Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Dust of the Stars: Part 3

“But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap. 
He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

-- J.R.R. Tolkein, The Return of the King

Support System

When I first told friends and family in 2000 that I was pursuing flying lessons, I received a wide variety of reactions: excitement, fear, befuddlement, admiration, and even contempt (memorably, from one person). Some would avoid the topic, as though ignoring it could make it disappear. Mom, on the other hand, was always supportive and showed genuine interest by asking about what I was doing in my lessons and what was coming next.

Mom's first flight with me. South Haven, MI, October 20, 2002. Photo by Dave.

When I earned my private pilot certificate, Mom excitedly accompanied me aloft. She was my second non-pilot passenger (Kristy was the first). We flew Two Seven Uniform, a 1976 Cessna 150, from Three Rivers to South Haven where we visited with my mentor, Dave.

Launching from South Haven on the return flight that day, I noticed a drop in engine RPM and automatically pulled the carburetor heat knob. As we climbed out over the Lake Michigan shoreline, the engine cycled through a mild textbook example of clearing carburetor icing. It was my first in-flight challenge with a passenger on board, albeit a trivial one and I do not think that she noticed anything amiss. That day was the first of many times that Mom flew with me. She was always enthusiastic about an airplane ride and always completely trusted me with her safety.

First landing at Oakland County International, November 23, 2006. Photo by Kristy.

In my early years as a pilot, I was intimidated by the traffic density at Oakland County International Airport (KPTK) and avoided landing there. By my standards at the time, Kalamazoo was busy with about 250 operations each day. Oakland County was in a completely different league, reporting an average of 670 operations per day in 2005. But eventually, I worked up my courage. My first flight to Oakland County International was on Thanksgiving of 2006 as a VFR-only pilot after making my first flight through Canadian airspace.

When it was time to depart the next day, Mom accompanied us outside to where the airplane was tied down. We threaded through a group of corporate pilots on our way to the ramp. One of them politely held the lobby door for us. At that moment, Mom exclaimed, "Now that you've flown in here without any problems, you don't have to be afraid of landing here anymore."

I cringed. Once outside, I turned to my mother and in my best whiny teenager voice said, "Geez, Mom, not in front of the corporate pilots!" But she made her point; she had confidence in me, why didn't I?

At the time, I could not have foreseen how familiar Oakland County International would become.

Fast Cherokee

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
30 Jul 2018 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) 2.7 1824.9

"Cherokee Four Eight One, Pontiac Tower, cleared to land Two Seven Left."

I was on a long straight-in final approach to Oakland County International. Detroit had asked me to keep my speed up and cleared me for the visual approach. I activated the RNAV 27L approach in the GNS-430W and was tracking downhill on glideslope at 120 knots indicated, about thirty knots faster than my usual instrument approach speed.

Pontiac Tower gave a Citabria in the pattern advisories on my position. It was on a left downwind pattern leg for the same runway while I rapidly closed the distance with the runway threshold. As Tower updated the Citabria pilot on my progress, the pilot exclaimed, "That's a fast Cherokee!"

A mile short of the threshold, I eased the power out, pitched up to reduce airspeed into the flap operating range, and dropped full flaps. I slowed to 60 knots while crossing the threshold, a speed that would allow the Warrior to settle to Earth rather than float the entire length of the 6,521 foot long runway.

"Cherokee Four Eight One, left at Juliet, contact ground point niner," said a voice in my ear.

I acknowledged, made the turn and stopped once the Warrior's tail was clear of the runway. "Pontiac Ground, Cherokee Four Eight One, on Juliet, parking Michigan."

"Cherokee Four Eight One! Good morning. Left on Charlie, Bravo One, Alpha One." I repeated the taxi clearance more from memory than anything else, and proceeded to Michigan Aviation where I was marshaled to parking by Scott.

Exactly a week had elapsed since Mom passed away. The bureaucracy had finally delivered paperwork that would be a first step in managing Mom's estate. Before departing the airport to attend to my errands, I arranged with Michigan Aviation to leave Mom's car inside the fence at the FBO for ground transportation on future trips. Kathy provided a ride from the airport to Mom's house.

Star Stuff

I ran multiple errands, ending with the funeral home. There, I needed to make choices about printed materials for the memorial service. I resolved to be expediently decisive and somehow managed not to dwell on the minutiae. I was also presented with a stack of official death certificates and a simple wooden box with a cherry finish containing Mom's remains. Jenni from the funeral home carried the urn out to Mom's Forester, leaving me to carry the certificates. She placed the box on the front passenger seat and solemnly secured it with the seat belt.

I returned to my childhood home and carried Mom inside. It was my intention to leave the urn there until the memorial service a week later, but once inside, I hesitated. It was so quiet inside. The grandfather clock had stopped. There was no clicking of dog toenails on the kitchen linoleum, no barking in welcome or challenge. The air was stale from lack of movement. The house seemed somehow beyond empty, beyond lonely, and I realized that I could not leave her there alone. I decided in the moment that she would come home with me. Mom had never flown in the clouds with me before. That day was the first.

And Afterward, Rainbows

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
30 Jul 2018 N21481 PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC (Sodus, NY) 2.8 1827.7

I drove back to the airport and through the vehicle gate, parking next to a hangar where the Michigan Aviation staff indicated I could leave the car. Light precipitation intensified into a more persistent rain. Once the airplane was packed, I retreated to the FBO lobby to dry off. ForeFlight displayed a small thunderstorm cell blowing up immediately south of the airport and I waited for it to diminish from yellow and red colored radar returns back to an innocuous green.

I departed in light rain, cleared as filed using the ADRIE route.

"Cherokee Four Eight One, Detroit Departure. I'm not familiar with ADRIE, would you just like to go direct destination?"

Haven't I had this conversation before?

From studying the weather radar prior to take-off, I knew that the direct route would lead me through a number of small thunderstorm cells, but that the ADRIE route would keep me north of most of them. I declined the direct route in favor of the longer airway route I had filed.

East of Sarnia, Ontario I requested a minor deviation northward to put some more distance between a cell and my ship. Nonetheless, we still logged 0.6 hours of time in the clouds on the journey home.

A storm over Buffalo with Grand Island in the foreground.

Back on course, I looked ahead at the weather. My first waypoint in the United States, WOZEE, was over Buffalo and completely engulfed by a large storm.

Bypassing the ugliness over Buffalo.

"Toronto Center, Cherokee Four Eight One, any chance I could get direct destination?" My request was quickly approved and I turned to an east heading that would bypass WOZEE and the ugliness over Buffalo.

Still bypassing...

East of Buffalo, a rainbow shimmered ephemerally in the misty atmosphere to welcome me home to Western New York.

Returned to Earth at the Williamson Sodus Airport with Mom, a double rainbow appeared over my hangar. It is always nice when a successful flight through weather leads to the end of the rainbow.

FlightAware radar track from PTK to SDC showing weather deviations near Sarnia and Buffalo. Weather is depicted as it was halfway through the flight such that the weather east of Sarnia is depicted farther north than when I deviated around it and the weather near Buffalo is farther south than when I transited the area.

Piper at the Gates of Dawn

On the morning of August 7, the lovely, mournful cry of a single bagpipe could be heard outside the Clarkston United Methodist Church. In addition to being a masterful piper, Steve was also my friend, scientific mentor, and occasional supervisor from our stints together in Rochester, NY and Kalamazoo, MI. Mom identified powerfully with her Scottish heritage and, in my opinion, a piper was an imperative for her memorial. She never had the opportunity to hear Steve play, but the fact that he was there for us added a deeper dimension to the occasion.

Leslie, the former organist for the church and one of Mom's hospice caregivers, came out of retirement to honor Mom. "I will pull out all the stops," she assured us beforehand with sly organist humor. Back at the keyboard again, she joined the organ's voice with that of a piano played by the music director, the combined music of the duet powerfully filling my chest to a point of near bursting. The choir gave multiple impassioned performances of choral pieces hand-picked for their significance to Mom, the missing member of their cohort. Rick's comments, grounded in his knowledge and friendship with Mom and expanded with stories and anecdotes from me and others, made for a loving and beautiful tribute. I think Mom would have liked it.

Mom and The Bear, Thanksgiving, 2014

I was concerned about The Bear. She adored Mom and had so far faced the loss with surprising stoicism. I worried that she was unable to constructively express her grief. In the midst of the memorial service, however, she crumpled against me with tears streaming down her face and I knew that she would be OK.

Steve marched to the front of the church, his pipes filling the space with a pure sound of a volume fit for an entire band, and poured his heart into Amazing Grace. Then, playing a recessional, he led Kristy, The Bear, and I from the sanctuary with all other mourners in trail behind us.

The church put on a wonderful luncheon for all. We told stories and laughed and cried and enjoyed each other's company until suddenly, the three of us were alone except for a handful of volunteers cleaning up the room.

Just like that, it was all over and, in principle, time to go back to living again.


Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
08 Aug 2018 N21481 PTK (Waterford, MI) - GVQ (Batavia, NY) - SDC (Sodus, NY) 3.4 1834.2

Kristy, The Bear, and I launched from Oakland County International on Wednesday, August 8. Packing the Warrior's baggage compartment presented a logistical challenge because of numerous, irregularly shaped bags in excess of our usual complement of weekend luggage. After a three-dimensional Tetris challenge and careful consideration of weight and balance, we departed with the rear compartment packed almost solidly with baggage.

Thunderstorms were present in eastern Ontario near Buffalo that morning, but foul weather was also anticipated in the afternoon for Michigan. I chose a morning departure window that would have us charging directly at the convective nightmare near western New York with the expectation that it would move out of the way before we caught up to it. At the very least, it should have moved far enough east to avoid trapping us in Canadian airspace should the need to divert arise.

There is something darkly humorous about being cleared "direct HAVOK" while on a thunderstorm deviation. After all, by deviating, we were actively trying to avoid havoc. It was a clearance almost Shakespearean in conception. "Cry HAVOK and let slip the dogs of war!"

Deviating around a thunderstorm near Sarnia, Ontario.

To her extreme consternation, we violated Kristy's "Rule of Three" while en route home. This rule states that among rain, turbulence, and flying in the clouds, I am only allowed to "indulge" in two. Even with thunderstorm deviations, it was still a bumpy, rainy, and often blind run (2.0 hours in instrument meteorological conditions) across Ontario to New York.

FlightAware ground track between PTK and SDC. The weather is depicted about midway through the flight so that the storm near Sarnia is depicted farther northeast than when we passed it and the weather near Rochester is shown farther west than it was when we arrived at Genesee County Airport (GVQ).

As we cleared the international border at the Niagara River, Buffalo Approach recommended a small deviation to the left around some mild weather. Though I complied with the suggestion, the light precipitation off my right wing was not my main concern. Rather, I was troubled by the black wall of thunderstorms over Rochester that extended dark wings far enough north and south that there would be no circumnavigating it.

Left downwind, runway 28, Genesee County Airport

Fortunately, Genesee County Airport literally sat in a hole amid the weather. We diverted there and shut down on the ramp near Boshart Enterprises at 11:30 am. Though I had not worked with the maintenance shop in the years since moving to the Williamson Sodus Airport, I was heartily welcomed by name. Luckily, Jim was heading into town to pick up lunch and offered to bring me along. I did not even have to ask.

Kristy, The Bear, and I enjoyed an unplanned lunch with the shop staff. The aircraft mechanics were probably not used to eating lunch with an 11 year old girl (even a Flying Bear), but they were suitably professional.

Clouds seen on departure from Genesee County Airport en route to Sodus

By the time we finished lunch, the weather had migrated east of Sodus and the path home lay in the clear. Though I had filed IFR for the quick trip home, Rochester was unable to find the flight plan. Aloft, Approach offered a pop-up instrument clearance, which I accepted. A short hop returned us home.


I awoke in the darkness of early morning, confused. Where was I? Unfamiliar shadows loomed around me, but then slowly shifted back into phase with known memory, mentally dropping back into place with an almost physical clunk. I was home. Travel-addled, but home.

Pastor Rick told me that dying was work. Having watched it happen, I cannot dispute that, even if I cannot claim full understanding of what Mom experienced. For the bereaved, the process is also a journey. It is a journey plagued with diversions from the human element, exhaustingly complicated by law and bureaucracy and niggling details that distract from grief. With part of that journey theoretically complete and wrapped with the tidy bow of a memorial service, I found myself returned to the familiar. It is disorienting to undergo such a journey only to simply plug back into an unchanged life. These rites of passage change us, causing the same old life to fit differently than it once did.

As I pondered the odd lack of fit I experienced by returning to my own life, the understated closure to The Lord of the Rings came powerfully to mind:

"Well, I'm back."

And in that moment, I think I understood the sentiment that Tolkien was trying to express.

Why Do You Fly?

The tiny, two-seat, 100 horsepower Cessna 150 in which I learned to fly and in which Mom got her first flight with me, proudly proclaimed "commuter" on its battered blue and white cowling. It was an absurd name. Who would actually commute in such an incapable aircraft?

Partway across Canada between Sodus and Oakland County, May 19, 2018. 

The Warrior is more capable than that Cessna in virtually every dimension, yet is still a relatively simple, slow airplane that I never dreamed of using for routine transportation. Nonetheless, as of this writing, the Warrior dutifully carried me back and forth to Michigan nine times since June 30, logging 50.3 hours and covering over 5,040 nautical miles (5,796 miles) above Ontario farm country, sometimes in the clear and calm, sometimes shaken by turbulence, sometimes blinded by rain and clouds (5.8 hours IMC), sometimes around thunderstorms, sometimes in the dark (3.8 hours), and once with a dog on board (a story for another time).

Why do I fly?

Because hand flying a light aircraft is a joy. Because the view is spectacular. Because flying keeps me connected with the people who matter most. Would I have found other ways to see Mom at the end if I could not fly? Of course. But the airplane, my time machine, made it possible for me to virtually coexist in two lives at once.

N21481 at the Williamson Sodus Airport, August 31, 2018.

Therein lies another reason to fly, an unexpected addition to the list for 2018. Simple, quasi-routine, transportation. This reason lacks the lofty emotional resonance of the other three and it requires work and prudent planning, but it made a tremendous impact this summer by making aspects of my journey possible. When I bought a simple airplane in 2004 for making the aeronautical equivalent of Sunday drives, I never dreamed of this level of utility.

2018 was an important year for me to be a pilot. Who would have thought that all of Mom's support of my flying would someday mean that all of my flying would become support for her?


August 5, 2018.

Late summer sunshine brightened the small conference room at the church, casting an intense beam of light on the table that gave it an appearance of being lighted from within. I was there at Rick's invitation to finalize arrangements for Mom's memorial service. After describing the planned service, he asked me an open-ended question. "What should I know about your mom?"

I did not know where to begin and simply launched into a series of anecdotes. Out poured a rambling stream of consciousness narrative, vignettes of her teaching me to drive ("Oh, I've seen her drive," Rick interrupted with a sly smile), floating high above the world together in a balloon, and her excitement about flying with me for the first time in that tiny Cessna.

But real life is always more complicated than that. As we talked, I also told him about the dark times in the 1980s and of how my trust in her was damaged when I was young. I recounted a childhood memory of fleeing the house together in the middle of a cold winter night out of fear for our safety; one moment among many that illustrated what life was like for us in those years. Rebuilding trust was a painstaking process that occurred over a significant period of time, time that was spent learning to let go of childhood pain. With greater maturity, I came to understand that while good people sometimes make poor choices, those choices do not necessarily define them. I regret that it took so long.

"But you got there," Rick interjected kindly. "A lot of people don't. Treasure that."

This is the challenge in grieving. It is not just grappling with loss, though that is certainly a significant part. But it is also about sorting through a complex relationship to understand what it all meant and what has lasting importance.

Mom was steadfast in her support of all that I did. From fostering a love of reading when I was young, to proudly displaying a copy of my dissertation on her bookshelf after a five year graduate odyssey, to her genuine interest and support of my learning to fly. I know that she was not perfect, but she meant well, even in difficult times when the right path was unclear.

If there is anything that anyone needs to know about Mom, that's it. In the end, isn't that the best that could be said for any one of us?

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