The word came down three days before Christmas. It came from the siblings gathered 650 miles away.

It was the call you know can come at any time, and yet you still are never ready for it.

Mom. Cancer.

Yes, theoretically it is possible. None of us is immune to the diagnosis. Young. Old. Male. Female. Anyone. Any time.

But now it's Mom. Eighty-two years old. Working three days a week until last week. Tough, wiry, self-sufficient Mom.

We still know little. We will learn more in the next few days. The alternatives will be laid before us. Mom will choose a path. And all of us will march down it together.

This is nothing new. Thousands have been here before us. It is simply our turn now. My siblings and I will rally as millions of siblings have rallied before us. The doctors will guide us as they have guided so many before.

I want to be by Mom's side, but I've chosen this life in the North, and I cannot be with her, not at this moment.

I hang up the phone. I have plans to meet friends at Korkki Nordic, a lovely and intimate cross-country ski trail outside of Duluth. I gather my gear and go.

It's cold out -- 5 degrees. Weak winter light sifts through the balsams and the popples. The track is good if not fast. I slide along with my two longtime friends. I have shared my news with them.

Though I am skiing with my friends, I am also skiing with Mom. Silently, I thank her for giving me life, for raising me to pursue my dreams, for never objecting when I wanted to move to this latitude.

But I worry, too. For her, for what she might have to endure in the weeks and months ahead. But also for my own mortality. For my odds. I know. It's a selfish reaction. But I cannot help wondering.

The trail has never been more beautiful. Fresh snow cakes the firs. Branches tap us on the shoulder as we pass. I suck lungfuls of pure December air. My lungs send the oxygen to triceps and quadriceps. Blood courses from my heart to the tips of fingers and toes, makes a U-turn and comes back for more oxygen.

We climb the big hill on a northern exposure among the blue shadows. Then, at the top, we make the turn to the west, into the pastel light. It seems as if we're skiing through peach yogurt.

We fly down the big hill, once more snatching a clean run from the brink of calamity. We coast to a halt at the bottom. We lean on our poles, catching our breath. One of my friends has already left us, so it is just the two of us now, friends of 25 years.

"There are a lot of good reasons to be alive," he says.

I know precisely what he means. The trail. The fresh snow. Winter in the north. Today. This moment.

That is all we have, of course. There are no guarantees about tomorrow. We know that every day in our heads.

And some days, we know it in our hearts.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or