Lost In Flight

Where is the missing plane? Each day dawns bright, and with it, a new theory. Some are ominous. The transponders disabled, the crew complicit. The flight path reprogrammed via an on board computer. Houses are searched, conspiracies forwarded. Is the plane on an abandoned landing strip in Azerbaijan? Did aliens beam them up? Was a deity involved? The bloggers have weighed in now with more horrifying options, terrorists who killed the passengers and are at this moment loading the plane up with bombs. Or is it, as is much more likely, sunk deep in the Indian Ocean. Australia is sending out search planes this morning.

The families of the missing grow more desperate, angrier and more and more hopeless, and CNN spikes their ratings, covering the story twenty four-seven.

What the families fear, yet crave is an ending.

But life isn't always so kind.

News reports turn back the clock to find Amelia Earhart, our most stubbornly resilient ghost pilot. She, the most famous woman in the world, lifted off from Lae, New Guinea on July 2, 1937, and has yet to touch down. You can watch the final footage if you like, her scramble up the side of her Lockheed Vega and her drop into the cockpit.

You see we are land-based mammals who dared to learn to fly. How could we not? When you fly in your dreams, there's nothing more exhilarating. You take off without any armor and sail weightless, totally unencumbered. I am pretty sure that was what Amelia was drawn to, whereas I was drawn to her for a very different reason, I wanted an ending. Just not the one that I knew would inevitably come.

When I fell for Amelia, I knew the bare outlines of her story, that she was a groundbreaking aviatrix who had gone missing on the last leg of her round the world flight. I was also taken by her iconic look, boyish yet elegant, who wouldn't want that leather flight jacket? Those perfectly pleated trousers? But mainly she reminded me of my mother, or at least the mother that was. Mine had been a trailblazer in her own right, one of only three women in her graduating class at med school she had run her own Ob/Gyn practice, then a family planning clinic at the now defunct Lincoln Hospital up in the Bronx. She, much like Amelia believed women could do just what men could do. They shared the same progressive, pacifist political views. And they were both firm believers in Margaret Sanger and the efficacy of birth control.

Yet wouldn't you know it, just as my own vision of who Amelia was came into focus, my mother started blurring at the edges. At ninety-one, my mom was recently widowed. She, who had been the scourge of Broadway, fighting with shop owners and indiscreet dog walkers, shaking her fist at errant drivers, was suddenly terrified. She was gripped by rolling anxiety attacks. Her body literally shook like a leaf. And she started claiming to one and all, "At least I have all my marbles." It was funny, but also not that funny, because it was so clearly untrue. My mother had been a voracious reader, I used to think she knew everything about everything, but now simple words escaped her. "You know, that long necked animal, you know what I mean." I did. A giraffe. She had rigorously balanced her checkbook and was notoriously cheap, scraping mold off cheese and giving it to us to eat, because it was like penicillin that mold, the cheese was still good! Yet suddenly she was sending in coupons and positive that she'd won sweepstakes contests. Worse than that, talking to the scam artists who had gotten her phone number and were working their way into her bank account.

We crave endings, and hate it when we're left hanging. Yet sometimes knowing is worse than not. Amelia's own mother kept her bag packed next to her bed, optimistically expecting to get the happy news that her daughter had been found alive. She died with that bag still packed, some part of her still wedded to hope. I wonder when that hope turns into something else? With my mom, the loss was incremental; she lost her mind in pieces.

In Amelia Earhart's case the theorists had a field day. FDR had sent Earhart on a secret mission and that was why no one could find the plane. She had purposely flown off course to check on their military installations, then ran out of gas and ditched the plane, was captured by the Japanese, summarily executed. Or else taken prisoner, she was actually a turncoat, the infamous Tokyo Rose. No, Amelia was alive and still waiting for rescue, castaway on an island, she and her co pilot Fred Noonan surviving on berries and spearing the stray fish. Even now, so many years later, there are warring camps with their own fervent opinions.

I invented a different ending for her. Or rather a new beginning. You see, in the novel I wrote, I resuscitated her. I wanted her to see this brave new world, and when she did get a taste of what aviation had become. She had been one of the original proponents of the democratization of flight. I was kind to her though, I brought her back in the seventies, when coach class was still a little glamorous and there was legroom.

As I lost my mother, Amelia became emboldened. She went from wraith to fully fleshed out. She snuck a ride from her sister's house in Medford and took human form on a street in Boston. She ate a Reuben sandwich and slept in a real bed and flew to New York in a real jet-plane. She also got to hear the Clash and see the World Trade Center and attend John Lennon's memorial service in Central Park, learning that some things never change; fame comes at a cost. Amelia got one more grand adventure, for me, she was the stuff that dreams are made of.

My mother didn't. She slipped away, finally a wraith herself. At the end, she must have weighed less than ninety pounds. She, who had always watched her weight and worried over it. I know where she went. Or rather, I know that she is gone, I saw her alive, I watched her slip away, and then, well... in the end I saw what was left behind, barely a shell. When a plane falls out of the sky, it usually lands. And the loss for all of those whose loved ones have perished is immediate, palpable. Yet now we are in the throes of a mystery. We tend to think that so little in our lives is unexplained, but in truth, there's so much. Why we fall in love with certain people? Why so many of us are fated to suffer, while others enjoy way too much of a good thing? Why some are lucky while others are doomed? There are those who believe it's God, working in mysterious ways. But which God, then, and did he, she, or Shiva the Destroyer pluck that plane out of the sky?

Perhaps we will learn the answer very soon, maybe even today. I hope so, and yet I also hope for a better ending even as I know it's impossible. A place that exists, hanging between heaven and earth where all those we've lost are finally found.