A Flying Lesson

It was mid-afternoon and the sky was night black and offering no sign of brightening. Rain fell so hard I could hear it on the roof of the terminal. I was in the bar, along with what felt like everyone else at JFK, because no flights were leaving any time soon.

Most of the barflies around me accepted their delays with equanimity, but I felt considerably less charitable. I wasn’t waiting for a vacation to start. I was here because Lara was in the hospital, and she wasn’t going to make it through the night. I’d gotten the first flight I could after I found out, hoping to make it back to see her, and every minute that ticked by decreased the odds I would get to say goodbye.

I’d always known this day would come. I was friends with Lara before we dated, had entered the relationship with eyes open—as open as they can be when dealing with a disease that most people have never heard of, a disease that until just a few years ago was defined as a “childhood illness” in medical textbooks, because people who were born with it didn’t survive to adulthood.

I’ll spare the medical history, except to say that cystic fibrosis filled Lara’s lungs with mucus, made them susceptible to infection, caused terrible scarring. The regimen of medications she took could clean out a pharmacy. She did therapy three times a day, up to an hour each time, and her cough during those treatments could rattle walls. By twenty-five, she was on supplemental oxygen at all times. At twenty-six, she received a double-lung transplant. Those lungs had held for five years. Until now.

But I didn’t think about any of that while I sat in the crowded airport bar. Nor did I think about the good times we’d shared in the six years we were together: the Valentine’s Day when I took her to see Etta James, one of her favorites, at a tiny supper club; the weekend we spent at a tiny B&B on California’s North Coast, where the innkeeper, charmed by Lara’s rosy cheeks and perpetual smile—in spite of everything—upgraded us to the honeymoon suite at no extra cost.

What I thought about was the year that had passed since our breakup, and how we hadn’t talked, except once, six months before, when we’d gotten breakfast while I was home for the holidays. I had moved to New York, she was still in California, and I think we wanted the best for each other—and felt that the best way to move on was to give each other space.

That’s what I thought about, and hated myself for, as my delay stretched on for hours. I ordered whiskey after whiskey, and eventually the bartender, bless her heart, bought me back a round. The barroom offered some solace, however small, as it always does.

Eventually, the bar closed, and as I walked out onto the concourse, I saw a stream of people go past. My flight had been canceled. I followed the herd to the customer service desk. A long line had already formed, so I wandered back to my erstwhile gate and lay down on the floor. It was late, I wasn’t paying for a cab back to my apartment, and I sure as hell wasn’t standing in that line. I decided to let the universe sort things out.

And it did. A few minutes later, inexplicably, my flight was reinstated. Not that we took off right away; the storm still raged. I wouldn’t board the plane until almost 6 a.m.

I slept on the flight, fitfully, and went straight from SFO to Stanford Hospital. By some miracle, Lara had survived the night. She was in the ICU, sedated, intubated, her skin pallid, not bright and pink as it always had been, even when she was at her sickest, but she had made some small gains over the course of the night. Her family even had hope, however slim, that she could get back on the transplant list, get new lungs.

I’d like to tell you that this story has a happy ending. That Lara slowly got stronger, that she woke up, that I went to the hopsital and talked to her every day, that she did get new lungs. I’d like to tell you that Lara is still alive today, and that while we never got back together, we remain friends.

But that’s not how this story goes. I did go to the hospital every day, but she never woke up. Lara lived with a “childhood illness” for 31 years, and she stayed alive in the ICU for a month after the night the doctors told her friends and family she was going to die, but not even the strongest person I’ve ever known could win the fight that we all lose, eventually.

I gave a eulogy at Lara’s well-attended funeral. Her family chose to close the ceremony with one of her favorite songs: Tom Petty’s Learning to Fly. Then I flew back to New York.

Grief changes over time, but it doesn’t get easier. It’s a relief not to feel the acute pain of loss every day, but as that pain fades, so too does the vibrancy of memory. I have few things left of Lara to help keep my memories alive. A painting from the house where we once lived. A tattoo I got in her honor. Learning to Fly, which I play on guitar often, though it can summon tears.

And, strangely, I also have flight delays. Every time I’m sitting at an airport bar, drink in hand, waiting for a departure update, I’m taken back to that night at JFK. It was one of the worst nights of my life, but I’m thankful I have the story, because it’s a story that shows that I loved Lara all the way to the end. Because it gives me one more story about her, when stories are all that remains of her. Because it reminds me that stories are all any of us leave behind.

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One Response to A Flying Lesson

  1. oohlola says:

    Beautiful piece, Justin.

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