I have a fear of flying over the ocean. I'm not a good swimmer. Anytime I get on a plane, it's a flight of faith...a belief in something greater than myself: aeronautics and Universal Energy, what I call God. Flying over the ocean is particularly disconcerting. When I have to cross continents, I just do it, because I have a global mission that's greater than my fear.
I bought a home on a Hawaiian mountain because it was what I imagined paradise to be. I knew that every time I had to cross the Pacific to get there, I would challenge my fear. The day after Christmas, my plane had been airborne long enough for us to pull out Scrabble and start thinking about lunch. Urania (my friend Bob Greene's wife) had brought leftovers from Christmas dinner.
"No more mashed potatoes for me," I said. "I'll just have turkey—dark meat, preferably—and green beans." Our flight attendant, Karin, leaned over the table. I thought she was going to say, "No dark meat left," and offer another suggestion. Instead she said in her calm "menu" voice, "There's a slight crack in the windshield; we're going to have to turn around."
"Oh," I replied.
"The captain wants you to strap yourselves in and be ready for oxygen masks."
Oh, My God! Oxygen masks? What would happen to my dogs Sophie and Solomon?
"They'll be fine," Karin said. "We're going to drop to 10,000 feet."
I could feel my heart pounding and my voice rising, though I was trying to mirror her calmness. My mind was speeding: Oxygen! Danger! Oxygen! Danger! Danger! I can't swimmmmm. John Kennedy Jr. Oh, my dear God!
I didn't speak, but Karin later said my eyes were as big as plums. Stedman took my hand, steady as a boulder, looked me in the eye, and said, "You're going to be fine. God didn't bring you this far to leave you. Remember that."
The crack had spread and shattered the entire left side of the windshield. We could see it from our seats. Whoosh, thump, whoosh, thump. I know all the familiar sounds on that aircraft, and this was something different. I don't like hearing something different at 40,000 feet.
"What's that noise, Karin?"
"We're depressurizing the cabin, lowering altitude quickly, and that sound is the oxygen pump. The pilots are on oxygen, just in case."
I didn't ask, "Just in case what?" because we all knew the answer. Just in case that windshield blew.
The pilots, Terry and Danny, turned the plane around, and I watched the clock: 27 minutes to landing. I thought, What if I'd listened to my inner voice and not flown today? Several times that morning I had wanted to cancel. I was feeling off-balance, rushed. I'd be leaving my three puppies, one of whom had thrown up, and because all of them sleep together, I couldn't tell which one. I called Bob and said, "I may not go today."
"Why?" he said.
"Not feeling it. What do you think?"
"I think you should consult that trusted inner voice of yours."
I got in the tub, where I do my best thinking. Got out and was definitely calling the pilots to postpone the trip. And then I didn't. I overrode that feeling. What if I hadn't? Would the windshield still have cracked? No doubt. But would we have been over the ocean with no place to land? I had not made provisions in my will for what happens to my puppies—Luke, Layla, and Gracie—if I don't make it. I needed to get my house more in order. All of these thoughts spun in less than a minute. I looked at the clock again: 26 minutes and 12 seconds until landing.
I was going to lose my mind watching that clock, so I started to read Time magazine's "Persons of the Year" article about Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono. I became lost in their good works and felt a resolved calm. We'll be all right, no matter the outcome. The whoosh, thump became a source of comfort: Oxygen! Life! Oxygen! Life!
We landed safely, of course, and heard the false reports that we'd been hit by a bird. We're still waiting to find out the real reason for the crack.
The windshield was replaced, and the day after, the pilots said, "We can fly anytime you're ready." I could feel fear in the shadows. Do I dare fly over the ocean again so soon? What was the lesson for me? Did I get it?
I know for sure that whenever your gut is out of kilter, trouble awaits. Your gut is your inner compass. Whenever you have to consult with other people for an answer, you're headed in the wrong direction.
I got it. I get it. I know it for sure. As for flying over the ocean, well, I don't want to feel that helpless again. I also don't want to live in fear. As I close this page, we're headed for takeoff. Aloha!