“You can’t always get what you want; but if you try sometimes, well you might find, you get what you need.” —Jagger/Richards
You may think my fear of flying is irrational; if so, don’t expect me to sympathize with you over your fear of spiders, or water, or whatever it is you dread. To you, it’s very real, just as my fear is very real to me. So when my boss told me about a month ago that my presence would be required at the company’s annual meeting in Dallas, I briefly considered driving, but it quickly became obvious that the only way I could make the meeting and return home without taking personal time would be to (gulp) fly.
It’s Sunday morning and yesterday’s snow storm lingers. My fiancée is late picking me up and so my stress rises to another level. Colleen finally arrives, thirty minutes late, and I have visions of missing my flight, which is, not surprising, a comforting thought; but we arrive at the airport by eleven o’clock. I grab my bag and briefcase and, behind her SUV, I hug and kiss her for what I’m sure will be the last time. She tells me that everything will be fine and that she’ll call me at my hotel later.
Once inside the Delta terminal, I manage to get my boarding pass printed (I’d checked in the day before over the Internet) and check my bag. The agent informs me that there will be an additional $25 charge for the bag. I argue that the website told me I was entitled to one free bag. She counters that that refers to my carryon. I sigh, knowing it’s useless to argue against her logic. She hands me my baggage claim ticket and I’m off to security to, in my mind, be strip searched and delayed long enough that I will miss my flight, which, in the end, wouldn’t be so terrible a thing. But I manage to skate through, having only to empty my pockets and my briefcase x-rayed.
I follow the signs to my gate, 074—thirty-seven gates away.
Once I arrive at my gate, I glance at my watch to find I have maybe twenty minutes before they commence boarding, so I sit and wait. Eventually the gate agent calls for zone one passengers and, a few minutes later, zone two passengers. In line with the other zone two passengers, I wait my turn to have my boarding pass scanned; a moment later , the gate agent hands it back to me. As I walk through the tunnel that leads me to my A320 Airbus, I wonder how it is that a bus can fly.
I feel like a death row inmate walking to the room in which he will receive his final injection. The family members of the young woman he killed will watch from the other side of the glass, just as millions will watch on CNN the wreckage of my bus that went down in a field shortly after takeoff. Under one of the bits of yellow that show onscreen will be my remains … I shake the thought from my mind and find row 9. I have seat A, the window seat, and in seat C sits a woman I must ask to rise so that I can take my seat.
After a few minutes it becomes clear that the seat between us will remain empty for the duration of the flight. It’s one of the few empty seats on the bus. I remind myself that this bus is unlike any bus on which I’ve ever sat. With thousands of pounds of highly volatile jet fuel sitting beneath me, this bus will launch me seven miles above the ground and get me to Dallas in the time it will take the Detroit Lions to lose a football game—but it occurs to me that the Lions are playing on Monday night.
I lean over the empty seat and tell the woman, “I wondered if they could’ve made the walk to our departure gate any further. Imagine my surprise when I found that they couldn’t.” Gates 073-078 are at the very end of the concourse. She laughs and says, “Well, I arrived from Grand Rapids at gate 1, so I had twice as far to walk.”
I ask her who she knows in Dallas and she tells me she’s meeting a daughter. After spending a night in Dallas, they both will board another flight, this one to Beijing. After a twenty-hour flight to China, they will transfer to another flight, which will take them to where her other daughter lives, about an hour north of Beijing, for a holiday visit. “My Beijing daughter says the temperatures have been hovering around zero for the last week,” she tells me.
I lean over, offer the woman my hand and say, “My name is Joe.” She takes my hand and, with a sly smile, says, “My name is Joanne.” I’m dumfounded, but manage to chuckle. Like Leroy Jethro Gibbs, I don’t believe in coincidences. I’m convinced this is the work of some higher authority. Last night, Colleen and I listened to one of her favorite pastors give a sermon on expecting the unexpected where God is concerned. Our prayers for what we want, like our Christmas wish list, often seem to go unheard, maybe because we’re not listening; yet God seems always to provide for our needs. I’m convinced that this woman, as well as the empty seat between us, is God’s way of providing for my need. That her name is Joanne is God thumbing his nose at me, telling me, “In case you miss it, she’s a gift from me to you, a reminder that you’re safe with me. I haven’t always agreed with some of the choices you’ve made thus far in your life, but it is your life. I know what’s in your heart, and I knew you while you were in your mother’s womb—she’s fine by the way, proud of you—and I have plans for you. You’ve not yet reached your potential.”
I tell Joanne that I haven’t flown since before 9-11.
“Is that by choice,” she asks, “or don’t you find it necessary?”
“I make it a choice to find reasons not to fly,” I say. She smiles and I go on to tell her that I’m the very definition of a white-knuckler. “Look up the word,” I add, “and you’ll find my picture.”
She laughs and tells me, “They say flying is safer than driving.”
“They,” I counter, “being the airline industry.” I notice the guy in 8C listening to our conversation; his head bobs once, as if he’s in agreement with me. “More people drive on a daily basis than fly, and most traffic fatalities occur within twenty-five miles of home—to and from work, the grocery store, the post office … all places to which you can’t fly anyway. I may be at risk for a greater period of time during a four-hour drive between Detroit and Chicago than I would be during a forty-five minute flight, but how many traffic accidents on the open highway are fatal? If flying is so safe, how come they still use a seatbelt when, forty years ago, the automobile industry went with a three-point harness?” I’m firing all salvos now: “People say, ‘if my number’s up, it’s up.’ Well, what if it’s the pilot whose number is up? Does that mean the rest of us have to go, too?”
I can see the guy in 8C listening intently, perhaps committing to memory my arguments. I drive home my final point: “When an Airbus goes down, it’s never a fuselage bender, and it always makes the evening news.” 8C chuckles to himself, and I’m pleased that I’ve won him over to my way of thinking, as if having his advocacy would matter in the grand scheme should our bus plummet to the ground. Like a school bus, I envision the pilot deploying the hexagonal Stop sign just before we hit the ground, nose first.
It’s Joanne’s turn. She assures me that we’ll be fine, safe in the hands of God. Again I’m struck by that feeling that this is no coincidence. She hands me a card, business card size, and I read that “I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” In that moment I realize that this is not my time, and that I will arrive in Dallas and return home safely, to again hold Colleen in my arms and taste her sweet lips.
I offer silent thanks for Joanne’s company: a better seatmate I could not have asked for.
“Even should we die,” Joanne says, “Our eternal souls will be safe.”
“I know that,” I say, “but it’s the people I’d leave behind that I worry about. I just got engaged Friday night, and if I don’t come back, Colleen will never forgive me.”
“Congratulations,” Joanne tells me. “Colleen’s a lucky girl. I understand about grief. But I truly believe that we’ll be reunited with our loved ones in heaven.”
“Ah, but C.S. Lewis wrote, in A Grief Observed, that nowhere in the bible does it say we will be reunited in heaven.”
“Nor does it say that we won’t,” Joanne counters, and I see that 8C has lost interest in our conversation; he’s in a discussion with 8B, maybe about the Lions’ game against the Ravens tomorrow night at Ford Field, a game I’m certain the Lions will find a way to lose: an interception, a blocked field goal attempt, a fifteen-yard personal foul penalty to keep a Raven’s drive going in the final two minutes. I gave up on the Lions decades ago, and wonder about the sanity of season ticket holders.
And so it went for the duration of the flight, our bantering about life, death, grief and more. Her husband is a retired physician who spent time in D.C. seeing to wounded marines returning from Vietnam. He wrote a book—A Doctor’s Devotion: a Call to Serve. I promise to check out her husband’s book. I give her my business card and tell her about my novels, and she seems intrigued by the premises of several. I invite her to my website, the address is on my business card, and ask her to sign my guestbook.
“But I won’t be home again until January 2,” she tells me.
“That’s okay,” I say. “I’ll be here when you get back.”
Later that night, Colleen calls me in my room: “How was your flight?” she asks, and I hear the love in her voice. It’s always there; but tonight, from nearly a thousand miles away, it’s music to my ears.
“Well,” I say, “you’re not going to believe the flight I had …”
But you know, in the end, after all was told, Colleen believed it.