that persistent voice reminding me that I and everyone I love will one day be ghosts while reminding me that every hour I spend on the ice is one hour closer to that last hurrah quite like skating does, and I couldn’t be more grateful for such a convoluted marriage of extremes.

Those creaks and aches are the consequences of being alive and being a skater—two things that are becoming increasingly intertwined for me. I live for the focus I can only seem to find when I let the rink swallow me whole and take me away from the drudgery of adult life for a while. Because for every person I love, for every time my dog makes me laugh or melts my heart, for every utterly Instagrammable foodstuff I unhinge my jaw to happily devour, there are bills, deadlines, and other assorted ugly truths I’m trying not to think about. And they’re not what life is all about, anyway: We’re here to leave the world in a better condition than we found it and eke out some happiness along the way.

My body is only getting louder as I grow older, and I know there’ll be a day when it finally concedes to age and escorts me off the ice one last time. I know that, one day, my skates and I will no longer spend hours every week together. I know that everything, even the things I love the most, have an expiration date stamped in a secret hiding place that’s just waiting to announce itself. But knowing that only makes the now that much sweeter and significant, and I can only hope that such an awful inevitability is still a far-off reality--after all, 33 only means I'll be lucky to consider a double axel in my future, it's not a last call. All I can do is bring nothing but heart to every session and skate like that last day is just around the corner.

(P.S.: On Saturday, I finally managed to do a LFI three-turn more than once. I was not even a little embarrassed how my shrieks of relief and victory echoed across the rink, and my coach did not dissuade me from letting myself celebrate accordingly. I needed to document that somewhere because, yeah, spins have been the devil for 10 hellacious months but those freaking three-turns have been a special kind of agony for even longer. And nothing gives me hope for skating longevity quite like tackling some milestones does.)


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