Everest by Eric SchreibmanPerfect weather:  Eighteen degrees, snow flurries, a slight wind… and sunshine.

Perfect weather, indeed – for my son’s first time sledding.

At the age of three, Cole was a husky, barrel-chested toddler, ready to take on the world.  Not surprisingly, his heroes included Spider-Man, Bat Man and of course, the Man of Steel himself.  But even this cadre of heroes would have had a hard time beating the experience Cole and I enjoyed that icy cold January day.

I glanced in the rear view mirror as we approached the imposing block of solid whiteness on a well-traveled road only a few short minutes from our house in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs.  In the mirror, I noticed that Cole’s face was a mixture of toddler bravado and fear.  Actually, all I could see of his face were his widening eyes, as the majority of his countenance was covered with a dark woolen mask.

But Cole’s eyes are truly the windows to his entire being.  Maybe I notice the inflections in my children’s voices more acutely, or the expressions in their eyes more distinctly than I do those in other people, but not so in Cole’s case.  His dazzling jade-green eyes are the centerpiece of the most expressive face I have ever seen.  My son may grow up to be many things, but a master poker player is not likely to be one of them!

When we arrived at the parking lot at the foot of the hill, I scrapped the idea of struggling to put on a bulky snow-suit over his clothes.  He was too anxious to get started, and besides, he already was bundled up like a miniature version of the “Michelin Man” from those tire ads.

I opened the car door to let him out, and a gust of wind blew misty flakes of snow directly into his face.  I thought this rude welcome might discourage him, but by that point he was determined to get closer to the hill, which was already being attacked by a half-dozen older children and their parents.

With our gleaming silver plastic sled in tow, we gingerly trekked up the side of the hill, gaining surprising traction in the firmly packed mix of snow and ice.  With the sled in one hand and Cole’s hand in my other, we made it to the top of the hill.  We peered silently out over the scene below us:  trees lining each side of the hill, and the parking lot appearing distinctly too far away from where we stood.

I felt the wind blow, and we could hear it howling around us.  I chose to remain silent, not wanting to provide any fuel to the fire of emotions I knew Cole must have been feeling, the most prominent of which appeared to be the anxiety etched into his eyes.

I released him from the apex, and within seconds he lost control of the sled and lay sprawled on his side about half-way down the hill.  “I should have gone with him the first time – what was I thinking?” – was what I was thinking (albeit just a few moments too late).   His tears came immediately and in big buckets.  Would Cole’s debut be the shortest in sledding history?  No chance.

I snatched him up, brushed away the snow from his face and hat, and assured him that he was fine.  That said, I couldn’t help but agree with Cole’s reaction – that we should go down a smaller hill next time.  Fortunately, we only had to move down the hill a short way to reach a far more manageable challenge.  Before too much more anxiety could set in, I reloaded him, aimed the sleek silver arrow of a sled down the dead-center of the slope, and let go….

When that arrow came to rest, there was a split-second of delay (which seemed like a minute) before I heard a cry of a much different sort.  It was a shriek of pure joy coming from his lips as he jumped off the sled, snow spraying in all directions.

Cole jerked his head up the hillside to find me, and although I could only see his eyes, I knew he was grinning widely underneath that woolen mask.  He raised his hands over his head and exclaimed, “Daddy, I did it!”  I bolted down the hill, not caring about falling myself, and reached him seconds later.  His face was glistening with beads of melting snow, his eyes crackling with energy.

A surge of intense pride ran through me as I lifted him up over my head, and he yelled, “We are NOT going home now, Daddy!”  I assured him that we were going back up the hill, and as he looked uphill, his courage was tempered with caution:  “Not too high yet, not too high!”

I decided I would ease him up the hill gradually, inching higher with each successful trip.  His confidence began to grow as each descent ended with the same raised arms, the same shout of pride, and a firm reminder to me that there was still plenty of time left before we needed to head back home.

After five or six trips, we were approaching the summit once again.  But on one occasion, we met with some adversity:  Cole hit an irregular bump, which sent him veering off course and into a strange, untouched pile of landing snow which stood out distinctly from the well-worn grooves marking the center of the slope.  Following this unexpected trip, he looked back for me, and became disoriented by the unfamiliar vantage point.

I reached him a moment later, preparing myself for a scared and timid request to head home.  His entire body was covered with sparkling flakes of snow, including his eye brows.  My suddenly old-looking young boy’s nose was cherry- red and flowing freely, his cheeks flushed crimson.  But those eyes – they were exploding with pride and joy – a fiery emerald shade of green standing out in stark contrast to his rosy skin, white eyebrows and soaked black coat and mask.

Almost breathlessly he hissed, “Look how FAR I went!”  At that moment, we made direct eye contact, and in that moment, I lost all sense of adulthood – I felt only an overwhelming sensation of pure joy.  My son had been afraid, had faced his fears, and was experiencing the ecstasy of exploring a new frontier in his life.  That moment has remained woven inside my heart ever since.

Within a few more trips, we had reached the top once again.  I sensed that Cole was tiring, but he still charged up the hill with purpose in his step, pushing himself to catch me.  Twice we went down the hill together, which allowed me to feel his bundled torso shake with fervor as we accelerated toward the bottom.

I suggested that we go down one last time together.  Cole agreed that this would be the last trip, but insisted on going down by himself – from the very top.  Before he hopped onto the sled, he asked, “And after this last time, can we go get hot chocolate?”

I was only too happy to oblige, and we floated to Starbucks to sit by the fire, thaw out, and soak in the afterglow of an hour well spent.  It had been an hour full of purpose, full of accomplishment, full of life – an hour even Superman would have been proud to experience.

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