Family finds strength after New Year's skiing accidentby Mara Fink, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — For the Fink family, each New Year's Day marks another anniversary of an event that profoundly changed the family's life.
Every New Year, the family of St. Louis Park loads up the car with cross-country ski gear and heads up North. These days, they make the trip minus one pair of skis. Eleven years ago, when Mara Fink was in fourth grade and her sister was a second-grader, their mom fell on a ski trail and was paralyzed from the neck down.
Mara is now a junior at St. Olaf College and spent this fall interning with Minnesota Public Radio News.
A New Year's accident
We don't talk much about the accident anymore. It's normal for my mom to have a keychain with three remote controls, to operate various doors and a ramp for the handicapped-accessible van she now drives.
My mom paints. You might have gotten one of the Courage Center holiday cards she painted. It's a winter scene, of snow-covered evergreens.
It's a lot like the scene she looked out at, right after her skiing accident 11 years ago. And while I've known the facts of the accident for a long time, my mom's begun writing about what happened, and I'm seeing things from her point of view.
The story begins on a night ski on New Year's Day 1999. She was following my dad down a ski trail in northern Wisconsin.
"All of a sudden. I felt myself falling and I hit my face right into the snow," Susan Fink said. "I couldn't move, and I just knew what had happened, I just knew I had broken my neck."
My dad skied back to call the ambulance. My sister and I were at a cabin with family friends, unaware of what was going on. My mom lay in the snow for an hour waiting for help.
"I was just looking up and I could see the sky and the tops of these pine trees, and pretty soon stars started coming out and it was really pretty," she said. "And I thought, 'OK, if I'm going to die, this is the way I'd picture it.' I just kept thinking I wanted to be able to see you -- my only goal was to see you and your sister again. And I said, 'If you're up there, please help me, I'll do anything, I'll work as hard as I can to get better.'"
And mom did work hard. After the accident, she could only move two fingers. A doctor predicted she'd never walk again, but my mom willed herself to walk down the block with a walker.
Life After Mom's Accident
For a woman who used to run marathons and teach kindergarten, doing something as simple as raising her arms to hug us was a challenge. She spent three months at the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis doing occupational therapy -- or OT -- to regain her independence.
"I was worried about stuff like how was I going to braid your hair and make spaghetti. That was a big one because you guys liked spaghetti," Susan Fink said. "I thought, 'I'm not going to be able to do that.'
"I think it took a week of OT to do it in the hospital. One day we'd make the noodles, then one day we'd fry the meat. It was really amazing how hard things were, so I was scared."
My mom didn't show us how scared she was. For us, she was brave and determined.
But every so often, something would happen that she couldn't control. One time in eighth grade, I came home from school and couldn't find her. She was in her bedroom, sprawled out on the hardwood floor. She had fallen that morning and couldn't get up to reach the phone. She lay there for six hours until I came home.
It's only now she can tell me how she struggled.
"There was one period -- I don't know if I would get up, but if I did I would go back to bed after you'd leave, and watch TV," she said.
My mom used to worry her accident would hurt my sister and me. But just as it made her stronger, it's made us stronger too.
When I first went away to college, I cried every day for the first two weeks. I kept calling my mom and telling her I couldn't do it. She finally laid down the law.
"Mara, if I can learn how to walk again, you can make it through these next few weeks at school," she told me.
She was right.
As I've moved through my college years, one thing that has really begun to strike me is the relationship between my parents. My mom said the accident was actually a good thing for their marriage.
"I think it helped our relationship, because it makes you realize what's really important and what's not important to drive each other crazy with," she said.
They've been through the worst and come out the other side.
As New Year's Day comes around, and people make resolutions to lose weight or get organized, I think about what New Year's marks in my family.
My mom's accident has taught me that I need to love myself for who I am, not what I've accomplished. Because when it really comes down to it, our accomplishments can be gone in the blink of an eye and we'll be stripped down to the people we really are.
My New Year's resolution is to be proud of that person, and to cherish every morning that I wake up and have the gift of another day.