I’m ten years old and flying a Cessna across some barren trek of Canada while the pilot, my mother’s current boyfriend Ron, is hyperventilating in a paper bag.
I’ve never seen anyone have a legitimate panic attack before, and up until now he’s always been a pretty cool, even-keel kind of guy. I mean, he managed to keep my mother from losing her shit the majority of the time and that made him the “Crazywhisperer”, as far as I was concerned.
But here he was deep-breathing into a small brown paper lunch sack. I found myself wondering, did he have a lunch in there and dumped its contents while I wasn’t looking, or did he keep a supply of these handy just in case he started having irrational fear and breathing issues while piloting us 11,000 feet up in the air in his fancy two-seater plane? Weird.
I’m doing a horrific job of keeping the plane level. In fact, I’m not keeping it level AT ALL.
I’m an over-achiever, A-student kid, but my lesson consisted of “Meagan, I’m feeling very sick, and we only have a few minutes before I may get sick again. I need to teach you to fly the plane. You can steer and I’ll control the pedals. Can you do that?” “Sure!” I say excitedly.
I’ve never “driven’” anything before, other than a bicycle. We were too poor to play video games,and while I was very athletic as a younger child, my mother always used money as an excuse to keep me out of sports, so I really had no idea that most likely my hand-eye coordination wasn’t up to the current task at hand. All I knew was that I had a long history of stepping up and being the adult in my house, and a really long history of performing daredevil acts like a tomboy, while in designer sundresses and my Sunday best half-high heels. So obviously, flying this little plane would be a piece of cake.
He had given me a mere three-minute lesson on how to fly a plane. During this impromptu lesson I was distracted by the brown paper bag in his hand. What is that for?! Where did it come from?! And what does it have to do with flying a plane?!
He, not noticing my distraction, hurriedly explained that to steer you just hold the wheel straight
because we were just flying in a straight, undeviating line. And you should pull the wheel up and down
instead of in a circle, like in a car. This is so you you stay on the horizon. I quickly realized that this
very important word is the key to flying this plane. I always want to keep the plane on the horizon. He
then points to absolutely nothing in the sky in front of us. “Do you see that, Meagan? That’s the
horizon.” “Uh huh,” I say, nodding my head in the affirmative.
I don’t see anything outside but sky. What the heck is he talking about? I don’t get it. And seriously, WHAT is he going to do with that brown paper bag?!
Relief washes over my young perfectionist heart when he shows me the altitude indicator and points his finger along a thin white line that a miniature plane is hovering over. “This is the horizon line”, he says. “You want to keep the plane as close to this line as possible.And when you pull the steering wheel up or down, the little plane should get closer to that line… do you understand?” “Yes!” I say, this time with sincere comprehension. I’m so delighted that I do now truly know what a horizon is. It’s the line on the thingamajiggy on the plane’s dashboard in front of me. DUH! I can totally do this.
Which is good, because right then the words “Oh no” bubble out of his mouth, his chubby face turning
alternately a pale shade of green, then white, under his seventies pornstache-esque mustache he was still
rocking despite it now being 1985, when all of a sudden it dawns on me that the bag must be a sick bag
like the ones they put on large airplanes in the seat in front of you. I can’t believe how stupid I am to have
not realized this sooner.
“Meagan I’m getting sick again. You have to steer. I’ll work the pedals. Don’t worry.”
I wasn’t worried at all. I was still trying to figure out why he was so worried. I mean, other than the
part where he might vomit. That’s not going to be fun, but not the end of the world either, I thought.
But then my mind grabbed on to the concept of getting sick in the air and wouldn’t let go. EW!
BARF. Where does barf go in a plane? Up or down?
I grabbed the wheel on my side of the plane ready to take on the role of co-pilot. And as Ron began to
breathe deeply into the bag and back out, his big belly rising and falling to the rhythm of that paper bag
filling and collapsing, I fixed my eyes on that dial and set out to keep that little plane on that thin white
line if it was the last thing I’d ever do. The plane dipped rapidly down, then back up and down and up, my
ten year-old arms pulling that plane whatever place it needed to be to keep our MiniMe plane within
the bullseye of that small circular instrument on the dashboard. It had to be perfect. I had to stay
on that line. That was my mission.
And yet, I knew I was failing miserably. This flying stuff is way harder than I thought it would be. I could
see the plane was over the line, and below it, never perfectly aligned over it where it should be. But I
wasn’t worried. I knew practice would make perfect.
Ron, now resembling a cooked beet with a furry caterpillar mustache, pulled his face out of the paper sack to yell at me for the first time, and only time, in all the years I knew him. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”
I pulled my head up out of the dashboard, where my nose was mere inches away from the all important
thingamajiggy. “You told me to keep it on the horizon line!” I yelled back at him, pointing
indignantly to the tiny plane on the dashboard in front of me. “THAT HORIZON!” he yelled
and wildly waved his arms in front of the windshield along a blur of grayish pinkish fog I’d never
before noticed in the sky. It was far away and took up a big portion of the windshield field of vision.
A much, much bigger target than what I’d been aiming for. I was amazed and perplexed.
“Well, why didn’t you say so?! That is so much easier to aim for!” I yelled back.
“Give me the wheel! LET GO!” he yelled, spittle flying from his lips. He snatched the wheel on his side of the plane and wasn’t sick at all any more after that. It was amazing how quickly he got to feeling better. I kind of wondered if he was just one big faker who was feeling lazy and wanted me to do
all the work for him, like when he’d ask me to get a beer from the fridge when he was watching
TV. Grown-ups! So frustrating!
I didn’t understand what the big deal was. I mean, yah, the plane went up and down a little bit. But it wasn’t like there were trees or mountains to run into. What was I going to do? Smash the
plane into the ground? Impossible! I was following orders perfectly! I was staying on the horizon.
It wasn’t my fault he was distracting me with that brown paper bag situation. What did he expect?
I pouted, deep in thought, for the rest of the flight about how adults were so scared all the time. It was utterly ridiculous. It’s like they had no faith any more. What did he think? That we were going to die? Of course we weren’t. I was ten years old and right with God. Nothing inside of me said “Now’s your time to go”.
In the following years I’d have actual near-death experiences. I’d pull myself back into this world,
more than once. And looking back, even now, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, about this day that
should have whispered into this grown man’s ear “Be very afraid. Fear for your life. Be so scared you
have to breathe into a paper bag thousands of feet up in the air and relinquish control of your $200,000
plane to a ten-year-old girl”. I was there. And death was not knocking on the door that day. Whatever wave of fear came over him was utterly irrational.
And now I am an adult, and time and pain have worn my faith down a bit. Of course they have.
The sharp edges of enthusiasm and adventure have dulled with age and experience. I don’t
jump off barns into hay two stories below and I don’t climb trees until I can’t see the ground,
and I don’t race down gravel hills on ten-speeds that are so tall my feet can’t touch the ground,
because death has come knocking at my door too many times. I’m covered from head to toes in
scars (literally) and if I, like a cat, have only nine lives, I don’t need to push my luck. I’ve likely
used up eight.
But still I take risks in other ways, and I no longer fear death. Because I’ve realized
that people focus on the minuscule possibility of dying just as they get the opportunity to be
truly free. Most people worry and fret over silly, small, trivial things and never really, truly live.
And I, for one, just can’t abide living as if I’m already dead. I choose to not drag along through
this life with heavy, lifeless feet furrowing trails in the earth.
I gave being “careful, normal, and civilized” a try and, quite frankly, the tedium is what makes a free spirit with a trail to blaze through this world want to die.
I haven’t turned my back on childhood dreams. I have big dreams to build in the sky. I made a pact with myself to not become one of those people who give up and live a life they despise and become someone they don’t recognize, cloaked and choked by a faceless fear. This required me to make a decision to leave all my fears in the past. I choose to love harder than I ever thought possible, laugh louder than is reasonable, make friends and break bread with people in every corner of the world, and push myself further than I ever was told I could go. As a result, I’ve flown higher than I ever thought possible.
To the envious people who gave in to the fear,and desperately grasp at my heels to try to drag me down
from my castle in the clouds, I discreetly give them the bird. All the while wearing the most fabulous sky-high designer shoes -or, if I so choose, none at all. Because that’s the kind of girl I’ve always been and I’m too old to change now.
And because, like Toni Morrison once said, “You wanna fly, you gotta give up the shit that weighs you down”.