The airplane shudders in the rough, black sky, ratchets down through rain and cloud toward a runway we cannot see. In the cockpit, we bounce and swerve like crash dummies, but Bob seems hardly to notice; tracks the radio beam precisely until black melds into gray and finally resolves into runway lights.
Bob does not have to be here. As a professional pilot, the last thing he needed today was another airplane ride, yet he’s been at work on this trip for 16 hours and 2,000 miles. It’s a been a long day, even by his standards, and he won’t make a dime, but he thought it was important.
An ambulance was waiting for us in Pontiac this morning; two brothers in trouble. Hugo’s trouble is an aggressive cancer that is quickly whittling his strong, young body down to skin and bone. Victor’s trouble is his brother.
We shut down near the ambulance, set up the long stretcher ramp that extends through the airplane’s door, lift Hugo upon it, then slide him in, lock his bed in place. A few minutes later, we clear Detroit’s airspace and point the airplane toward Houston.
It’s a busy flight for Bob. A large storm system curves from Texas to Minnesota, pokes east across our path. On the radio, pilots across Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi are talking to air traffic controllers, changing their route to avoid thunderstorms. We, too, are forced east, and slowed by strong headwinds.
In the back, Victor leans across the aisle, says something to his brother. I have been glancing back at them for a few hours now, surprised, but it is always the same. Victor is not sleeping or checking his phone or reading a book. He is not a companion, hitching a ride home. Hugo lifts a fragile arm and Victor reaches for him, takes Hugo’s hand in his own, holds it. Later, I see him hovering over the broken body, feeding, or cleaning. In better days, perhaps it was different between them, the normal rough play between strong men, but Hugo is not strong. He is like a boxer, swollen and bleeding and reeling, reaching for someone to catch him.
A few minutes later, I catch Victor’s eye, slide off my headset and ask how they’re holding up. He yells over the racket of the airplane, says they’re okay, but his eyes say something else. There is something he needs for me to understand, and he pulls out his phone, searches for a photo. The picture he shows me – a dashing young man, strong and happy – bears no resemblance to the ruined body beside us. “One year ago,” he says, holds my eye to make sure I get it. In the next photograph, I see the same handsome face, now marred by a strange bulge where cancer attacks. Victor says nothing further but watches my face. He wants me to know who lies here. A ruin, perhaps, but it is a holy ruin. This is his brother, whom he loves with a fierceness that needs no words.
After a fuel stop in Tupelo, we continue the slow grind toward Houston where another ambulance waits. The hours drag on and Victor, dry-eyed and calm, tends to his brother as tenderly as a mother would, rests his hand upon him, makes a neat little mound of wounded robes and blankets and whatever else he needed to keep his brother and the airplane clean.
When we finally land, I sidle carefully down the narrow aisle to open the door and notice the bundle. “I’m sorry,” Victor says, as if he had created a problem. “He got sick”. We reassemble the ramp and slide Hugo out of the airplane, stand aside as EMT’s move him to the ambulance. Victor thanks us yet again and soon they are on their way.
After a quick sandwich, we too are on our way; another 900 miles to go, thankful to finally have the wind at our back. Over the next few hours, I mull over the remarkable tenderness between the brothers, make a couple of comments to which Bob simply agrees. He’s not the kind of man to talk much about such things. Like Victor, he keeps his head and does what needs to be done as perfectly as it can be done – gets moving at 5 am on a Saturday, dodges thunderstorms all day and drags home around midnight, for people he does not even know – loves in a language more eloquent than words.
See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness—so he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.
— Isaiah 52