It was just another typical day at the airport; mundane routines playing themselves out: people standing in line to check baggage, then standing in line for security, then waiting at the gate to finally begin boarding. Whewwww… good just to sit down for a little bit; even though the dreaded thought of “sitting” for hours on a trip back to the U.S. mainland made one want to jump back up and get in a few rounds of jumping-jacks; well, almost.
Thoughts of all the adventures of the past week were already beginning to be contextualized by what lay ahead. Time now to get back to “real life”: work, school, busy schedules, hectic routines, and all the daily fanfare that dictates our lives. But there were still the pictures and video clips to remind of good times past, of the freedom and adventure out there, never too far away, always beckoning return. And the promise of an eventual return made departure a little easier to stomach. But, for now, the return to “normalcy” demanded full attention.
Finally, the call came for boarding, and people dutifully filed onto the plane looking for seats and scouting for overhead bins. Everyone, perhaps with the exception of a few children, looked tired, bored, ready for a nap; or just ready to get this leg of the journey over with. The flight attendants went through their typical routine: “this is how you fasten a seat-belt, this is where the emergency exits are located, a life vest is located under your seat and this is how to use it, etc., etc., etc.,”—but no one paid much attention. Some had heard the same spiel dozens of times, some just wanted to appear that they had, and no one wanted to be reminded that air travel is inherently dangerous, or of the remote possibility that there could actually be some kind of emergency, someday.
All settled in, departure—1:37PM (PST)—take off, and the plane reached for the clouds. A familiar, gentle relaxation pervaded the cabin. The plane soon reached cruising altitude—on this flight, 31,000 feet. Some, covered with their little blankets, fought with their tiny airplane pillows—adjusting, readjusting—and tried to nap. Some just propped up their heads and gazed out the window to daydream. Others immediately took out Notebooks or IPads and got to work.
It was mid-afternoon over the broad, blue Pacific, but the cabin was dark so a few turned on their overhead lamps for reading. The flight crew was busy, but pacing themselves; it was just another routine flight. Early snacks and drinks were handed out to those who wanted them. Some purchased head-sets for music or waited for the in-flight movie.
Relaxation, bordering on boredom, turned thoughts toward hours already traveled—only two and half so far—and the number of hours still ahead. Stiff legs and sore backs began to ache for some relief. Some got up to go to the lavatory, some just to stretch. There would be a break in about another hour. For some, it would mark the end of their journey; but most would re-board the plane and continue. There had been a few mischievous bumps over the past half hour, despite an otherwise clear, smooth sky. But no one paid much attention. It was just typical air travel—you readjust, nestle down, and keep reading, watching, listening, snacking, and thinking about getting back to “real life.”
Suddenly the plane lunged forward, the nose dropped radically downward, and everyone felt themselves pressed hard against their seats. The three flight attendants, and a few others who were out of their seats, struggled for balance, grasping for whatever was in their reach; a few went down hard. The next eighty seconds seemed like a lifetime. “What is happening? No – This can’t be! Are we really going down?” Sheer terror seized everyone—fear and panic mingled with thoughts of loved ones, of so much left behind, of so much left undone. There was screaming. There was crying. Some tried to reach out to hold on to others. Most just clutched whatever was handy. Then, at about 23,000 feet, the plane began to level out.
To say people were “totally freaked” is an understatement. But, for the next eight to ten minutes hope returned, life returned: “Maybe we’re not going to die today!” There were feelings of gratefulness, feelings of anger, but, most of all, feelings of continue fear and the dread prospect that, perhaps, we’re not out of this yet. Everyone just wanted to feel good ole “terra firma” under their feet once more. A few found grim humor in the idea of comparing this experience with scary airplane stories that others had been through—they know that, from now on, they were probably going to win every such contest for the rest of their lives. One or two vowed that they would never fly again. Few were actually talking though; most were silently praying. A tense anxiety continued to grip the cabin.
Then, as if expected, everyone’s greatest fear was confirmed with a rapid series of loud thumps followed, about 15 seconds later, by the sound of some kind of explosion. Terror again gripped the cabin as the nose of the plane dropped radically earthward. This time, the dive was even more pressing; descending at a rate of more than 13,300 feet per minute. Everyone was pushed up hard against their seat-backs. There was a loss of cabin pressure and oxygen masks dropped; but few were able to reach them or even think about trying to retrieve the life-vest under their seat.
The plane went into a gentle roll and, within seconds, people found themselves hanging upside down gasping for breath in shear panic. Arms flailed! There was a sense of weightlessness; as if, were it not for their seat-belts, one might free-float about the cabin. In wide-eyed terror, some managed to eek out a scream. There was a discernible sobbing. Indistinguishable voices called out to one another, to God, to anyone; and, from somewhere in the chaos, there emerged that deep, dark, lonely, heart-rending wail of utter hopelessness.
At 4:22PM (PST), January 31, 2000, Alaska Airlines flight 261—from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to San Francisco, then on to Seattle—hit the ocean 2.7 miles north of Anacapa Island, California. The MD-83 was destroyed on impact. All 88 people onboard—crew and passengers—were killed instantly. (Alaska, 2012)
This is the story I was remembering and thinking about while flying high above the wide, blue Pacific on Hawaiian Airlines flight 107—from Kona to Honolulu—for pre-surgical consultations and tests. Looking out over the clouds and thinking about that Alaska flight got me to contemplating my perceptions of the past, the present, and the future. I was struck by the simple fact that the people who died that day had no idea it was going to be their last.
The story reminded me that anything can happen to any one of us at any time. This plane that I’m on right now, I thought, may or may not get me over to Oahu, and then back home to Kona later today. In fact, I could be battling cancer and die of a heart attack, or a shark attack while out body-boarding with my granddaughters. So why am I always thinking about what needs to happen tomorrow, or worrying about what that mystical fantasy—“the future”—may hold for me, rather than simply living in the moment? The Bible says:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16, NASB)
Yes, I’ll admit, this cancer has me a little spooked. I’m concerned about facing surgery next week, and what might follow. But I’m also convicted by the fact that yesterday is but a memory and tomorrow is just a fantasy—it’s not yet real. So, in a very real sense, today—this very moment—is all I have.
I can already relate to Jeff Tomczek’s wisdom when he talks about how cancer reshapes our outlook on life and says, “You’re going to feel like the future is a funny thing to think about because the present is going to suddenly seem incredibly important” (Tomczek, 2012). Already, I’m finding that thinking too far ahead—more than a couple of weeks, or even a few days—evokes an emptiness deep within me. I feel a pressing need to just “live in the moment,” without stressing over what “might be.” I feel the need to try to celebrate every day that God chooses to give me. I feel compelled to make it my goal, each day, to just love the people God scoots into my life.
Furthermore, I don’t want to just survive, or exist, or even “get ahead,” like so many who are forever pursuing the material concerns of this carnal world—as though this is really all there is. I don’t want to get so wrapped up in preparing for the future that I miss living in the present. Didn’t Jesus say, “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34, NASB)?
As for focusing on what’s really important, I’m reminded of the little story of Mary and Martha when Jesus came to have dinner at their house. As the story goes:
…Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:40-42, NASB)
As I sailed across the ocean that day on “the wings of the islands”—Hawaiian Airlines—I was also contemplating what happens within us when everything seems to spiral out of control; when the future becomes more than a little uncertain. I’ve been contemplating how I face the trials, tribulations, and tragedies of life. What if my “plane” is really going down? I want to be brave, but I wonder, am I just another panic stricken chicken—“Oh no, no, no, no, no – I’m not ready for this”? Or, do I move forward with the calm assurance of faith knowing that every step I take is another step closer home and to the beautiful realm God has waiting for me? Oh Lord, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24, NASB).
So anyway, my visit with the eye, nose, and throat (ENT) surgeon at Moanalua Medical Center in Honolulu went well enough, I suppose. However, I thought it was supposed to be only a verbal consultation—boy did I misinterpret that one! What I thought would be a thirty-minute meeting with the surgeon turned out to be a full day of testing, lab work, body probes, EKG, x-rays, and all kinds of pre-admission requirements and procedures. But the good news—if you want to call it that—is that the surgery, only one month after diagnosis, is now officially scheduled. The order says: “Thyroidectomy—remove a portion or all of thyroid gland and surrounding lymph nodes.”
“This is the day which the Lord has made;
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
(Psalm 118:24, NASB)