Why you should care
Because the push-and-pull of family connection — and separation — is universal.
Carin Clevidence is the author of the novel The House on Salt Hay Road. Her work has appeared in O, Five Chapters and the Michigan Quarterly Review.
“What are you looking for?” I ask the pilot as he opens the hatch on the engine compartment of the little, four-seater plane. The spring sun blazes on the tarmac around us. He’s done the pre-flight check before, of course, but this is my first time tagging along.
“Bird’s nests. Loose wires.” He closes the hatch and ducks under the wing with a glass tube in one hand.
“Fuel sump. I’m checking for sediment.” He holds the tube up. “See? It’s clear.” Unscrewing the cover on the wing, he pours the fuel back inside. Then he leans over the opening and breathes in, deeply: “I love that smell!”
Why am I letting this child fly a plane? It seems like only yesterday I was telling him not to stick pancake up his nose.
Minutes later we’re in the plane, the sound of the engine roaring around us. Nervously, I adjust my headphones. We taxi down the narrow runway, faster and faster. Then the plane lifts into the air. “Watch those trees on the left hand side,” warns Dave, the instructor, as we leave behind a bright green field. We’re climbing at 1,000 feet per minute. A mountain looms out the front window, the Connecticut River gleams beneath us. “Pitch for 80,” says the instructor. “Eighty gives you the most efficient climb rate.” From the back seat, I peer toward the instrument panel and all its confusing dials.
As the pilot reaches down to adjust a lever, the plane wobbles in the air. My heart clenches. Why am I letting this child fly a plane? He’s barely 13 years old. It seems like only yesterday I was telling him not to stick pancake up his nose.
My son’s father suffers from an anxiety disorder. It went undiagnosed for years and first manifested as a fear of flying. I was pregnant when he told me he never wanted to get on an airplane again. I tried to reassure him and downplayed how this would affect us. In secret despair I thought of my family across the country, of all the places in the world I longed to go. I still remember the feeling of the world shrinking around me.
We live near a small airport in Northampton, Massachusetts. On sunny weekends, the sky is crisscrossed with planes. My son loves to watch them. For his tenth birthday, I got him a scenic flight, from this same airport. His older sister and I sat in the back while he perched up front, straining to see out the window. It was windy that day and though the turbulence rattled me, my son loved every minute.
When he told me he wanted to learn to fly, I said, “Great. When you grow up.” He frowned. “Why do I have to wait?”
Even as a baby, he didn’t want to be treated like one. He has always craved independence. He’d push against the high chair, demanding to sit at the counter like his sister, and throw his socks across the floor when he couldn’t pull them on himself. Tasks he couldn’t master on his own infuriated him. Yet those were the ones he sought out. In preschool he tried to write his name in cursive. At his first ski lesson he skied backwards on purpose.
So when he told me he wanted to learn to fly, I said, “Great. When you grow up.”
He frowned. “Why do I have to wait?”
Now here he is in the pilot’s seat. His dad and I are divorced. And I am a mother in my son’s hands. “Don’t chase the needles,” Dave tells him, reaching out to cover the instrument panel with his clipboard. “Look out the window.” I bite my bottom lip. He can’t see the controls! Squirming in my seat I peer below us. The cars on I-91 seem very far away.
There’s a crackle of static as Dave calls the control tower: “Touch-and-go, Northampton.” The runway is coming up fast. My heart lurches into my throat.
We head toward the landing strip, nose first. “Start flaring,” Dave instructs, and my son pulls back on the controls. The plane hangs above the runway. We land with a bump, and another bump. We’re on the ground! Relief rushes through me. And then the engine revs again. We surge forward. The plane lifts back into the air. It turns out, this lesson is all takeoffs and landings.
There are other perspectives he gives me on the world. But none this dramatic.
Halfway through our third rotation, I finally relax enough to take in the view. I recognize the Summit House, part of Skinner State Park, white and stark above the trees on Mount Holyoke. I see the sweeping bends of the river, tiny figures splashing on a sandy beach. Fields spread below us like worn corduroy, green and brown. I see a school with a baseball diamond, a cemetery dotted with pale headstones, the blue rectangles of swimming pools.
My son adjusts the trim and thinks about things like downwind. He pitches for numbers I don’t understand. He completes seven successful “touch-and-goes.” There are many ways this boy astounds and delights and outstrips me. There are other perspectives he gives me on the world. But none this dramatic.
The plane banks to the west, over the railroad bridge. The sunlight glitters on two miniature kayaks below. Through my son’s eyes, I see our familiar landscape, astonishingly changed. My world expands toward the horizon.
I restrain myself from leaning forward and kissing the back of the pilot’s head. I don’t want to distract him. After all, he has a plane to fly.