September 12th, 2001. The day after. A nation mourns and the skies are empty… or almost empty. With permission from the FAA, a Wings of Mercy crew flies from Holland, Michigan to Cleveland, transporting Walter Johnson for spinal surgery.
Two years earlier, Walter had been in a car accident and sustained a potentially crippling injury. (The same injury that paralyzed Christopher Reeve – television’s Superman.) Even before the collision, Walter had trouble with his back, cutting short his career with a semi-pro basketball team affiliated with the Harlem Globetrotters, and launching a season in his life of almost perpetual pain.
Looking back in 2011, Walter wrote, “When you do nothing but suffer for twenty years, you turn from the physical side of your life to the spiritual side. Wings of Mercy has not only helped me get to and from my surgeries but has helped me grow spiritually through their compassion for others.”
Paul Elzinga and Kristi Gerritsen piloted the Beechcraft Bonanza on that sober Wednesday, getting Walter to the Cleveland Clinic for the surgery he needed. It was strange to be the only airplane in the sky, strange to be met at the airport by the police and escorted to the hospital, but it was one small way in which our nation carried on and began to heal.
The pilot is a Texan, resettled for some years in Michigan, but still a Texan; plainspoken, fiercely independent, sometimes gruff. I sent him a text on Saturday about a patient who needed to get home from the Mayo Clinic. He called back and I could tell by his voice that he didn’t really want to go, and he could tell by my voice that I didn’t really want to ask, but a day later, here we are, shutting down in Rochester, MN.
Texans are pretty tough, I think. As we struggle out of the hot airplane and scuff across the smoldering ramp, I see that he’s still dragging his leg a bit, pushing through an injury he didn’t bother to mention the last time I asked him to help.
We whoosh through the sliding glass doors, into the sweet, cool air of the FBO where Liz, the patient, is waiting. She’s had a rough time, enduring a series of painful surgeries and bone transplants, but she is cheerful and thankful and ready to go home. Liz reminds me a little of the last patient we flew together, the Texan and I. Debra was returning to Marquette, weak and in pain, and desperate to get home.
Texans are pretty tough, but – like all supermen – they have their Kryptonite. For this guy, it’s people in trouble. About an eighth of an inch beneath the crusty Texan exterior, I suspect that Scott is full of goo. His leg hurts, and it’s hot as blazes and there are a million other things he could be doing with his Sunday, but those things all hurt less than knowing that he could have helped someone but didn’t.
This is sort of a story about Scott and Liz and Debra, but it’s also a story about Alsae, Scott’s granddaughter. A few months ago, when she faced her own crisis, Wings of Mercy was able to help and, well, any friend of Alsae is a friend of Scott’s. Since then, he’s donated his time and airplane to help quite a few people. Her mom once told me that “Alsae’s light shines bright”, and so it does. Her courage and love for life now shine through Scott upon Liz and Debra and others. That’s what love does; melts our heart of stone and turns us to goo, helps us feel the ache in the stranger.
So this is sort of a story about Scott, but it’s also a story about all our pilots; tough guys (and a few gals) who push themselves hard to become strong and capable. But their strength is only half of the story. When the phone rings or the email arrives – the sometimes-annoying people at Wings of Mercy again, asking for help – something strange often happens. Beneath the tough exterior, a big heart pounds. The pilot remembers a brave and beautiful face – an Alsae or Liz or Debra, remembers that someone is hurting, and decides that whatever else he had planned to do that day is not so important after all.
———— This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36
I know; Fathers’ Day is over. For a few weeks, we thought a little more about the man who first gave shape and color to our world, who gave us one of our first images of our self. Perhaps it was an image of something precious, to be treasured and protected, or… perhaps not. It’s a risky thing to be born, to enter a world of giants, to be so powerless and fragile. It is also a fearsome thing to be the giant to whom a child is given. There are so many ways to fail and to forget, so many things you must surrender if you are to become the good giant, the one who carves out of the hard world a soft, safe place for your child.
Our father was our first hero if he was any father at all; awesome in size and strength. We reached for his giant hand and stared up into his face and hoped to see a smile, some assurance of his love. It is a picture woven into the world, repeated in the experience of every child: our weakness cast upon another’s strength, our desperate need for someone’s mercy, the beauty and necessity of compassion.
Christians recognize in this the careful design of a Creator who built a universe to help us know him, who placed on human fathers the frightening responsibility of having almost godlike power over their children. It seems a terrible risk, and some men prove it so. But, for many more, becoming a father is a door to redemption, an invitation to choose godlike love over our natural gigantic ambition.
I love these pictures because they show what happens when we accept that invitation. Day by day, our pilots practice the beautiful art of Fatherhood, using their strength to care for people who are not strong. We hope to emulate, in our small way, the greatest giant of all, who laid down his life for his friends, and the one Father who is truly good.
She sneaks into the room, leans over the bed and studies the little face, listens to him breathe. He seems ok, so she moves to the next bed, and then the next, and then the next, then she lets out a sigh and slips away, back to her own dark room. She closes her eyes but does not let go of the world, dozes off for a few minutes until the alarm in her mind sounds and she opens her eyes, rolls out of bed, does it all over again, hour after hour until the morning comes.
It has been this way for four years, since the day the quadruplets were born – the day much of her old life ended. And it was quite a life – a job she loved, her third master’s degree almost complete… and she slept through the night. Well, that was then… Her eyes open. Another trip to the kids’ room. She stares longest at Kolten, whose life has been especially hard. Already, he’s been through liver failure, through desperate surgeries that saved his life but, in the process, removed most of his intestine and most of his ability to receive nutrition. Even worse were the months she spent pleading for those surgeries, refused by doctors who thought he would die on their operating table.
Kolten weighed only two pounds when he was born – far too small – but he was twice as big as his brother. Doctors looking into her womb saw the littlest one as a lost cause and wanted to remove him but, no, she said, and she hovers over him now, runs her fingers over his dark hair. Sweet Mason. She checks on her sleeping daughters, Ava and Mila, then goes back to bed for a while.
Shayla could probably do anything she wanted to do, and this is what she chooses. Her degrees are not in medicine, but she seems to know every drug and doctor and test and procedure that might help her kids get better. She trained to be a counselor, but life changed her job description. “I’m a huge fighter now”, she says, laughing, and you wonder how such a transformation occurs. Not so long ago, she was a little girl who loved the north woods, the dappled light under the tall trees, the fragrant soil, the freedom and silence and solitude. So unlike a hospital…
Margaret’s story is not so different. For her, as a kid, it was all about horses and the fun of a big family. She didn’t give much thought to marriage, let alone the possibility of laying her life aside to care for a sick child. But she grew up, got married, and her life changed – specifically, on the tenth day after her daughter was born, when they found a malignant tumor in her neck.
For Margaret and Shayla, the birth of their kids brought a sudden end to the quiet and simplicity they had loved, an abrupt relocation into a stainless-steel world of harsh lights and long halls, fragrant antiseptics, the noise and bustle and seeming imprisonment of life in a hospital.
At first, it was too much. “I felt so fragile and weak,” Margaret said. “When a doctor was coming down the hall, I would go the other way and let her dad handle things. But day by day, I got stronger and more independent and, together, we fought for not just Megan’s life, but for her quality of life, too.”
Margaret’s ordeal is behind her now. Her daughter survived the terrifying surgeries and gained strength, grew up and pushed on through college and a master’s degree. Shayla’s fight continues today and is far from over.
At Wings of Mercy, we often talk about kids and airplanes, but this month we’re especially thinking about the incredible people we call moms – about Margaret and Shayla and all the rest; mothers of sick kids and mothers of healthy kids; little girls who grow up and lay their lives aside to build a safe place for their children, who pray and protect and give comfort even when they have themselves run dry.
We often talk about places we go, but this month we’re thinking about where we began; the womb in which God formed us; the extraordinary person who – with love like his own – gave herself for us. Thank you, mothers. You are worthy of greater honor than we can give.
You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Rochester, MN – You never want to see an ambulance on a runway, but there it was, strobes flashing, EMT’s busy over the little body on the stretcher. Stunned, the pilot turned away, walked back toward his airplane, fished out the last of the bags and stacked them on the pavement.
The flight had gone well, and Rochester was just over the horizon when the girl’s father rushed to the cockpit, yelling that something had gone wrong with the baby’s breathing. Peter had done what he could – had radioed the emergency to air traffic control, had pushed the nose down, pushed the throttles forward, pushed the airplane as fast as it would go. Touching down, he immediately shut the engines off as the ambulance roared up behind him on the runway, then he opened the airplane and got out of the way, let the medical people take over.
A few minutes later, a slamming of doors, a puff of diesel smoke, the growl of the ambulance rushing away toward Mayo Clinic. Peter watches them shrink into the distance and, suddenly, the runway is very quiet. It is two days before Christmas, and he had been praying for a miracle for James and Margaret and their little girl. Anything but this. He turns back to his airplane, hears his tired steps scrape over the pavement, feels an empty feeling.
. * * * *
Chicago, IL – Two hundred miles away, a volunteer at the cancer center tilts her head slightly to meet a child’s eye, then smiles and reaches for his hand. Megan, the volunteer, knows the child’s fear because she’s been there herself. She reaches with her left hand because her right hand doesn’t work. She tilts her head a little because her right eye doesn’t work. She smiles because life is good – no matter what cancer has taken away from her – and life is never so good as when she is leading someone else out of that dark valley.
She doesn’t measure her life in what she has lost, but what she is able to give, and mostly what she gives is hope. “I’m fortunate,” she says, “because I don’t have any memory of being able to see out of both eyes or having the use of my right hand, so adjusting to it was easy.” Megan has an unusual concept of easy, and an unusual determination to contribute.
This is her third job supporting cancer victims – the best way for her to serve until she finishes her second teaching degree. After that, she hopes to help sick kids learn. Her mom says that, even with the disease and the surgeries and their side-effects, Megan always wanted to do things herself. Having already survived three cancers and earned a master’s degree, it’s clear that adversity has not changed her mind.
. * * * *
Back in Rochester, on Christmas Eve, a surgeon at Mayo walks into the waiting room, meets Margaret’s eye. She stiffens, holds her breath as he prepares to speak, then relaxes a little when he nods and gives her a grim smile. The procedure was successful. They have removed the tumor. Margaret’s two-year-old daughter is already down one eye and perhaps scarred from the surgery, but there is still hope. A few minutes later, James calls Peter and gives him the miracle he had been praying for.
It was flight number three for Peter’s new project – which Joan, his wife, had named “Wings of Mercy”. The child’s survival feels like a validation of his vision, a memory to hold up against that empty feeling you sometimes get in dark valleys, even when you are trying to do the right thing.
Margaret knows that feeling all too well. She found the first tumor when her baby was only ten days old. The following year, there was another, and now this. Margaret has spent much of the last two years in hospitals, sitting at her daughter’s bedside, or pacing brightly lit halls, or fretting in waiting rooms, her head jerking up each time someone comes through the door.
There is, sometimes, a feeling of great hope. At other times, there is just the quiet, the questions, the need to walk on, not knowing where your steps will lead. Like Peter, she and James are trying to do the right thing, not knowing what comes next, but maybe that’s how holy things feel in this hard world. If there is an angel choir, you cannot hear it. Just the sounds of your shoes scraping on the pavement, or squeaking down a long hospital hall, a door swinging open to bring good news – or bad.
. * * * *
Chicago, IL – Megan finishes her session with the patient family and waves as they file out the door. She pauses for a moment to remember what it was like when she was, herself, that sick and scared. She remembers how her mom, Margaret, was always there and always so proud of her, remembers the story Margaret often told about Christmas in 1991, when Megan was just a baby, and a pilot named Peter rushed them to the hospital on the day she nearly died.
They were stubborn, these people who had fought for her life, with little to encourage them but love – pressing on through silence and darkness and doubt, as if moving to the music of another world.
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul… Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me