It was a clear day in Dallas, Texas a few days before Christmas in 1970. A man, a woman and three little girls climbed into a small airplane to return home to McAllen, Tx. after a wonderful visit with extended family. The man was my stepfather and pilot of the plane. Strong and powerful in stature, he was a retired Colonel in the Air Force and also happened to be a medical doctor specializing in Psychiatry. The woman, of course, was my mother. She was a stunningly beautiful, tiny, fragile thing, both physically and emotionally and was noticeably sad to be leaving her family. The three little girls were myself and my two older sisters. I was five years old. They were nine and ten. We were all feeling a bit sullen and deflated...already missing our aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins. I was buckled into the seat belt with my eldest sister. This seems particularly poignant to me as at that time in my life, she and I were always joined at the hip, as it were. This day would be no different. My middle sister had a bit more space but truthfully, we were scrunched in with all kinds of kid paraphernalia; snacks, pillows, stuffed animals, and even a home-rigged 'port-o-potty.' (Just in case). The picture you see below is my sister, Sarah and me a couple of hours into the flight. She looks nervous and I appear bored and unhappy. I also look like a boy.
What follows is a pieced together recollection from my five-year-old memory and what others have recounted to me over the years. There was an approaching cold front which had pushed us off course. My step-dad, though he was an excellent pilot, had made a miscalculation and we ended up beyond the Mexican border. As he was fighting head-winds, trying to get us back home the plane simply ran out of gas. Night had fallen. I remember the clear sky from my view between the two front seats. I remember the stars were brilliant. I remember the noise and then the sudden, abrupt, terrifying silence. I get chills just writing about the deafening unexpected silence. I remember my parents talking excitedly to one another. I remember hearty curses from my step-dad and crying from my mother. I don't recall either of them speaking to us though they surely must have done. I remember my big sister speaking soft words of comfort beyond what should be expected of a ten year old. My sister Ann, sat calmly and quietly on the other side of me. I remember the engine sputtering to life only to die again. And again. It was terribly silent. And then I remember falling.
We crashed into a grapefruit orchard in Mission, Tx. 7 Miles from the McAllen airport. Stepdad had angled the right wing down and it broke off on impact, flipping the plane upside-down. I woke up first, stunned but excited and full of adrenaline. Not realizing we were upside down I reached to unbuckle the seat belt and fell head first into the roof of the plane. I was able to wiggle out of a window and was running around the plane in circles shouting "Mommy, Mommy, we had a crash!" I have fractured, fuzzy memories after that. Miraculously, though with varying degrees of cuts, bumps and bruises, we all walked away from that crumpled tin can of a plane. Walked arm in arm singing a wobbly version of 'Jingle Bells' as my mother held her torn lip together with a handkerchief she must have gotten from my step-dad. That was what the headline under the picture of our wrecked plane on the front page of the McAllen Monitor said the next day. 'They Walked Away." We were out in the middle of nowhere and yet, astoundingly, a man had been driving nearby and saw our plane go down. He did his best to locate the crash site and drove us all to the nearby hospital. Looking back over that day through my adult eyes, I see God's presence and protection all over the place. Do I understand why He let it happen? No. Am I grateful He saw fit to protect us and save us? Absolutely yes.
Why tell this story now? Because this week we will be flying to Maine and as you might imagine I have a love/hate relationship with airplanes. I love watching them fly. I love airshows and listening to the raw power of the engines and the sheer impossibility of it all. Flying fascinates me. When I'm on the ground, that is. Unfortunately, this fascination ends the minute I step into an airplane and is often replaced by anxiety and nervousness and the thought that 'these things go DOWN and I should know because I've been on one that did!! I'm often filled with the desire to turn around and run right back out onto terra firma. But I don't. I still fly. I'm much better now than I used to be. Back in the day, years ago, people knew to come pick me up from the airport expecting the worst. I might have had too much wine. Or be loopy from Xanax. Or, if I'm honest, maybe a little bit of both. As my faith has increased over the years, I have learned to trust God with my safety and surrender to Him. I don't indulge in alcohol at all anymore and can't be on happy pills while traveling with 3 kids. So it's just me and God. Standing as steadily as I can on the 'solid rock' while hurtling through the air going 500 miles an hour at 35,000 feet.
I used to fall into the trap of having the 'right' to be afraid. I can't tell you how many times people have said to me "If that were me, I would never fly again!" or "you have every right to be scared to death after what happened to you." I won't lie...I bought into this for a long, long time. After all, I have the perfect excuse to be in bondage to fear of flying for the rest of my life. But why in the world would I want that? I finally had an amazing breakthrough a couple of years ago on a flight to New York City headed to go sing at Yankee Stadium with Joel Osteen and the rest of the Lakewood choir and team. I was traveling with my precious friend, Alicia who was believing and praying with me for my fear of flying to be taken away. I realized that I had to make a choice. I remembered hearing someone at church say God is everything or He is nothing. On an airplane or on solid ground He is in control. He has never failed me before and I have no reason to believe He ever will. I was more at peace on that flight and the return home than ever before.
So, am I cured? Yes and no. Even though I'm much more at peace and believe totally that God will get me to my 'final destination' in one piece, there are still some psychological scars and when the plane dips or descends rapidly and I have a sense of falling, my fight or flight (punny!) response kicks in and my heart rate goes up and I do feel anxious. The difference now is that I can quickly pray myself back into a place of peace and even enjoy myself and my family without freaking out. It gets better every time. For me, that's huge. I'm proud of my progress and am thankful that God is helping me work it out as He sees fit. You know, if you just figure it on odds alone, the odds of me ever being in another plane crash are pretty incalculable. If you think about it, I'm the perfect person to fly with! Yes, airplanes do go down. It's a direct consequence of them going up in the first place. They have to. It's the best part of the trip. Mine will go up and then down and gently land onto the runway in Maine and again when we return to Houston. I have no doubt in my mind.
Fear is a big fake. I can think of a thousand times I've fallen into fear and worry and anxiety over things that either never happened or weren't nearly as bad as I had imagined. Don't make the same mistake I did and allow a frightening event to shape your view of life or to limit you from being your best version of yourself. God can turn even the most terrifying and tragic events of your life into an opportunity for learning or even better, to bless you or someone else. Turn your back on your fears and turn into the loving embrace of Almighty God. At the risk of sounding completely cheesy; break free of whatever is holding you back, spread your wings and fly.
I leave you with this: A flight attendant on Southwest Airlines said this after a particularly bumpy landing. "Folks have a nice evening and thanks for flying with us. Please remember that rough landing that you just experienced was not the airlines' fault, the flight attendants' fault or the pilot's fault. It was the Asphalt."
*Note: At the time of writing this post I am still hopeful that I will find the copy of the newspaper clipping with the photo of the wreckage. I thought I knew exactly where it was but apparently I 'hid' it from myself by putting it in a special place where I couldn't lose it. As soon as it turns up I will update this post with the picture.