It is a family photo, much like any other.  Sabrina, a cute six-year-old, looks back from the center of the image, held securely in the arms of her smiling parents.  Big brother, standing slightly aloof, wears a serious expression befitting the dignity of late adolescence.  The brilliant afternoon sun gleams in their hair and divides the scene into sparkling highlight and dark shadow.
It is a typical family photo, except the family is standing in front of an airplane, preparing for a long ride home.  The smiles, on second glance, appear a bit worn.  And Sabrina is curiously limp; her arm hangs straight down and her father’s hand cradles her chin, his fingers gently directing her face toward the camera.  It is not that she will not look there, but that she cannot.
Sabrina is losing control.  It began three years ago with a steadily increasing clumsiness.  Three-year-olds are not noted for grace, so it was easy to hope that this would pass in time.  A year later, she began to stutter.  Not long after, her arms began to move in strange, repetitive patterns and Sabrina could not make them stop.  There were many doctor visits but no solution and, over the next few months, Sabrina gradually lost the ability to walk and, now, the ability to talk.
The answer came about four weeks ago; Sabrina has Tay Sachs, a rare disease that slowly and relentlessly disables the nervous system, isolating body from soul.  Sabrina is alert and passionate, but her body is a car without a steering wheel; it goes where it will and she is along for the ride.
This week, the family has been at a research hospital in Minneapolis conferring with doctors who study the disease.  They offer little hope; current treatments are painful and ineffective.  Dan and Ensenia decide to spare Sabrina that trauma; to surround her with love, to do for her what she can no longer do for herself, to pray that her little body is not coasting to a stop.
We load up and depart the small airport at St. Paul, swaying in our seats on this warm and gusty afternoon.  When we have settled into a climb over southern Minnesota I ask Dan a few questions.  As he answers, I unwrap the chocolate bar I had just secured from the FBO’s vending machine.  It has been a busy day and, nutritious or not, it looks good.  I break off a piece and offer the rest to Dan.  He declines, telling me that he loves sweets but does not eat them anymore.  When Sabrina became ill he vowed to abstain until she got better.  He does not say this for effect, does not say it to reduce my enjoyment, but the candy bar goes back into the wrapper.  I savor, quietly, the bite I had already taken, savor the knowledge that my three beautiful daughters are well, settle into the awareness that Dan gracefully shoulders a load of loss and worry and sorrow that might crush me.
I remember the moment of looking for them as I walked into the FBO.  They were not hard to spot; it was a small lobby with but one family inside.  A tired family far from home and far from well, but Ensenia’s smile turned on like a beacon turns on, registering recognition and filling the room with its light.  There is much darkness pressing in around this family, but there seems to be something stronger pressing out, a light that overwhelms the darkness.
As we drone along, I look back occasionally.  Ensenia holds Sabrina close, nestled as any young child would into her mother’s lap, and smiles to indicate that they are ok.  In the back, young Adam reads.  He wants to be a physician, Dan says.  Even now, Adam plays an active role in Sabrina’s care and in consultations with the doctors.  He reads their reports and understands much of their discussions and helps Mom and Dad process their recommendations.
I am struck by the irony here: the disease attacks Sabrina’s connection to the world around her, but inadvertently strengthens it.  This family is not just managing the disability of one member; it is reconfiguring itself to remain complete.  Sabrina cannot protect herself, so Dan works and prioritizes and sacrifices to somehow provide the shelter she needs.  Sabrina cannot understand her illness, so Adam lays aside some of his youth and applies his strong young mind to learn how medicine can help.  Sabrina cannot care for her own body, but Ensenia can see in her eyes and hear in her voice enough to understand and meet the need.  Disease has silenced Sabrina’s speech and has stilled her hands and her feet, and so her family has become her voice and hands and feet.  The attack tries to make Sabrina a prisoner, but her family’s love makes her a queen.  What disease has stolen, love has replaced. 
True, to replace is not the same as to restore, and help is provided at great expense.  Sabrina remains disabled and, often, frustrated.  Dan, Ensenia and Adam are not free to do what they might otherwise have done, unencumbered with Sabrina’s care.  But I don’t think they see it in those terms.  Dan speaks of God’s plan for them, even now, as if love’s counter-attack can succeed, as if Sabrina’s story is not, in the final telling, a tragedy after all.  As if, in their serving and sacrifice, the members of Sabrina’s family are not diminished, but rather clarified and made complete and Sabrina, though separated from her own body, is set free from our common fear of being left alone. 
Sabrina’s life is sharply divided between the dark shadow of her terrible disease and the brightness of her family’s love and faith.  She cannot tell me how she feels, but I look back to see her nestled in her mothers’ arms, at peace.
In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
John 1:5

First Lesson

I walked to my car the other day among a swirl of leaves.  Autumn has snuck up on me again and, as it always does, kicked up a storm of memory, a swirl of images bright as these first brittle leaves, borne along by unseen zephyrs.  They lie still for a just a moment, then scatter again.  Scatter like the faces of friends now long unseen.  Scatter like the years.  Scatter and are borne along by forces beyond my understanding.
There is a bright image in my mind as I pile into the car: The runway is falling away behind us, magically. I knew it would but I did not expect it to feel like this.  Wonderful.  Terrifying.  Somewhere inside me, a suspicious organ squirms, reminds that this is not normal.  It is 1978 and Bruce is giving me my first lesson in the 150.  I look at him and think, Can I do this? 
There have been a lot of autumns since then, a lot of faces and a lot of runways.  Can I do this?  I am still answering that question.  Flying is more wonderful every year.  No longer terrifying, but challenging, variable, vast.  Perhaps, like the poet, I have been allowed this gift: “to slip the surly bonds of Earth and touch the face of God”, but I know He stoops to make it so. 
And I stand on the shoulders of better men.  As I write this, I feel Larry’s calloused hands banging on my shoulders in the tandem Cub, his laughter ringing through the intercom in genuine delight when (at irregular intervals) I do it right.  I hear Bruce, my first instructor — well, the words are gone by now, but the cheerful and reassuring tone echoes still.  I think of Bryan, who welcomed me back into flying with his patient instruction and his — now my — wonderful old V-tail.  I remember Barry, moving methodically through an examination of my knowledge and skill, yet unable to suppress his love of the craft and his desire to make every pilot better.  I hear the friendly and soothing voice of Richard who, after many televised hours of wisdom and humility, seems almost a friend.
 Well, my car is at the airport now and soon the runway is falling away behind us again.  But it is Jason’s hand on the yoke today, a bright young man with the head and the heart to carry this flame nobly.  And it is my voice droning over the intercom, my voice praising and cajoling, my voice that will rattle around in his head for years after his initial training is complete.  My hands are in my lap, except to slap his shoulder in celebration of good work and, on occasion, to keep him safe until the measure of his skill approaches the measure of his love. 
I suppose that it is my autumn now.  Or, let us say, late summer; there is yet some strength in me and, I hope, many more years of work in airplanes and out.  But the trend is clear.  Like the leaf which has soaked up the spring rains and summered in green vitality, I have received much and I am thankful.  It is my turn to collect what I have learned from Bruce and Larry and Bryan and Richard and Barry — and a dozen other personal heroes – and find a way to package it up and give it away.  For this treasure, this privilege of flight can only be preserved by passing it on.
A few weeks have passed.  The warm, long evenings of late summer have been supplanted by the chill winds and early dusk of late fall.  Jason will solo tonight.  A few landings together and I shake his hand, tell him he’s ready and step clumsily out of the airplane.  He trusts me, knows that I trust him, and so trusts himself.  He taxis back toward the end and I wonder what else I should have said. 
Too late now; I’m pretty much a soccer mom on the side of this small-town runway, a spectator far from the action, camera around my neck.  I look over my shoulder and see that I will have action after all.  Half a dozen deer are grazing near the runway, having just slipped from the woods a hundred yards off.  I don’t remember the procedure specified in the Airman’s Information Manual; I just run at them like a fool, whooping and waving my clipboard over my head while Jason calmly performs his run-up. 
And it strikes me that this is what I love about flying: that God allows His face to be touched by any man or woman willing to reach so far.  It is a stretch, it is a risk, it is a gift almost beyond belief.  In taking to the sky, we renounce the spirit that says “security first”.  We entrust ourselves to our machines, to our skill, to the physics of an orderly but untamed atmosphere.  We visit a world that is not our own.
Jason has finished his checklist, takes the runway and barrels ahead.  I stand a quarter mile upwind; he hurtles toward me, the roar of the old 172 shifting phase as he approaches, lifts and soars overhead.  Jason is a pilot.
I do not often string together three such graceful landings as the student did that night.  I’m sure it had more to do with his love of the craft than the quality of his education, but I’m proud to have been there to cheer him on.  Proud to have stood alongside that little runway, shivering in the fragrant autumn dusk with my head full of grateful  memories, knowing that I have cherished this treasure and this privilege that others handed to me, and that I have served  it, too,  by handing it along to another.