I am well aware of how fortunate I am to raise my children in one of the most majestic mountain towns in the United States, and yet, despite the privilege of living here, we also make sacrifices. When we moved to Aspen from New Jersey, my kids immediately took advantage of the outdoor lifestyle and world-class skiing in our backyard. I get much pleasure from proudly watching my daughter gracefully race down a ski run at top speed, and I’m blown away by my son when he hops through moguls like a bunny rabbit and flips off a cliff, spinning his skis in the air like an acrobat.
Along with skiing, my children also love to play lacrosse. Thankfully, Aspen has a well-organized and incredible club team and high school program that both my kids participate in. The downside of playing lacrosse in Aspen is that we travel long distances for games. Since our winters last longer than those in the Denver area, our lacrosse season is much shorter, and we also don’t have an indoor facility, so our teams are typically not as strong as others in Colorado.
Last season, my son, Judd, asked me if he could try out for an elite lacrosse team in Denver, where the level of play is much more competitive. Reluctantly, I agreed. The tryouts were held over two weekends at the end of the summer. Watching the tryouts, I was impressed with the high level of competition and skill these thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds demonstrated on the field. Judd, who has had exponentially less play time than most of those kids, went out there with an insatiable hunger and determination. Miraculously, he made the team.
As thrilled as I was for him, I was also dreading the commitment. Practices were twice a week for an hour and a half—in Denver, which meant for the next three months, on those days I would have to pick up Judd from school at around 1:30 p.m. and drive three and a half hours each way! That’s a total of seven hours of driving round-trip, fourteen hours a week, through the mountains, navigating dark, windy roads getting back to Aspen.
For inspiration and validation that I wasn’t insane, I spoke to another Aspen family whose son made the team a few years ago and did the same crazy drive. They said exactly what I was thinking: My son has a passion, and the flexibility in my schedule gives me the opportunity to fuel that passion. Time is slipping by fast, and before I know it, Judd will be heading off to college. I can use this opportunity to embrace the memories we make during the car ride and the joy I get from watching him on the field. Back in Aspen, Judd would rather hang with his friends than with me. But on those drives, it’s just us––chatting and listening to music or podcasts, and I get the added comfort of knowing he is safe with me, not making bad decisions with his peers. After every practice, we discuss how he did, how he can improve, and how to stay focused and enthusiastic. On the good days, we fist-pump, and on the bad days, I give pep talks. Another bonus is that we both made new friends who we’ve had the pleasure of traveling with for weekend-long tournaments in California and Nevada.
Embarking together on this lacrosse journey is teaching us both a kind of spiritual wisdom. Judd, of course, is learning to release and rise above negative thinking when he makes mistakes, disappoints his coach, or isn’t playing to his potential. Working at such an extraordinary level of play with other teammates is also humbling, and at the same time, pushes him to be the best he can be on the field. Many of us go through life comparing ourselves to others. Wherever we land, we will always encounter someone who is faster, smarter, stronger, taller, or more athletic. Judd is learning to access his inner strength, which lies within each of us, and use that silent power to grow as a player and as a human.
I, on the other hand, am learning to live in the moment. When my children were babies I breastfed them for almost a year. The first few months were not easy—but knowing they were getting so many amazing health benefits, I had no intention of giving up. I remember someone once told me to savor the experience, especially the dreaded late-night feedings, when I rocked my babies in the quiet stillness, bonding with them in one of motherhood’s most beautiful and miraculous gifts. This wise person warned me that it goes quickly, and after I stop breastfeeding all I would have left were the memories of holding them in my arms, feeling their soft flesh against mine, deeply connected. As strange as this may sound, I am doing my best to treasure this time with Judd in a similar way to the breastfeeding experience. He’s now fourteen, and my days of cuddling and holding hands with him are long gone, and sadly, even hugs are less frequent. Instead, I get to enjoy my almost-man as he sits next to me during the long car rides, talking and laughing, and rooting and cheering for him on and off the field. So every time I’m about to complain about my achy, sore back; the occasional traffic; driving in the horrid, snowy conditions; feeling anger over the one speeding ticket I got; wondering why the hell I am doing this; and convincing myself that he better play division-one lacrosse in college and earn a big, fat scholarship, I force myself to stop and remember that all this driving isn’t about that; it’s about living in the moment with my son, who is learning how to spread his wings before he’s ready to take off one day and conquer the world.
I view life as a series of tests. How we handle these tests speaks volumes about who we are and how we grow as human beings. Many of these lessons that the Universe hands us stem from our relationships with people, animals, and our environment. At forty-five years old, I’ve certainly had my share of tests, and although I carry a few scars from my past, all of them have healed and given me an inner strength that has shaped the person I am today.
My most recent test has to do with my Bernese mountain dog, Otis. We bought Otis from a breeder when he was an eight-week-old puppy. I know all puppies are cute, but our little guy was so adorable that I, and everyone who knew him, melted in his presence. He quickly grew into a one hundred and twenty-five-pound giant. Otis was so handsome that every time I looked at him, he took my breath away. If he were a man, I’d relate his striking appearance to George Clooney, his goofy personality to Chris Farley, and his loving soul to Mother Teresa.
I was proud to be Otis’s dog mamma. I took him everywhere. He was, after all, my best accessory. Walking him around Aspen gave me celebrity status. Every few paces, someone would stop me, ask questions about him, and take his picture. If he could write, I’m sure he would have been signing autographs. Living in a dog-friendly town, he was allowed in many retail stores. Even better, I could take him to the lounge inside The Little Nell, one of the most luxurious hotels in Aspen, to meet friends for a cocktail and a snack, and where he was treated like royalty with complimentary treats and fresh water.
Otis was my perfect hiking buddy. I spent a few days a week––rain, snow, or sun––with him by side, exercising together in nature. In the summer months, dogs are allowed on the Silver Queen gondola on Aspen Mountain, so Otis and I would trek up the arduous trail, one of the most grueling workouts in town, and then we’d ride down the gondola, both of us joyfully exhausted.
Then one day, our active life together came to a sudden halt. His back hips had given out on him. I had never had a Bernese mountain dog before. I knew they didn’t have a long life span, but that wasn’t something I spent too much time thinking about. Despite his debilitating condition, he was alert and happy, so putting him down wasn’t something I considered. Since surgery didn’t seem like viable option at his age, I did some research online and decided to buy him a doggy wheelchair. I imagined that it would solve all our problems, picturing in my mind the two of us frolicking around town, walking around the block, maybe even hiking together again.
As soon as the wheelchair arrived, I worked tirelessly helping him get used to it and feeling comfortable. I didn’t realize how challenging this task would be, but I was determined to not give up, even though we had some scary and upsetting incidents. One time, the left wheel went over a large rock and flipped him over. Getting him out wasn’t easy, and although he wasn’t hurt, he was shaking violently afterward. I waited a day or two and tried it again. We slowly made a little more progress. Feeling more confident after he made it up and down the driveway one afternoon, I ran up the steps to our house and left him alone for a moment. When he saw me leave, he tried to follow me. Big mistake. He fell backward. After I frantically unlatched the wheelchair and helped him out, we were both stressed and unnerved.
I tried to give him some time off from the wheelchair, but he could barely walk outside to relieve himself. If I held onto his back hips for support, I could get him out. Struggling to get into a pooping position, he sometimes collapsed in it, and the poop would get smeared into his long fur. This meant I would have to wash him, and he wasn’t too fond of me spraying the hose up his butt to clean out the area. But again, I was not going to give up on my boy. I was going to keep trying, determined to get him moving in that wheelchair, hoping to give him some semblance of freedom and happiness in his last few years. I thought of his situation as a test—for me, not for him. And I was going to pass the test no matter what. Soon enough, things started to look better. I was taking him a little farther every day in the wheelchair, until we encountered a new issue: his back paws were dragging so badly on the pavement that he had developed bloody sores. To remedy the situation, I bought him booties, which he didn’t like to wear, but at least they did a good job of protecting his paws. Soon enough, I managed to get him around the block. It felt like a miracle. His life seemed to be improving. At least that’s what I told myself.
He could no longer walk at all, unless he was using the wheelchair. In the house, he was confined to a small corner on the lower level, near an outside door. He couldn’t even move positions when lying down. Lifting him into the wheelchair was giving me tremendous back pain. But I had no choice. I had to help him. Sometimes when I would pull him into the wheelchair in the morning, he would defecate on himself. Yet still, I wasn’t giving up on Otis. Meanwhile, he had a horrific odor coming from his body. At first, I assumed it was because he hadn’t been properly groomed in a long time and he probably still had poop clumped into his fur. I tried cutting his matted hair, and I bathed his backside as best I could. For the next few days, the smell was getting progressively worse. Suddenly, it dawned on me: the vile odor wasn’t from his fur, it was coming from a bad cut on his lower hip. I had to get him to the vet ASAP.
Upon arriving at the vet, the staff helped me carry my massive Berner into the examining room on a stretcher. The doctor shaved the area around his wound, revealing a massive green and puss filled laceration. I was told that I would need to dress it and treat it a few times a day for the next few months to cure the infection. No big deal, I thought. But then, the vet pointed out that putting him into the wheelchair was probably pulling on the wound, which would make it more difficult to heal. She then suggested, in a soft and kind voice, that I might want to consider euthanizing him.
The timing, of course, was my decision, and she in no way wanted to pressure me. Nonetheless, her words felt like a knife slicing my heart in two. I asked if we could put him into the wheelchair to assess whether the back strap was adding further damage to the wound. Thankfully, when we got him in it, he seemed okay. The veterinarian left me alone for a few minutes to call my husband. While I was on the phone with him, I watched Otis moving around the room uncomfortably in his wheelchair, his back legs dragging, the infection oozing. It was in that moment that I realized letting him go would be more humane than stubbornly believing I should never give up. I made the appointment for the following morning.
My husband, kids, and I spent our last night with Otis cuddling, crying, kissing, crying some more, and hugging him as we all fell asleep on the floor by his side. With a heavy heart, we woke up the next day and placed him in his wheelchair for the last time. I watched him walk up and down our lawn, eating snow. From his front side, he looked healthy, alert, and as handsome as ever. His back side told a different story. For the past few months, I had believed I was being tested. I had convinced myself that with perseverance and faith I would pass the test. But maybe the test wasn’t about how strong I needed to be; maybe it was about learning when to let go. Nothing is forever. And letting go is part of the natural cycle of life. I was so blinded by my determination to help Otis that I couldn’t see the truth. He was staying alive, suffering in that wheelchair for me. As much as it pained me to make the decision to euthanize Otis, I knew it was the right thing to do. He had no quality of life left.
The wound in my heart is still fresh and open as I write this post; although, when I close my eyes, I see Otis vividly––walking in front of me, no longer in a wheelchair. He’s running into my arms, filling me with his boundless affection. I hold him. I kiss him. I thank him for giving me what he came here to teach me: unconditional love and the foresight to know that letting go is also a gift.
Years ago, I taught eighth grade. One morning before the students arrived, I stopped in the bathroom. My mother always told me to put toilet paper on the seat of a public toilet seat before sitting on it. So, as usual, I did. After relieving myself, I pulled my pants up, and unbeknownst to me, the toilet paper came up too, hanging from my pants like a tail.
Strutting through the hallway toward my class, I noticed kids giggling when I passed them, but I didn’t pay too much attention. Word spread quickly, and by the time I made it to my classroom, everyone knew about the teacher with the toilet paper sticking out of her pants. Needless to say, my students could not focus when I told them to simmer down after the bell rang. Finally, someone raised their hand and said, “Mrs. Gurtman, you might want to go back to the bathroom!”Hearing this, I instinctively knew. Reaching behind my back, I pulled the long wad of toilet paper out as fast as I could and threw it into the trash. My face turned the color of an atomic fireball before a fit of laughter spilled out of me and my students.
Somehow, I made it through the rest of the morning. At lunch, the laughter continued when I discussed it with my teacher friends. One of my colleagues kindly told me that the incident would give me a better connection to my students because it made me seem human. Had this happened when I was an eighth-grade student, I probably wouldn’t have been able to shake it off as quickly. But it was funny, and it became a running joke throughout the year that my students and I could giggle about.
When I was writing Lost and Found in Aspen, I created a similar scene for the protagonist, Hope. Throughout the story, she experiences a few embarrassing situations. I included these humiliating scenes with the intention of adding humor to the story, as well as making her more human, attempting to conjure up empathy in the reader as they stepped inside Hope’s life—for the good and the bad––to laugh and to cry.
Another important piece of advice my mother told me when I was a little girl was to marry someone who made me laugh. And I did. My husband is hilarious. Thanks, Mom, for teaching me to protect my butt from getting strange diseases from a dirty toilet seat and emphasizing the importance of humor in my life––because laughter, after all, is medicine for the soul.
A friend of mine, whose children were in high school when my daughter was in preschool, once gave me great advice about spending time in the car with her kids. She referred to the car as the safe place where her kids could freely express themselves without judgement from their mother. “The truth came out on those drives,” she told me. Her teenagers would openly discuss issues they were having about anything from sex to drinking to friends. At the time, when my friend shared the car-therapy tip with me, I could not relate. After all, my kids were toddlers, so we spent most of our time listening to The Wiggles, playing the same songs over and over again. I did, however, tuck what my friend had told me in the back of my mind.
I am currently in the thick of raising teenagers. My daughter is a junior in high school, and in two short years, she will be heading off to college. The clock is ticking fast. A few months ago, she got her license, which finally meant a little less time I would have to spend as my children’s personal chauffeur. When I first found out that she isn’t allowed to park the car at school until she’s a senior, I was bummed––because the driving break I had been dreaming about wasn’t coming that fast. I would still need to make the round-trip drive to and from school a few times a day, depending on my kids’ activities. But then I flipped the switch in my mind, and rather than complain about being an unpaid mom-Uber driver, I decided to embrace the time alone with my kids. As soon as my daughter leaves for the next chapter in her life, my son, who is in eighth grade, will get his license, and then my days of driving my kids and their friends everywhere will end abruptly.
Once my mindset changed, I remembered the valuable advice my friend had given me a decade ago. And she was right. It’s the one place where I hear it all. At school pickup, I listen to the details about their day—the good and the bad, trying to help them sort through issues. When I drive their friends, I overhear their conversations, learn how they treat one another, and find out what they’re up to. Sometimes I ask questions like I’m an investigative reporter, collecting information that I may not have heard if I wasn’t driving a group of kids around. Even better, the truth comes out when it’s just me alone with one of my children. I know who is vaping, who is drinking, where the parties are, who might be experimenting with drugs. I’m careful not to sound too nosy or annoying. I just remind them that it’s safe inside the car and they can talk freely—and most of the time they do.
Studies have shown how important it is for families to sit down together for dinner as often as they can. With sports, games, activities, and studying, family dinners are not always viable in our house. But let’s face it—it’s not about the meal––it’s about engaging with our children. So the car is where we connect with each other; it’s where I get to hold on to them a little longer. It doesn’t mean I talk to them incessantly on every car ride. We can sit in silence too, or sing out loud to pop music, or laugh at my son’s choice of inappropriate rap music. Every now and then, I glance at their profiles, noticing a ripe pimple here and there, and I admire their beautiful and changing faces. Most importantly, I savor each moment, enjoying the precious and limited time we have before I send them into the world. In another decade, I will have to find new ways to bond with my children as they journey through the next phases of their lives. For now, I will stop complaining about how many times I have to schlep my kids around town, and instead welcome it––grateful that I can.
“The Ebb and Flow of Aspen,” a poem by Lori Gurtman.
Weeks before, months after
The longest day of the year
Sunlight streams down
Tourists swell the town
Hotels and restaurants come alive
Patrons spend and businesses thrive
People frolic outdoors
Rafting, biking, hiking galore
Under the stars, swaying to the beat
Concerts entertain crowds on the street
But in the middle of peak season
Locals complain with good reason
Cars, bikes, and pedestrians
Create traffic and congestion
Cooler weather signals transition
And school begins a new session
Dance from Aspen trees
Visitors leave without a trace
Finally, an open parking space
Winter is officially here
The shortest day of the year
Christmas lights shimmer and glow
Mountains pile high with snow
On the slopes skiers and snowboarders abound
Playing like children on a powdery playground
Enjoying après before they dine
Sipping cocktails and fine wine
Smiling proprietors count their bills
Fattening their bank accounts until
Vacationers fly home on jets
And the town once again resets
Snow melts, flowers bloom, bluebirds sing
Earth permeates with the scents of spring
Aspen remains quiet for a little while
As the ebb and flow begins a new cycle