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Life Arts    H3'ed 6/5/09

Reflections From 5,000 Feet

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My heart breaks with every tragedy I hear of.  Why, why is there such sadness and grief on this earth? 

It is natural, I suppose, for tragedy to be more emotionally comprehensible when the numbers are small, the individuals identified.  My mind rails at the injustice of millions of victims of political persecution, war or genocide; but my heart cries for the husband, wife, son, or daughter  who was prematurely taken from the womb of family and friends.

When tragedy claims multiple victims, I have tended to focus on one or two, with whom I most closely identify, to project a human face on my sadness and dismay.  When I was young, it was generally someone close to me in demographics, i.e. gender and age.  A twenty-something life cut short, and there, but for the grace of Fate, go I.  Once I became a parent, my focus shifted to mourning the deaths of children whose ages were near my own offspring’s.  The tragic death of a young girl my daughter’s age in the Northridge Earthquake of 1994, personalized the sadness I felt at the unimaginable loss of so many “good people” in that natural disaster.  Such ruminations, on the fragility and the ephemerality of life, can inspire questions about the nature and purpose of life, on the existence of God, and on the human capacity, and one’s own capacity, to cope with unbearable calamity.  Such ruminations, I venture to say, can also inspire visits to a therapist for post-traumatic stress disorder.

I have always been a fearful flier, and, paradoxically, a student of air catastrophes.  Owning a home in Europe, I am also a frequent flier, and, with cognitive behavioral coaching and adequate doses of Xanax, I make it through, and even enjoy those quiet, awe-inspiring moments when the plane is smoothly skimming over puffy white clouds and snow-capped mountains.  Turbulence terrifies me, but I always comforted myself with the oft-quoted saw that planes are built to withstand much more than nature can offer.  Ha.

And so, another tragedy.  And its face for me became an eleven-year-old boy, chaperoned on his way back to Europe and his boarding school.  I found myself imagining not only the passengers’ terror, but the grief of a mother whose child was torn forever from her figurative arms, a mother whose arms were not there to comfort her child at the edge of the abyss.  And, despite the cultural milieu that supports such a decision, I found it hard to imagine how a mother could comfortably let her pre-teen son travel half-a-world away without her by his side.

My youngest son is now thirteen and, though he is a bright, mature, and capable young man, I would be loath to send him to our European home and the nearby relatives without me or my husband accompanying him.  I suppose I must accept that I am hovering close to being a helicopter parent.  Boarding schools, a staple of some families’ lives in some cultures, should be relegated to the historical fiction bookshelf that displays “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, or even “Harry Potter”.  I firmly believe that for the great majority of teens, and, especially for all tweens, as is more typical in the US, the daily trek to middle and high school should begin from home.

And then the fog rolls in and I cannot fly my helicopter, my visibility is limited.  My no-longer-a-baby boy comes to me with field trip permission slips, field trips that will take him to other states, other homes, other paths beyond the fantasy of my protective shields.  I hesitate, my stomach churning, even as I see the eagerness, the excitement in his eyes.  He is not, as I fear, on the cusp of the abyss, but the cusp of life, ready to spread his wings and soar to new experiences—on his own.  And I force a smile, and I sign.  “Have a wonderful time,” I hear myself saying, as I hold myself back from adding, “Be careful”, lest I clip his wings.  I wait, hoping that the hand of Fate will return him to me once again, knowing that his time with us will be shorter and shorter as he grows--and knowing that that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  My fervent wish that he be at my side forever would be a death sentence for his life—I must, as the parent I want to be, help him find his wings and fly off to his future.

I cannot begin to imagine the grief of the families whose loved ones were lost on Flight 447.  Perhaps they can, as can we all, find some comfort in the knowledge that the travelers now gone were soaring to their futures, actively living, tasting, experiencing, and enjoying, however briefly, the gift of life.

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Jill Jackson is a practitioner of kindness and common sense. Unlike her cat, she prefers to think out of the box.

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