Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, at 30,000 feet, it hit me: my sons and I were returning home to Tennessee to an empty house. My husband Matthew, who had passed away four months prior, wouldn’t be waiting at the airport for us as he had done the last time the boys and I had flown home from a trip to Europe.

I wasn’t prepared for what was ahead of us … I realized in that moment that I had no idea what life would look like now that we were no longer a family of five. And perhaps the empty space Matthew left behind was something I hadn’t wanted to face since his passing … until now.

The pain I was still in the middle of was similar to being in this spot six miles above the ocean … I couldn’t just walk up to the pilot and politely ask him to land the plane because I was done flying … And, yeah, sometimes we can quit and get off before we reach our destination rather than endure the entire journey … but sometimes we have no control over it. That’s where I was at, still grieving my husband’s recent death and finding a home awaiting us all that much emptier without my mom there, too.

There was no captain in charge of my grief … or the life path I was on … I simply had to keep my engines running and fly through whatever was, and is, ahead.

I sat straight up in the uncomfortable seat and closed my eyes. I took several deep breaths. “Breathe in love, exhale grief” … “Inhale love, exhale grief” … I repeated to myself. My breath brought me back into the present moment – in which, yes there was pain, but there were also my boys … and gratitude … We were flying home from an amazing trip to the Austrian Alps!

And just like the thought of what lies ahead created a whirl of anxiety, sadness, and even fear inside of me, the thoughts of the past week eventually moved my emotions into a warm, happy place. I had a wonderful time with my old friends; my boys enjoyed every moment of it; and, as an unexpected bonus, I had experienced a huge transformation …

My long-time friend Ivana invited us to come to the ski camp her husband runs in Hinterstoder, a quaint village in the Austrian Alps. I went there making sure everyone understood I was not a skier or interested in learning. I would either stay in our hotel in the village, take walks, drink tea and read books, or I’d ride a gondola up to the top and sit in one of the cute Austrian restaurants, sipping cappuccino and enjoying watching the good people in their ski gear having fun. Because that’s what I have always done. That was me. I am an artist; I don’t like cold, and I have never been athletic. I had made these nice labels for myself a long time ago, and I displayed them now with pride and without a morsel of insecurity or the interest to change.

On the first day of our arrival, however, Ivana had laid out all the beautiful skiing apparel for me – the sleek black snow pants, fitted blue jacket (that I inspected closely trying to understand what in the world made it so warm and impermeable to wind and water) and a hat with a pom-pom, which I thought made me look younger (which, let’s be honest, is a huge incentive to hit the ski slopes). I jumped at the opportunity to model the clothes and snap a few pictures. When Ivana began to fit me for ski boots, I laughed and joked but played along … I was surprised by the excitement I suddenly felt about actually getting on skis.

We had wanted to take this trip for many winters. Matthew was a fearless man who would do anything for a thrill. He loved Ivana and Goran. And he loved to take our sons out of their comfort zones while passing on his sense of freedom to them. Life just got busy and complicated, and we were waiting for that magical ‘right time’ to do this.

Maybe I wanted to try to fill his role and be there for our boys – even just a little bit. And maybe because I knew now that there is no promise of tomorrow. … Whatever the reasons, the next day, I boarded the gondola carrying a pair of skis instead of a backpack with a book and a journal inside.

Goran, our ski instructor was patient and thorough. My kids picked it up faster than me, and they soon took off. I was surprised how excited and unself-conscious I felt despite being left behind on a baby slope with five- and six-year-olds. I couldn’t decide whether the lack of judgment was coming from my friends, from other skiers who didn’t care one bit, or from myself. I felt completely present, and I quickly emerged into the excitement of conquering a new skill.

The Alps were grand and gorgeous, welcoming and safe. The sky was clear, the air was crisp, and the sun was warm enough for me not to feel any cold.  

I worked on my turns and stops diligently, not even bothering to check out the restaurant – I had more important things to do.

On the third day, Ivana decided I was ready for the training hill. I trusted her, and so we headed for the ‘shulift.’

I have trusted Ivana my whole life. She has been there for me in many of my life-changing experiences – from arranging a meeting with God when I was a teenager, to helping me make the decision to leave Croatia many years ago, to supporting me through Matthew’s illness, and to coaching me to overcome some of my biggest fears. She was a master skier, and I knew she wouldn’t let me do something I couldn’t handle.

At the top of the hill, I realized in horror the hill was much steeper and bigger than it looked from the bottom. “This is still a training hill,” she said, sensing what I was feeling. “We’ll go really slow.”

It took us a long time to get down that hill. I accidentally fell once and purposely threw myself down several times so I wouldn’t fall. In the middle of all this, I felt like I wanted to quit. It was still a long way down, and I was getting tired … I didn’t think I could do this… My legs began to shake, and thoughts like “You are such a fool for thinking you can do this” began to swarm in my brain.

Ivana stood there with me, patient, steady, encouraging me, looking for the flatter sections of the slope where I could easily stop and catch my breath, clear my thoughts, and regain focus and confidence. She found the right words, and showed me just the right body movements to get me to take the next, small baby step. Just like she had done a hundred times before. With love of a friend who loves you across the ocean and through a million years …

When we were almost at the bottom, she said gently to me, “You can let go now … Just slide down … toward the restaurant …”

I giggled nervously and let go.

My 12-year-old son swooshed beside me with a speed and confidence of a veteran skier … “He is a natural,” Ivana said. “He has no fear,” I said. “He hasn’t been down the hills and roads on which we fall and hurt ourselves. He is too young for his mind to bring up the memories of past failures, scary life-slopes and that after-the-fact horror that sinks in when we realize what we had just gone through. After the adrenaline rush is over, the mind takes over the surrender and creates ‘information’ to keep us safe from harm (and similar experiences) for next time.”

I went right past the restaurant and back to my baby hill. I was not going to quit. Or get discouraged. Or talk myself into slapping my old labels back on and forgetting this whole idea – it’s just not me to give up. Like with so many things in my life, I was open to change and transformation that so beautifully help us shed the learned fears, and I would be courageous to live fully. And conquer slopes no matter what they look like. Know that we are never left alone – sometimes there will be friends to support us, be that “God in skin” for us; and sometimes, we will rely on the inner strength and connection to the life force within us.

Back on the plane, I decided to stop thinking about what I had no control over … life will be what it will be. I’ll take the big scary hill ahead one step at a time.  Perhaps I’ll fall; perhaps I’ll have to throw myself down a few times in order not to pick up too much speed and crash. Eventually, however, I’ll get to a place where I’ll be safe to let go and slide down the no-longer-scary hill, giggling with joy.

“Mama, there’s the movie you wanted to see: ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’” my 12-year-old son said to me, smiling.

I enjoyed it …especially the theme song at the end that helped me release the pain I had been holding in.

At home, after my kids had returned to school (this had been their spring break) and the house became too quiet, I sat down to my piano and sang the song from the movie …  There’s no use distracting from pain that comes because we love deeply – or numbing, or labeling ourselves ‘strong’ and ‘put together’ and ‘in control.’ Life is a beautiful, ever-changing journey …