I walked down the wide, cold, green hospital corridor with Wini Jones to visit a friend of hers who had just undergone yet another five-day blast of chemotherapy. Three months earlier, Andrew Epstein had undergone three five-day blasts of that same chemotherapy. From what Wini had told me, this was one very sick dude and the doctors considered this type of cancer temporarily treatable, but terminal.
Andrew had skied for 22 of his 26 years. He clearly understood when I talked to him about skiing and its relationship to man’s instinctive search for freedom, something very important to me to share.
After talking and laughing with him for about an hour, I went out to my car and grabbed a couple of my short story books and three or four VHS tapes of some of my feature length ski films for him to look at. Probably watching them when the only other sound in the hospital in those we wee hours of the morning would be the occasional nurse walking on sound proof shoes down a dim corridor to deliver some sleeping pill medication to someone that they have to wake up so they can take them.
I told Andrew that we could go skiing together if he got his fanny out of bed. He could join me the next winter in Montana at the Yellowstone Club. Andrew was going to be a third-year medical student who had also recently undergone a 14-hour surgery to remove several tumors around his heart, and other tumors on his ribs and around his spine. In my mind, I was worrying that this guy is never going to get to ski again with the Big “C” rapidly eating him alive.
I had a show to do that night, and in the orchestrated chaos of my one night stands in a different city every night for the next month, Andrew occasionally crossed my mind as I waited for the bad news from Wini about cancer claiming one more wonderful young man. Andrew had never smoked a cigarette in his life so it was even more of a mystery to me.
When my month-long tour of shows was finished in mid-December, I moved to Montana, where I was the director of skiing at the world’s only private ski resort, called the Yellowstone Club that, back then, was only two years old. I was completely occupied with my job of skiing in untracked powder snow every day with prospective members when one evening in late January my phone rang and it was Andrew. His voice was very strong and when we got through the formalities of getting reacquainted on the phone, he said, “When are we going to ski together?”
He had gotten my phone number from Wini when he was suddenly diagnosed as being in total remission from his cancer. When he heard that from the doctors, he got a ride home from the hospital and grabbed the keys to his car along with his skis and clothes and other stuff and drove nonstop the 800 miles to Big Sky, Mont. He had checked into a motel down on the nearby Gallatin River.
“OK, Warren,” he said, “so your videos made me laugh myself well, so now you have to keep your promise to ski with me.”
I was shocked that in spite of the 14 hours of radical surgery and a total of seven rounds of chemotherapy, Andrew’s cancer was suddenly in remission.
We spent the next day skiing our brains out on groomed corduroy snow and untracked powder and laughing together until tears came to our eyes.
That night at dinner it was snowing hard when Andrew said, “I have to leave tomorrow for some more tests in the hospital.”
I said, “Look out the window at how hard it is snowing. Anyone who would leave a ski resort and powder snow like this is stupid, and you don’t look stupid to me!”
He stayed and we spent the next day carving up 10 inches of untracked powder snow with almost no one else on the mountain except the ski patrol. One of them occasionally beat Andrew to first tracks on yet another run. I was really tired when the lift finally closed and at dinner I said, “I have lined up one of the best ski patrolmen to ski with you tomorrow. He is a lot younger skier than I am so you can dive down all of the chutes with him and jump off of the cornices. I know you have to get back to Seattle, but what is one more day late going to mean?”
It was then that he told me, “Just before I left the hospital they found another small tumor and I have to go back and have the doctors cut it out, but I will stay and jump off of every cornice and go down every chute on this mountain before then.”
Andrew didn’t even show up for lunch with me the next day.
After the lifts closed, we met and I talked him into at least getting a good night’s sleep in his nearby motel before the 800-mile solo drive back to Seattle and more doctor stuff.
At dinner, we talked about how laughter had been regarded as a great medicine for better health for several thousand years. Laughter secretes some chemical that doesn’t like germs of any kind.
He told me that when I left the videotapes for him in the hospital he would have the nurses come at two or three in the morning and watch them and laugh with him. Some of the nurses skied, others did not, but they all laughed at the films and felt better after watching the people fall off of the chairlifts. (That was when I was in charge of the film company and we had a totally different culture driving the entertainment value of the films.)
I felt very comfortable with Andrew because he is one of the few people I have ever spent time with who had less hair than I do. Chemotherapy does that, you know.
I continued to ski in powder snow for the rest of the winter.
When Andrew got back to Seattle and hung his skis up in the garage and put his ski boots away and his dirty clothes in the laundry, it was time for his visit to the hospital.
The doctors found yet another tumor, but laughter gave him those three days of powder snow skiing to take with him wherever he went on his next and final trip.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto warrenmiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.
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