Bill hoists himself into the airplane with his one good arm. The other, if he has another (it did not seem right to ask) is tucked inside his jacket. The sleeve hangs empty. You can tell that he has long been a strong man, that he is more surprised than deflated by this weakness. He does not know how to be ill.
Kathy reminds me of a kindly British mum, with her prim face and little hat. We were told that her body harbors a rare form of cancer, a stow-away that sneaked on board and produced a brood of tumors that now grow throughout her body. The storm within does not disturb the calm surface of her regal face or strain her quiet voice. Somehow, she radiates only gentleness.
Bill and Kathy had not met before this morning, but both have appointments at the Mayo Clinic. Kam and I made the short hop from Grand Rapids to meet them here and now we are off together in the Bonanza to Minnesota.
After the busy few minutes in which we establish the airplane on its course around Chicago, I hear Bill’s voice on the intercom. He is telling a story about making this trip by train; about day-long delays spent pacing around the terminal and being jolted crazily as the train lurched around curves. His voice is cheerful; he is telling this as a joke on himself and occasionally chides me when the bumping of the airplane reminds him of a rough stretch of track. This is funny, I suppose, but we both know that he has a hole somewhere in his spinal cord, that it is dangerous for him to be bounced around.
Kathy sits behind the cockpit, facing aft. I cannot see her face but occasionally hear her voice. She, too, has made the long sojourn in railway cars and automobiles. I recoil from the thought of it; she seems so frail. You get the feeling that, just below the surface, she is wrestling an exhausting battle with pain. So far, this morning at least and seen from a distance, her gentleness prevails.
Well, we can help some, Kam and I who fly, and Jonathan who donated the use of his airplane. (And, of course, Sharon and Grace who arranged the trip, and Terry and Dan and Peter, and the hundreds of others who keep this ministry going.) The flight will take less than three hours and, Bill’s jokes aside, will deliver them to their doctors not much the worse for wear.
When we arrive in Rochester, Bill and Kathy deplane. She, graceful and cautious. He, a bit awkward and off-balance but, capable with his one good arm, ejects himself manfully and unassisted. They are both effusive in their gratitude and praise of the flight. They collect themselves in the terminal, are soon bundled into a cab, and roar off toward the hospital.
In that quiet moment as our patients drive away, in the tug of the strange vacuum that always forms as people you have come to care about pass out of your sight, I search for the right emotion. Yes, we helped some. We fixed nothing, but we lightened their load a bit, perhaps reminded them that they are precious, that the battle they fight is worth fighting.
But love is losing, is it not? The love expressed by family, by friends, by Wings of Mercy does not chase the evil from their bodies. While the speed of our airplanes has, on occasion, saved a life, more often our service is woven into a tapestry that includes threads of both comfort and tragedy. We do not so often airlift our friends out of the valley of the shadow of death as travel with them a short way through it.
Many of the wounds we see are too deep for medicine, let alone airplanes. This discourages me until I remember our calling. We fly not so much to rescue as to remind (and be reminded) that God himself was once “a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering”. On that day, some two thousand years ago, when the sky turned black and the earth shuddered at the touch of the dying King’s blood, he “took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows”. We follow his lead and, if there be any hope for us or for our patients, it will be by his wounds that we are healed.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds, we are healed.
Isaiah 53: 4-5