Nation’s capital irony at its best. Turbulence in the skies all around the District. And on the night of the Republican debate.
It was to be a routine flight from Charlotte to Dulles International Airport. Upon our descent to Washington, D.C., the air was suddenly, but not entirely unexpectedly, unstable. Storms were forecasted.
The feeling was like that of an old wooden roller coaster. Creaks and moans from the CRJ900 fuselage, designed to move with the pressure. Speed, mixed with sudden climbs and drops.
At the first noticeable drop—probably only a few feet in reality, but always feels like a bungee free fall—a moderately intoxicated New York Mets fan in seat 19F acted like he was in a Red Bull commercial and offered a loud, “Gnarly!” The mother with the crying toddler, doing what mothers do so instinctively in an exercise in patience and comfort, offered soothing words with long vowels and rhythmic “Shhhhhhhhh’s”.
In all those years of flying this was familiar to me, but still unsettling for those moments navigating nature’s tension. I did what seems to come more naturally with age. I experience gratefulness over fear. Compromise over anxiety. It is at these times, even when they aren’t as threatening, that my book is closed and replaced with personal reflection. It is when God gets his moments missed because the distractions on the ground and the self that creeps in robs our conversations.
Coincidentally, it was another American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Nashville years ago that felt similar. The Red Eye. At around 2:00 A.M., I was awakened by the oxygen mask falling from the compartment above and brushing my face. This was followed by the captain announcing that the bags had deployed only as a precaution and to await instructions from our flight attendants. The cabin had an eerie quiet. Moments later, the attendants asked that we place them on as a “precautionary measure only.” Then began the nervous conversations. Seconds later the captain announced that we were going to make an emergency landing in San Antonio, Texas, and that we please follow the attendants’ instructions. We were asked, in a calm, but serious tone, to “assume emergency landing position.” Then, the cabin changed. It was a blend of soft crying; prayers for safety and prayers for deliverance; wide-eyed silence mixed with shaking knees and hands. The two ladies next to me, first time fliers, asked me over and over, “Are we going to be okay?” My response was that we were in good hands and the pilot is just keeping us safe by landing the plane so we could take care of any problem. One held my hand—rather crushed it—the rest of the way down.
Following a very rapid descent, we landed without incident . There were hugs and clapping hands and “Sweeet Jesus’s.” After deplaning, almost every passenger waited in the dimly lit and empty terminal to greet the pilots and the attendants with a welcome rivaling that of a confetti filled city street parade for the winning team. We learned later that a hydraulic problem could have led to other more serious problems and the landing was, in fact, a “precaution.”
I had said my goodbye’s to the kids. I wondered about those things left undone. I inventoried and was exaggeratedly saddened over my regrets. I had remained calm, but I do recall watering eyes and an escaped tear or two. I clutched my journal. I scribbled a few words.
This time, over D.C., was less extreme. The danger less eminent, but still haunting for the moments. My response was that of a more seasoned rider. One who is familiar with and respectful of the danger, but also has an idea of where the story might go. Kind of like a rodeo cowboy, I guess. The older, and perhaps wiser rider knows the bull’s fury, but also has some idea of his moves and the probable outcome.
Instead of being afraid, there was a bit of mild pleading mixed with, “Wouldn’t it suck if’s”
Wouldn’t it suck if…
…I didn’t finish recording Mom’s song?
…Lisa and I never got to spread her father’s ashes on a NASCAR track?
…I never got to hear the little victories and major breakthroughs in Chelsea’s career of helping others through their grief and loss? Or to be taught by her, inspired by her, and challenged by her?
…I missed more time sharing the littlest things with Logan that were missed for so long and now consume me with gratitude because they were there in those months stationed nearby? Or to watch the young love with his Jenny become what it is sure to become.
…We didn’t dive and experience the wonders of the sea I write about and that has eluded me all these years.
…I didn’t finish my book(s), or those songs, or those poems?
…I didn’t hear the voices or see the smiles and wipe the tears of a next generation?
…I didn’t ride that mountain pass that has been taunting me these last four years?
…I didn’t ask the questions, or acknowledge the fears, or make the statements, or live as well as I planned to?
…I didn’t shake my pain and fear and embrace the love and affection that, like a rising and magical tide, is all around me.
It’s funny how the bumps and rocking in the sky jar memories that were gathered quietly in my mind and heart, as if data portioned on a drive waiting to be recalled. The smallest things that mean so much flood immediately like a time lapse trailer. Laughs; lots of laughs. Quiet affection. Friends who love so deeply that whether known for months or years are always there, and when you least expect it. Forgiveness. Healing. Riding. Talk of the unimportant and the so very important. Fearfully and then courageously and respectfully facing my own mortality Rowing. Missing my family so much. Grateful for the family I have found. The books and the wine and the dreams. Grasping the vulnerable and staring down the ego that so plagues joy. The predictable moments in the same seats with the same servers and the same dishes and the same or the new conversations that seal and then open the the goodness of these days of mid-life.
And so much more.
The sky calmed around us. The groans and the soft prayers and the anxious conversations acquiesced to talk of flight connections and business deals. Books reopened. Laptops awakened. Cabin lights dimmed.
I offered thanks, but didn’t allow the gratefulness to wane as I made my way to the rental lot and took the rainy drive to my hotel in this great city.
I don’t know how long I will walk and ride and and row and hold hands on this planet. I know I am making my peace and learning about it at the same time. I know love and I offer it back. I find life more mysterious and wonderful and interesting and live-able than in all the years before.
Bring on the storms. We land!