Posted November 2019
I wasn’t thinking about writing when it happened. The only thing I was thinking about was how cold I was and how I really wanted to go back to the lodge, take off my ski boots, and settle in for a long anticipated Baileys and coffee.
They say smell is our strongest trigger sense in terms of memory, but in my opinion, cold might top it. It had been over forty years, and in all that time, I don’t believe I had even once thought about what happened to my brother and me the day we hiked into the mountains with our dad, our Uncle Bob, and his two boys.
But there I was, shivering between my kids on a chairlift, and that long-ago memory flooded in. I was eight. My brother Jeff was ten. Andrew and David, my “uncle’s” boys were seven and nine (Uncle Bob wasn’t actually my uncle but was my dad’s best friend). When we started walking, the day was cool and crisp. But when we neared the top of the trail, a violent storm blew in, turning the weather frightfully cold. We weren’t dressed for that sort of weather, and we were hours from the base of the mountain. Worried we wouldn’t make it down, Uncle Bob and my dad made the decision to break into an abandoned hunting cabin to get us out of the storm.
My dad volunteered to run down for help, leaving Jeff and me to wait with Uncle Bob and his boys. My recollection of the hours we spent waiting for help to arrive is somewhat vague except for my visceral memory of the cold: my body shivering uncontrollably and my mind unable to think straight.
The four of us kids sat on a wooden bench that stretched the length of the small cabin, and Uncle Bob knelt on the floor in front of us. I remember his boys being scared and crying and Uncle Bob talking a lot, telling them it was going to be okay and that “Uncle Jerry” would be back soon. As he soothed their fear, he moved back and forth between them, removing their gloves and boots and rubbing each of their hands and feet in turn.
Jeff and I sat beside them, silent. I took my cue from my brother. He didn’t complain, so neither did I. Perhaps this is why Uncle Bob never thought to rub our fingers and toes the way he did his own boys’. Perhaps he didn’t realize we, too, were suffering.
It’s a generous view, one that as an adult with children of my own I have a hard time accepting. Had the situation been reversed, my dad never would have ignored Uncle Bob’s sons. He might even have tended to them more than he did his own kids, knowing how scared they would have been being there without their parents.
Near dusk, a rescue jeep arrived, and we were shuttled down the mountain to waiting paramedics. Uncle Bob’s boys were fine—cold and exhausted, hungry and thirsty, but otherwise unharmed. I was diagnosed with frostnip on my fingers, which it turned out was not so bad. It hurt as my hands were warmed back to life, but as soon as the circulation was restored, I was fine. Jeff, on the other hand, had first-degree frostbite. His gloves needed to be cut from his fingers, and the skin beneath was chafed, white, and blistered. It was horrible to see, and I remember thinking how much it must have hurt, the damage so much worse than my own.
No one, including my parents, ever asked Jeff or me what happened in the cabin or questioned why we were injured and Uncle Bob’s boys were not, and Uncle Bob and his wife continued to be my parents’ best friends.
As I rode the chairlift with my kids, thinking about that long-forgotten day, I was struck by how callous and uncaring Uncle Bob, a man I’d known my whole life and who I believed loved us, had been and also how unashamed he was after. I remember him laughing with the sheriff, like the whole thing was this great big adventure that had fortunately turned out okay. I think he even viewed himself as sort of a hero, boasting about how he’d broken the window and about his smart thinking to lead us to the cabin in the first place. When he got home, he probably told his wife about rubbing their sons’ hands and feet and about how he’d consoled them and never let them get scared.
I looked at my own children beside me, and a shudder ran down my spine as I thought about all the times I had entrusted them to other people in the same way my dad had entrusted us to Uncle Bob, counting on the same naive presumption that a tacit agreement existed for my children to be cared for equally to their own. Amusement parks, the beach, the mall, vacations nearby and afar—each time assuming my kids would be looked after and that they would be in good hands.
In An Instant is about a catastrophe, but the real story takes place after the catalyst, in the aftermath of the calamity, when the ramifications of the choices each of the survivors made come back to haunt them. I’ve always believed regret is the most difficult emotion to live with, but in order to have regret, you need to have a conscience: an interesting paradox that allows the worst of us to suffer the least in the aftermath of wrongdoing.
Intentionally, each character ends up culpable, forced to make impossible choices that had irrevocable consequences. Most of us would like to believe we would do the right thing in the face of catastrophe. I wanted to question that assumption and force even the most moral characters to have their goodness tested, pitting it against their desire to survive and testing their loyalties—to their loved ones, their friends, a stranger—and shattering the heroic view they held of themselves.
The story is narrated by Finn, a sixteen-year-old girl who dies in the accident, her fly-on-the-wall perspective allowing an unveiled look at the characters even in the moments they believe they are alone. In a sense, this was a way of capturing the viewpoint I had as an adult looking back at the incident of my childhood as opposed to how I viewed it as an eight-year-old frightened little girl.
When I started writing, in my mind, Uncle Bob was a straight-up villain—a sinister, irredeemable character who would serve as the personification of immorality in contrast to decency. But as the story unfolded, he developed into a far more sympathetic character than I originally imagined. I don’t know if it came out of my natural inclination to see humans, no matter how flawed, as innately good, or if perhaps I gained perspective as time went on, but Uncle Bob ended up being a complex character who was both easy to hate and easy to feel sorry for. He still crossed a line that could not be uncrossed, but when things began to unravel in the aftermath, I actually found myself feeling bad for him and hoping things might not turn out as dismal as they seemed.
Perhaps my sympathy came from being warm and dry and no longer on a chairlift with my two kids beside me, the sleepy security of my nice, safe life lulling me into forgiveness and softening the true stark coldness of that long-ago day.