How a family roller disco saved our winter

roller skates on the floor of a rink

By Samantha Shanley

What I love most about a New England winter is that you never know exactly what you’re going to get. 

My three children and I are skiers, so we prefer our winter woods plump, her blankets laid for us alone. But we have also known the body of a feeble, wasted year. We have seen the lonely sugar maples poking out of the dirt, their trunks bereft of a whipped, robust freeze. 

A capricious winter makes the world we know feel new again.

On New Year’s Day of this year, my 13-year-old son was skiing in a terrain park when he overshot a jump and landed on the flat slope, buckling his tibia. It was a high-impact fracture that the orthopedic surgeon said was uncommon in children. 

I had hoped that spending time outside together would lead us through the most brutal phase of this pandemic. Instead, our glorious winter dream slipped away. 

In the past five years, my family has survived a divorce, the death of our beloved dog, a nearly-exploded appendix, and another accident in which my son was hit by a car and survived. We know that no one gets a pass on the hard stuff just because they have suffered before.

With our winter gone awry, I wanted to come up with the very best of better plans.

At dinner on a melancholy Tuesday, it came to me. Come springtime, I announced, we would have a family roller disco party in the house. 

My children looked up from their tortellini, their mouths hanging open like caught fish.

When they turned to one another and grinned, I knew I ought to go on manufacturing details. 

It was simple, I said. Around the time when my son’s leg had healed, the four of us would push the furniture to the side, roll up the living room carpet, and have an actual roller disco party in the house.

Never mind that I hadn’t skated in decades, or that the only time four years earlier when my daughter had gone out for a spin, she’d fallen and broken her arm. Our living room was not big, but at least when we needed to hold on we’d be able to cling to the walls. 

We ordered indoor roller skates, a disco ball, rainbow strobe lights, and metallic fringe to stick over the doorways. We dubbed ourselves Wheelz Fantastic, Doctor Speed, Maple Trax, and Jolly Tortilla—a mighty roller squad, indeed. We plotted signature moves and began assembling costumes to complete our looks. 

There I was, merry in mid-January, shopping online for a purple sequined tube top and gold, “wet-look” track shorts. 

It felt almost unhinged, but that was the point.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I clung to various fragments of my old world—relationships, recipes, a certain kind of freedom. Even so, without all the ordinary distractions, whatever I learned about myself and others was jammed into an agonizing sliver of time. On most days, I felt like an anaconda who had eaten a hippopotamus and was just lying there, praying that her body knew how to absorb it all. 

Lately, I feel the glimmer of infinite hope. Challenge is part of living a good, full life—I know. And so we get on with it, the way we always have, by reimagining what comes next. 

Last week after breakfast, my youngest son was tooling around the kitchen on roller skates while I was cleaning out the cat box. 

“Thanks for not joking about letting us have a roller disco party!” he said brightly. 

Later, still on skates, he joined a scheduled Zoom call with his third-grade class. When it was finally his turn to share a fun fact about himself, he was so excited he nearly shouted.

“My mom is letting us have a roller disco party in the hou-!” 

But before he could finish his sentence, he slipped and fell, accidentally hucking his computer across the room. It landed, catawampus to the floor. Chunks of plastic split off and ricocheted against the fridge. Analog detritus from a virtual world. My son looked up at me from that calamitous pile of rubble on the kitchen floor. He was fine. But for a minute, we both cried. It was hard to see him flip from a moment of joy to one of embarrassment, disappointment, and guilt over breaking the one tool we had to connect him to his former, regular life.

After we’d bought a new computer with added insurance protection, we pulled out our disco sunglasses. We practiced skating around the first floor of the house. We boogied to the playlist we’d been building. We made brownies on wheels. All of that excitement took place within the bounds of anticipation. If the party didn’t happen for some reason, like so many other events over the past year—so be it. We would always have our skates. We would always have the Bee Gees. 

My older son with the broken leg is bored, but that will pass. He watches as we skate around him for now, and I think he is amused. He builds Lego sets for teenagers. He’s playing the piano again. He lights his sister’s stray hairs on fire as the candles burn down after dinner. 

It occurs to me that we are actually practicing in real time how to reimagine just about anything—our expectations for winter, a year gone haywire, the latent hope that the world we inhabit will live up to our ideals. The way to reimagine one thing is to put another in its place, no matter how far-fetched it may seem. We trust that the rest will settle around us, expressing the tale of our renewed and flush heart. 

Last week, I awoke to a nightmare in which my younger son, miles away from me and under someone else’s care, tromped through the woods on skis, flattening the trees in his path, just to track me down and ask me what was for dinner.

We are all living through a time that we feel we cannot escape.

In it, the isolation yields the most suffering. That’s the feeling of fear that no one else understands your pain. That’s the feeling of certainty that only you are undergoing some sort of regression when, in a different world, you might be able to make some progress. 

In truth, we are always moving forward. Over the course of all the planning and excitement, the broken tibia and computer, I know this. I have cycled in and out of despair long enough. Our roller disco will be a celebration of survival, a catchpenny affair, meant to launch us into the season of renewal. We have asked friends and family to join us from their own homes—anyone who wants to can join us. And when they do, let it be a wonder that we have all emerged, having learned a thing or two of how to be here, alive, even now.

Samantha Shanley teaches nonfiction at GrubStreet writer’s center in Boston, where she leads her family of three children, along with her ex-husband and co-parent. Her roller disco getup has evolved to include fake fur and a pair of bell bottoms—she’ll look like a long-haired Elton John on wheels.

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