Vail Valley Voices: Honoring a boy’s wish to ski Vail
Vail, CO, Colorado
Last year I skied Vail at the invitation of my favorite young athlete.
I showed up in January when Colorado was hit with big snowstorms. It was the best week of skiing I ever had with the most amazing snow. We awoke to fresh powder every day.
Nate Mertens was a road-bike racer and a snowaboarder. He emulated Lance Armstrong. Unfortunately, like Lance, he got cancer.
In May of 2007, I found myself at Nate’s bedside in Charlotte, N.C. Having been diagnosed with leukemia six months prior, he fought a strong battle and came home that day to spend the rest of his time with his family.
As a close family friend to Nate’s mom, I volunteered my pediatric nurse skills and flew down from New York City the day Nate came home from the hospital.
While his family was told he had about 4 weeks left to live, I realized sitting by his bedside that his condition had changed to just a few hours.
He was struggling with pain and breathing which placed me in the role of palliative care.
His family was not at all prepared for this. I talked to Nate about dying. In what felt like hours, but was only a few minutes and before we were to announce to his family that he wanted to say goodbye; he told me all he had wanted to do in life.
At age 14, Nate still wanted to grow up. He said he wasn’t done living yet but that he was not afraid to die.
He wanted to meet Lance Armstrong and ride in the Tour de France.
Nate told me that Boulder was his favorite place (where his parents met, he was born, and where he lived prior to becoming sick), but then he exclaimed matter-a-factly that he had never been to Vail, so that could have been his favorite place.
He said he wanted to grow up and become a snowboard instructor at Vail. He snowboarded at Eldora but never got to go to Vail. He wanted to “go big!”
He asked if I had skied Vail. I sheepishly admitted no. He said “Meg, you should go to Vail! What are you waiting for? You have to go there for me. You have to ski it for me!”
I made the promise to do so.
In pediatric palliative care, the role of the health practitioner is first to provide comfort care; then help families with acceptance of illness, and lastly to guide patients and families toward closure which involves saying goodbye and encouraging them to leave nothing unsaid.
Part of this job involves tending to a patient’s last wishes.
Nate’s family was not a skiing family.
His love for the mountains and snowboarding he developed on his own.
I had known Nate since birth. His mom and I both attended college together while he was still a toddler and in his early school-age years.
Back then I spent evenings and weekends coaching a junior ski racing team at the local mountain.
Nate, then 5 years old, had so many questions about it. He would show up at my house, put on my ski boots and strut around.
Nate always asked to come skiing with me. I selfishly put off teaching him to ski because if I had any free time, I went skiing with my friends.
Before long, I graduated and moved back out to Tahoe, and Nate and his family moved back to Boulder.
If a kid asks you to take him skiing, just do it. Don’t delay because before long he won’t be a kid anymore and all you will have left are regrets. If he tells you to ski Vail, do it. D
on’t waste time. Life is too short for wasting time.
Sometime life takes you places you never want to be such as the bedside of your best friend’s dying son.
Sometimes it shows you places you have never been before, like Blue Sky Basin the morning after a big winter storm.
I always have to remember that there are people out there, kids, who dream about but never live to ski Vail.
Megan FitzGerald writes from New York City.