Fire in the Hole

IMG_9527The day my plane caught fire I was sitting on the wing and could see smoke billowing out from the engine, just like a war movie–minus the popcorn, comfy seat, and the certainty I would make it out alive.

I was living in São Paulo and flying to northeastern Brazil to stand in the sand at the easternmost point in the Americas, and stay in the round hotel in Juan Pessoa that is in the ocean or out of it, depending on the tide. These curiosities dimmed as the temperature rose in the cabin of the plane. The flight attendants knew the drill and began walking up and down the aisles speaking only Portuguese, “Everything is fine, don’t worry, just take crash position.” Calm smile, measured deliberate movements, “Just take crash position.”

I prayed, of course, in such a Catholic country I suspect the whole plane was praying, but I wasn’t looking at anyone else. You really don’t, right there in the moment of maybe. You’re entirely ripped between millipedes of skittering fear, and looking inward to ask yourself the hard questions. You know what those questions are for you, so I won’t bother to list mine. In the midst of my fright I remembered I had been promised three children. I realize that sounds strange, but I knew I would have three, and I did not yet have even one. I grabbed hold of that image and decided that regardless of what came next, I would be alive. That was key, making a decision.

The plane approached a jungle airport, really just a clearing with an airstrip and a little building where Indiana Jones could have passed a pleasant afternoon between lootings and shootings. But I didn’t yet see any of that. I saw the runway, short, small, the stubbly field, then the trees. We were coming in high and fast, so high and so fast, the antiquated fire truck idling at the end of the tarmac. Even if we touched down safely, how would we ever stop by the end of that tiny runway. I could see us spinning into the field and crashing through the trees, wings ripping off, consumed by a ball of fire, because I had seen a prodigious number of movies and knew all about these things. By then the attendants were strapped in, but their words still rang in my mind, “Everything is fine, just take crash position.” It appeared that “fine” had a definition of which I was previously unaware.

I hunkered back into crash position, tuning myself into the plane, listening for the landing gear, all my passenger take offs and landings pattering through my head, “This is normal that felt weird so high so fast how will we stop how will we stop??? . . .”

The wheels touched earth and the disc brakes, thrust reversers, air brakes, or whatever it had roared to life in a deafening proclamation of survival. Impossibly we ground to a halt with feet to spare, attendants grinning, the passengers bursting into relieved applause for the pilot and for our own lives.

Orders barked and the attendants shot to the doors, tearing them open and activating the rubber slides that we all know double as boats in the event of a water evacuation. Exit and Run, Exit and Run, Exit and Run. I couldn’t get into the aisle, and looked out the window at the little fireman standing on top of his truck to aim his hose directly into the engine, knowing he would take it straight in the face should the whole thing blow. Then I was in the aisle and sliding down the rubber slide, arms crossed in front in a mortician’s pose. I ran into the field, we all did, into a depression where we could drop down should the plane explode.

Spoiler alert: I lived, everyone lived, even the plane, which I’m sure was repaired and went right on ferrying passengers around Brazil. A few hours later we were allowed back on to retrieve our personal belongings, and then our luggage came through. A group of businessmen were in a terrible rush and chartered a helicopter, the rest of us were later collected by a another plane, rerouted and pressed into service. I did manage to stand in the easternmost point of the Americas where tiny crabs tittered through the sand, and I loved the round hotel in the ocean where I found more sand dollars than I have ever seen in my life, before or since.

An interesting footnote to this trip; on the way back my flight was caught in a jungle storm which tossed the plane hither and yon like a toddler with a Matchbox car. For years afterwards I boarded every plane literally praying for a boring flight.

After that every trip was haunted for me, not by the fire, but by the switch, that shocking instant of change. It was cool and comfortable, and then it wasn’t, air conditioner, no air conditioner. That was all my warning, a change in temperature. With my seatback and tray table in their upright and locked position, I had largely exhausted my control over my environment. I wanted to go back in time where someone could yell “Fire in the hole!” to give everyone fair warning to get clear, but it was too late, the crisis was upon us, and there was nowhere to go but through.

Let’s fast forward to last week at my house. All the doors and windows were locked and my sixteen year old son, Porter, and I were in the basement. Porter went into the bathroom, and suddenly the front door slammed hard and mighty, vibrating the couch I was sitting on, adjacent to the front wall of the house. I had locked that door myself, didn’t think it could slam that hard. I thought, “It’s nothing, maybe my imagination, probably a passing truck, not a door slam,” because our minds try to fill in holes, however improbable.

Porter came out, “Who’s here?” he asked. Not my imagination, he’d heard it too, from the bathroom, at the back of the house.

“Don’t know,” I said, my mind rerouting, must be my sister, she has a key.

Off he went up the stairs, jauntily calling out “Hello, Hello,” which began to fade into a softer, more uncertain “hello . . . hello.”

“Mom . . . can you come up, and maybe bring a shovel?”

Fresh out of shovels and baseball bats, I marched up the stairs brandishing my phone only to find Porter had also armed himself with the closest weapon at hand, a pair of, uhhm, tweezers.

“I have my pokey thing, Mom.”

They are very sharp, as tweezers go.

There we were creeping through the house, phone and tweezers at the ready, investigating the front door, looking under beds, ripping open closet doors, garage, storage room, searching for henchmen or serial killers, or possibly a ghost because it was dark out and in a moment of daylight and Halloween spirit, I’d been enjoying a chunk of Paranormal Survivor. (I never claimed to be smart.) Nothing, not one thing, even the ghost had gone silent, probably waiting to scare us to death when we were alone in our beds, though neither of us said it aloud.

It was an earthquake, just so you know. We found out the next day, mystery solved, a little 2.8 allowing the plates to release some pressure, nothing to worry about. I can go back to watching Paranormal Survivor with the same jaundiced eye as before, but that’s not the point of the story. Today I am thinking about courage. Who is brave and what does that even mean?

Two months before I was diagnosed with cancer, I believed I had hit rock bottom, navigating a heartbreaking trial I never, ever thought could happen to me. Who knew rock bottom had a basement, or that basement would have a sewer, and that sewer had a sinkhole. Eventually I was paddling around in the magma where my oars kept catching fire, facing a platoon of bone shattering disasters of which cancer was by far the easiest. Who knew I would honestly wish for those heady days in the cozy comfort of rock bottom.

I’m going to be upfront and admit that I now have far more empathy for suicides than I once had because I now understand what it means to genuinely want to die, anything to stop the horrific emotional pain created by a combination of overwhelming circumstances and a body too weakened by chemo and surgery to properly support my heart and mind. I would not have taken my life because I know the eternal consequences of such and act, nor did I ever beg God to take me. The image of my three beautiful children loomed in my mind more powerfully than they had when the plane caught fire, and I knew I could never intentionally leave them unguarded, that was key, a decision made. I don’t say any of this for sympathy, I don’t need it, but I do need you to know that I speak from the depths rather than the surface.

Improbable as it may seem on a sunny afternoon, I have learned that sometimes the Boogie Man and all his minions can come to our door. In my imagination I march confidently into battle with a knight’s shining armor, or better yet, cool and chic like James Bond, my pockets bursting with enough gadgets to singlehandedly take down an embassy. The trouble with most Boogie Men is that they arrive without warning. We hear people yelling “Fire in the hole!” all the time, but we never really know which “hole” might apply to us. Consequently, no matter how carefully we plan, or how many wise choices we make, there’s a good chance that at some point we will face our worst fears armed only with an upright tray table and a pair of tweezers.

It’s not fair, I know.

So what is courage? Is it the shining knight who plows through his enemies regardless of his personal fears? Maybe. Is it James Bond saving the world with his wits and an explosive pen, or the woman facing disaster who sits on her hard chair, fists clenched, holding her ground until the storm blows itself out? These are pieces of courage, to be sure, but what if your troubles are longer than a single battle and you only have one explosive pen, or that hard chair eventually becomes too much to bear. A car has a powerful battery, it has to to run such a large machine, but no matter how powerful it is to start, without the alternator to recharge that battery, pretty soon you’re left by the side of the road calling a tow truck. The strength of a single battery is enough courage to power you through a more compact trial, but for a greater calamity you will need something more.

I hate it when people call me strong because inside I feel like a quivering bowl of jello, and it makes me feel like a fraud. My battery ran out of power clear back at rock bottom, and I had to learn that mental and physical strength are extremely important, but the true foundation of courage is not strength, but love and trust.

I know, it sounds like the back of a greeting card, but I warned you, I am speaking from the depths, not the surface. Why would a soldier storm the beach at Normandy, if not to protect those he loves? Why does a mother get up through the night with a fussing baby when she’s got other children and a full schedule to keep her up all day as well? True endurance is born of love because love can be boundless, while for a mortal being strength is not. When that plane caught fire, the mere idea of my unborn children calmed me, just imagine the powerhouses they are now, how they change the balance of my life. When the Boogie Man comes and you’re taking inventory of your meager supplies, don’t forget to take stock of those you love and who love you. You have a great capacity to love, to love others and to love yourself. Recognize your power and embrace it, if you don’t you will always struggle to recharge your battery. Serve others, even if all you can do is pray for them, anything to help you look outside yourself, relieving pressure like tectonic plates rumbling a solitary 2.8, increasing your ability to continue forward.

Loving yourself can be trickier, especially when everything goes sideways. I’m one who is constantly reevaluating my performance, questioning whether I’m good enough. This can be a positive trait because it keeps me working, but the downside is that my mind starts criticizing my heart, then my heart starts picking at my lungs, and pretty soon everybody’s attacking my liver, which is how I got that quivering bowl of jello jiggling around inside my skin. I haven’t conquered this, but I’ve gotten far enough to know it’s equally vital for us to be kind to ourselves as well as to others. God will help us with this, if we ask him. If you haven’t already gotten to know God and to love him, start it now while the sun is shining so that when the Boogie Man suddenly arrives, those pathways of communication are already mapped and well traveled. If the storm is already upon you, start anyway, build a relationship with him that teaches you how dearly he loves you. Love is a creative force rather than a destroyer, if you need courage you can’t afford to ignore it.

Now we come to trust, which is even harder for me than loving myself. I did trust once, doe eyed and easy, quick as a child to forgive, but the last several years have chiseled that out . . . Let me put it this way, I used to love good stories with a sweet romance on the side, now romance is out and I can’t get enough true crime, the more blood and guts the better. The trouble with true crime is that even if the murderer is caught and punished, the victim is still dead, and the family is still grieving. What is criminal “justice” really? The courts can’t force the perpetrator to return a murdered wife or daughter, whole and unharmed, which is what the family truly wants. In essence the “justice” system can only give the family a pair of tweezers to face down the utterly unimaginable. So who do we trust and where is justice?

The secret is that justice has nothing to do with the criminal. We are each eternal beings walking an individual path that intersects with good people and bad. If we are lucky enough to be given a pair of tweezers, we should use them to pluck out the hairs of anger and hate before they become chains that change our trajectory and slow our steps. Don’t misunderstand, criminals should be punished for their crimes, but if you’re looking for peace in punishment, you’re putting your trust in the wrong place.

This is your journey, your experience, your chance to learn! Don’t let a criminal or a circumstance, or an illness steal that from you. Do justice to yourself. I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone else. I know it will likely be years before all this will be in my rearview mirror, and I will probably bear the marks for the rest of my life. I’ve cried gallons of tears in my bedroom with my hand over my mouth so the children wouldn’t hear me through the vents, sobbing out the great and guttural “WHY!!!” But I know that isn’t really the right question. My life slowly improves when I go before the Lord to lay out my little store of supplies and say, “I am in the dark and my life in on fire, what can I do with my tweezers and tray table to improve my situation?” I’m fully aware of how dumb that sounds, but it is a question that provides two important elements, a willingness to trust yourself to take steps, and a willingness to trust the Lord to direct your path. Maybe you can only take one step a day, maybe some days you’ll take a step and get knocked on your backside, and other days you may feel paralyzed, which can lead to self loathing and distrust, but if we persist in seeking the Lord’s guidance and keep taking steps, even in the dark, in time we will all discover that God is truly a God of miracles. Because of his power and his planning, one day we will be shocked to realize that not only did we start with everything we needed, but by the end we gained more than we knew existed.

I’ve always loved C.S. Lewis’s quote on building houses because he encapsulates this better than I ever could. He writes:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

The night of the earthquake Porter would not leave my side as we rifled through the crevices of our house with a phone and a pair of tweezers. “I have my pokey thing, Mom.” He’s too young to comprehend the courage inherent in that statement, but I know, and I love him for it.

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