Slamming the door to ensure it was closed tightly, I secured the lock and sat back in my velvety, maroon-colored seat. I was humbled by this responsibility, palms sweating at the tiniest bit of daylight that occasionally made its way through the sealed door. Dad shouted, “ALL CLEAR!” just before firing up the engine to get the propeller spinning on the front of the plane. We all sat in our usual spots; Dad in the pilot’s seat; my oldest brother up front as the co-pilot; me facing my youngest brother; who sat next to my mom, facing my middle brother who sat next to my right. We were boxed in and ready to go wherever Dad had planned–a business trip to Boston, New York City, a stop in Pennsylvania to see Grandma and Grandpa or one memorable journey crossing the expanse of water between the tip of Florida and the Keys.
The air plane was fodder for memories of childhood friends throwing up due to air sickness not previously mentioned before we took flight and the science of determining whether a winter coat doth a good barf bag make; for hypothetical ponderings about the harrowing landing I could pull off in the case of a mid-flight emergency; and the cold winter night, just before Christmas my dad let me have the controls as we descended into Tennessee to pick up my grandmother so she could come spend Christmas with us.
From one summer to the next, we packed our soft-sided luggage and flew from Missouri to Montana, Maine, Minnesota, Canada, Tennessee, Georgia, Illinois, and so on for fishing trips, family camps, beach vacations, and, in the case of my family, many golf outings. And while I’ve received some degree of hassling over the years from my club-wielding family about my disdain for golf, one thing wasn’t lost on me.
Only a year or so prior to the purchase of our infamous Cherokee 2174 Sierra, as I remember it being called, my second brother had suffered from a near-fatal brain tumor that brought our family all too close to the edge of what could have been a tragic loss. For my parents, this would have been a third hit, in the wake of losing their first child just weeks before she was to be born and their second to a tragic drowning three weeks before his third birthday. My parents were all too familiar with such heart ache.
And much to the chagrin of the kids in my neighborhood who hailed us as being “rich,” the airplane was more of a way to shake our veritable finger at the suffering that life brings than any show of wealth. My Dad decided to seize the day; to be grateful for the resources that enabled us with the opportunity to do so by flying across the country on family vacations that we would not have otherwise taken and to live a dream that he had to be a pilot because, after all, each of us only has today. As life would have it, he sold the plane on the heels of losing his job my freshman year of high school, but the memories had already been made, good memories.
I was thinking of this mid-lunch today with a dear friend as we talked about life and the meaning of suffering, how basically, there is no meaning to be found in suffering alone. Instead, we impose meaning upon it–to get through it, over it, beyond it. We keep living in the face of pain and death, heartbreak and loss because life is still there to be lived even in loss, even in struggle.
She shared of the power we have to change our story as she had done herself. When facing the declining health and death of her brother in a way all-too-familiar to how she had lost her own father at a young age, she chose to change the story and the inner dialogue that she’d known the first time around. No longer was she a victim of life’s circumstances but, instead, a cancer-survivor herself who could lovingly support her nephews as they faced the loss of their dad. She recognized the power to change her story and re-wrote her response to the hardships that life was throwing her family’s way. Even recently, in her own recurrence of cancer, she shared of the presence of God with her when she had good reason to feel very alone.
There is no meaning in suffering, no meaning that arises alone. Meaning is made. Meaning is found by looking, not by passively letting grief and life’s disappointments settle in around us to take captive our dreams. We find meaning in reaching out to others outside of our pain to meet them in theirs. We rally for beauty to rear its head in the aftermath of our agony. We rally for joy to follow in the wake of our losses. There is light. At the end of the tunnel, there is still life. Everything doesn’t happen for just any reason. We are the reason for which everything happens, to awaken us to life in all its forms, even the life we find in death, in hardship, in loss and disappointments.
All of this circled right back around to the memory of my dad buying that plane, not your everyday purchase. We can each make a gesture, be it large or small, to live outside of our pain, to recognize the gifts that are right before us both in relationships and resources, to live life regardless of our circumstances. And in the moment we do this, we open the door to opportunities we cannot know until they are had. But they are endless; and they are beautiful. Rally for them.