We met Derek and Maria in Kalamazoo. Derek has cancer or, it seemed to me, cancer has Derek.
He is thin. No, less than thin. On the outside, he is a stick man. A rickety tree, its branches barren. A man trapped inside a building that is leaning, wavering, soon to fall.
His wife is there, and three children who do not understand why their father is slowly disappearing before their eyes.
We are going to Texas where Derek’s family is waiting for this last homecoming. Even in Mike’s powerful airplane, it is to be a long flight.
I look back every few minutes to see how they are doing. I soon learn that there is strength in Derek that cancer cannot reach. He often meets my eye across the noisy cabin and nods. I’m ok. He does not look for sympathy, offers no complaint. After a while, he is able to sleep.
We slowly trace a line across Illinois and into Missouri. Our course is against the wind and we stop for fuel. A few minutes later we are back in the airplane, riding out a slow, jangling climb through a thin layer of clouds to smoother air, and two hours later, down again for more fuel in Texarkana.
Derek’s wife sits one row forward, facing him, her back to me. She lies down across the seats but I cannot tell if she sleeps. Derek shifts, sometimes closes his eyes. When he notices me watching he meets my eye, nods, asks for nothing.
Finally, we bump our way down through somber layers of overcast and land at San Antonio. It is closing time but the control tower at Stinson kindly passed news of our approach and the FBO operator is waiting for us and has guided Derek’s waiting family to the building by the time we taxi up.
A man who must be Derek’s father comes up to the airplane as soon as we shut down. His eyes are wide. He is looking for his son. He reminds me of a tree that has withstood many storms. Not a willow. An oak, broad and strong.
Before we can clear away our maps and struggle out of the cockpit, Derek’s wife has opened the passenger door which, as it happens, blocks the walkway down the wing, and we are stuck, no longer in charge, awkward bystanders to this wonderful and terrible reunion.
We wait quietly for a couple of minutes, but Derek is too weak to get out of his seat. I ask his wife to close the door so Mike and I can get out of the airplane. Derek’s father is there as we step down, shaking our hands and thanking us, friendly and worried and kind and, above all, anxious to get his son out of the airplane, to get him home.
We help Derek turn in his seat and ease him to the step and then to the ground. Carefully, tentatively, he stands on his own, and we edge away. Derek’s father takes his frail son in his arms, holds him tenderly as if he might break. Holds him for a long time as if he could, by his love, pass his own strength into him.
The tears run down his sturdy, weathered face. What good is strength you cannot use to protect those you love? Another storm.
There is not much more to tell. We were thanked and hugged, we waved as they piled into a truck and drove away. And, yes, I told Derek that I would pray for him. And I do.
Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you” and I believe it. I saw that kind of love in Derek’s father, who would, I think, have given every fiber of his powerful frame to build a safe place for his child.
“I will come back again and will take you to be with me”, He said, and that is my great hope because every life is short. Our souls, too, live in a frail frame and our days here, whether they will be many or few, are slipping quickly away.
And this is what Wings of Mercy has to say to the world. Airplanes cannot give life any more than hospitals can give life. But we can point to Jesus, who does give life, and use what few powers we have to bless those he loves.