Take-off and Landing

Dad managed the wedding pretty well. Sometimes he even seemed to know that it was his son who was getting married, that it was me (his only daughter) he was dancing with.

Most of the time he obviously didn’t have any idea what was going on, or where he was, or who all those people were. But there were graced moments of clarity too, like clouds unexpectedly parting and allowing a glimpse of blue sky.

On the plane on the way home, though, everything fell apart.

Dad grew increasingly agitated as the plane taxied onto the runway. He muttered to himself, fumbling with the tray table on the seatback in front of him (despite the flight attendants’ repeated reminders that all tray tables must be securely locked and in their full upright position for take-off). He kept trying to lower the tray, and then scrambling frantically as though to find something hidden behind it.

He was perspiring, panic-stricken. By the time the plane landed, he was feverish and incoherent, completely disoriented, unable to walk unaided.

That arrival was really the end of the road for Dad.

He went from the airport to the nearest emergency room. From there he went into hospital, and then—eventually—into the nursing home.

I didn’t realize it then, but it occurred to me later what Dad’s seemingly random distress and urgency that night was all about.

It wasn’t just the haphazard delirium of a disintegrating mind.

He was trying to find the instrument panel, in order to fly the plane.

Dad was a pilot to the marrow of his bones. His most earnest advice to me from childhood had been always to pay attention to life’s take-offs and landings, and let the flying in between take care of itself.

Somehow, on that last flight, Dad knew that he was on a plane, and was convinced he was responsible to get it airborne and land it. And he also knew, somewhere within the ruin of his mind, that he could not do it. He must have felt that he was—like Icarus flying too close to the sun, like so many of his fellow pilots in the war—hurtling from the sky.

He could not even find the controls. But in the midst of that terrible knowledge, I hope he also knew that he did not have to.

No matter from what sky we fall, “underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:27).

In the fullness of time, God alone will bring Dad’s long flight—as all of ours—safely in for that last landing.

One Response to “Take-off and Landing”

  1. I find this reflection especially poignant as a pastor: I often feel responsible for my “passengers,” and fumble for controls that are not mine. Reminds me that if “underneath are the everlasting arms,” they will do the carrying. I guess I’m not really the pilot. I’m a steward.

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