Drowning in the Sky

It is a brisk fall morning and Clipper winds are fairly howling out of the West as we descend over Lake Michigan, angling Northwest toward the boundary of Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  We find Reilly and her mom, Lori, in the terminal lobby, ready to go.

Reilly is a cute 9-year-old, slender with long brown hair and a pink GameBoy, unremarkable except for the little cart of oxygen that she tows casually behind.  A long, clear tube which supplies her mask is looped expertly over human limbs and the cart’s metal frame in a complicated pattern probably developed over years of experience.  She makes eye contact with her mother and no one else.  She is not unfriendly, but seems to conserve her focus … for what, I wonder?

Today Reilly is on her way to a hospital where doctors are fighting the disease which steals her breath and tries to steal her life.  The airplane’s cabin is comfortable, but Lori drapes a warm blanket over Reilly’s shoulders.  The GameBoy blinks, the headset slips on, and Reilly is ready to go.

As we head East along the peninsula and then South over Beaver Island, Bryan asks a few questions about Reilly’s condition. The answers are sobering but Lori speaks in a hopeful tone.  There is danger here, but Reilly’s problems seem to be an old and familiar adversary whom Lori refuses to fear.  Reilly pays little attention to the conversation; plays with her game and curls up under the blanket.

She reminds me a little of my youngest daughter and I think that, in Lori’s place, I might not be so brave.  I keep thinking of the pink GameBoy, the warm blanket, the sweet, safe harbor we try to build for our children, insulating them from the dark voids and sharp edges of this world.  But this privilege so common to parents — to seem a benevolent and near omnipotent giant, powerful to protect and please our children — has not been offered to Lori.

This mother-protector has learned to pick her battles against the intruder that stalks her daughter.  She has learned to be calm while her heart races.  She has learned to be wise, as a doctor is wise, about the mechanics of Reilly’s body, to acquire new weapons to use in her daughter’s defense.
But she cannot keep the intruder out; cannot absorb or obstruct or prevent its attack.  Lori does much to provide for Reilly, but she cannot breathe for her.  There is no safe harbor for this child; only the eye of a dangerous storm.

The trip is not long and we are soon within thirty minutes of our destination.  Our request for an early and more gradual descent is held up due to other traffic in the area and so we slow the airplane and, eventually, are cleared to start down.

Within a minute of beginning our descent, Lori sounds the alarm.  The intruder has slipped into our little airplane, and he is suffocating Reilly. The atmospheric pressure in the cabin has increased slightly as we have moved these few hundred feet closer to earth, and Reilly’s fragile lungs are not adjusting.

She gasps as though underwater, finds no relief.  Her lungs flail, confused, her blood grows dim.  Her brain loses its grip and she sinks into darkness.  Her heart is next; pleading for oxygen, it weakens and slows.

Lori quickly rechecks the mask, increases the oxygen flow, slips her hand again under the blanket and takes Reilly’s wrist, fingertips poised lightly, counting.  Her lips compress.  Reilly’s face is turning blue.

As Reilly struggles, we slow our rate of descent from four hundred feet per minute to two hundred … to one hundred, and then to zero.  Several minutes pass without improvement.  In the cockpit, we recalculate fuel reserves and in the cabin, Lori checks the meter on Reilly’s tank.  We are burning through finite supplies of fuel and oxygen, and time.

Bryan, more experienced than I, seems calm.  I seem calm, too, I suppose, but am not.  There is a little girl drowning not six feet away from me, so like my own little girl, and we are trapped, hovering like a sparrow over the wide ocean, unable to land.

We cannot stay up.  We cannot go down, or not much.  The eye of this storm is moving and we try to move with it.  We orbit Saginaw, shaving away thin layers of space from the mile and a half that separates us from earth, and help.

Lori, with much of her world at stake, must choose.  The mother’s tender heart, which writhes in anguish over this threat to her child, or the mother’s trained mind which has learned how to help, how to set aside all that is not needed in this moment.  For the hundredth time, she makes that choice.  She watches her daughter’s battle, measures Reilly’s strength, prays, tucks the blanket a little closer around her little shoulders.
After twenty minutes Reilly’s heart has fought back some and we turn in toward the airport.  She still sleeps but has survived.  Lori, who continues to monitor pulse and respiration, never raised her voice.  The drama here is quiet, familiar.  A breath of fresh air is exceptional in Reilly’s world; drowning is the rule.

We land and at some point during our taxi to the FBO, Reilly wakes up. We hear the sound of Lori’s calm and comforting voice welcoming her to consciousness as any mother might on the morning of any day.  It is an everyday voice without fear, the voice of a benevolent giant who makes the world seem safe, with a safety that Reilly’s intruder cannot violate.
Lori’s love for Reilly does not prevent the attack, it transcends it.

We are back in Saginaw the following week to take Lori and Reilly home.  Not long after we walk into the terminal a call comes in; the hospital has decided that Reilly is not yet strong enough for the flight.

Someone else took Reilly home the following week.  I have not seen her since, though I pray for her when I tuck my own little girl into bed at night.  It is Christmas time now and I think how blessed I am to have this child, and blessed that so much of what she needs is in my power to give.  And I wonder how it is for Lori and her husband, tucking a child into bed who needs what only God can give.

Not so different, perhaps.  Lori has reminded me of what our children need from us. Not just things, which come and go, but something that will never leave them.  Not a safety that keeps them from suffering but one that will carry them through it.  The gift our children need is peace, the knowledge that we are safe because we are loved with a love that is stronger and deeper and truer than the world, a gift we can only give if we have received it ourselves.

I watched Lori give this gift and saw reflected in her a still taller giant, who with faithful love and through great suffering became our peace, our Prince of Peace.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

John 14:27

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