We flew to Dallas in the summers when I was a little girl, my mother and I, to see her parents. My grandparents, Honey and Papa. I loved it. I loved to fly on the plane. I loved to visit Dallas. I was born there, and for years I believed my parents had done me a disservice by removing me from that beloved city. Really, I loved Honey and Papa; I loved the twin beds waiting for us, and a present each; I loved the brown sugar and butter sandwiches and the fruit popsicles with frozen yogurt at the center; I loved to jump in the pool, and dry off afterward watching Inspector Gadget. The silent sitting room with the grandfather clock and down sofa. The mirrored entry, the pantry that smelled like a pantry, the smell of the plants and the hot driveway at dawn and dusk. And I loved, loved, loved to fly.
My enthusiasm for air travel took its first hit when a week after my own TWA flight from my first European trip, flight 800 crashed. As the seats grew smaller in proportion to my frame, so did my enthusiasm in proportion to my fear. I've always been a bit of a paranoid. I used to imagine horrible things happening to me or my family while I tried to sleep. Sometimes I worked myself up to such a state I had to go out to my parents in the living room and claim I'd had a nightmare. But I remember one night reflecting in the midst of a waking nightmare that I was not afraid of death. I'm afraid, I thought, of dying, but I am not afraid of being dead. I must have been ten or eleven. I was still a Christian, and with "faith like a child." I think I believed, as much as I could, in heaven. I believed I would go to be with God. But then I thought--what about my parents? Would would happen to them if I died? This was an unbearable thought. It may have kept me, subconsciously, from being as much of an adolescent jerk as I could have been. Maybe. In any case I somehow understood that it would be a tragedy if my parents' died. But I would be looked after. I am my mother's only child. If I died...that would be different.
September 11th didn't help my anxiety. When I met my husband, things got worse. I didn't just distrust air travel, I began to be really afraid. When I fly without him, I am terrified. I have to pray. I have to do yoga breathing. If that doesn't work, I have to find a snack. I feel better when we're together, but flying with our daughter...if something were to happen with her...she's so young...
Now, more than just fearing the act of dying, I begin to fear death. Why? You understand, don't you? Now I have something to lose.
I have to pause and say I don't think I'm a particularly morbid person. I think we all have these fleeting thoughts. We are fragile, we are mortal. For many reasons, we cling to life.
And the truth is, this post isn't really about air travel. It's about a woman named Kelly. Last winter, I saw the Wellness Tree button on someone's blog and ended up on the site. I saw that Kelly's friend Nicole, who blogs as Garden Mama had started a project to support her during her battle with breast cancer. People from all over sent her handmade ornaments to represent their prayers and support. I read Kelly's "Letter To My Breastfed Baby." [Okay, I'm starting to cry now.] I kept thinking how it would feel to have your baby, struggle into successful nursing, and then find out the mastitis you thought you had was a breast tumor. I made and sent an ornament.
I don't really know what to say, but Kelly died this week. When I read the post, I thought, Impossible, over and over. I keep wondering how she felt not knowing if she would survive, and then knowing that she wouldn't. I keep thinking I would feel--Please, don't take me from my baby. I keep thinking about birth and death. I read on someone's blog recently--forgive me, I can't remember where--that as she birthed her child, she faced death, and when the child was born, she gave life to the child and to herself again. Did you feel that, mothers? It was so apt to me. Birth is so natural and beautiful, and so brutal. There was a moment for me--I remember standing there with my cup of crushed ice, far, far from the people in the room, on another plane of being, and thinking just, Death. Just the word. Death was present, and I felt it. It wasn't an ugly thing. It wasn't good or bad. It just was. On one hand, imagining Kelly crossing through that valley and emerging with her baby and her life, it seems cruel that in the end she faced death again so soon, and she lost. On the other hand, remembering the peaceful neutrality I felt, the presence of birth, life, and death in one moment, it seems like offered wisdom. Birth, life, and death present in every moment. Not cruel, just painful. I hope there was peace for Kelly. In my imagination (and what do I know?) the hardest part must have been the denial of her right to nurture her baby. She was a perfect stranger to me. But I am...so sad. Somehow I feel like I should be saying there's a lesson in this. Like, Be mindful. Live truly in the moment and fear not death, or something like that. In my soul, I know that birth and life and death are here. I know that it's okay. But all I can do right now is cry, and feel that it's not okay. And that's all I really wanted to say.
And that while I'm trying to learn from the bizarre experience of grieving for someone I don't know, there's still the Wellness Tree. Kelly's husband Matt and son Ari still need nurturing. Nicole is making a village out of the world, and making it possible for everyone to help. I'd like to make something for Ari. I don't know what. In the meantime I'll be holding Jane really tight.