Is too late better than never?

For decades Mick, my mother-in-law, was pissed at my father-in-law over an airplane ride. I never learned the exact details, but apparently sometime in the early 1960’s a latter-day barnstormer came to the sleepy burg of Las Vegas, New Mexcio, offering plane rides. Mick, in her younger years, had a great sense of adventure and was always up for something new and exciting. But my father-in-law, Tony, was a more cautious type who “knew” that all planes crashed. He was so sure of this fact that in his whole life he never once flew in any plane, large or small.

I don’t know the exact sequence of events, but apparently Mick was strapped into the plane and ready to go when Tony literally dragged her out of the airplane, across the tarmac to their car, and took her home. I’m not sure if she had gone to the airport with friends and he got wind of it and followed, or if they went together with him thinking they were just going to watch the plane and she signed up while he was in the bathroom, or if he was initially OK with her flying and then got wet feet. But apparently it caused quite the scene. She was embarrassed and humiliated, and to top it off, she didn’t get her plane ride. She was still mad as hell about the incident twenty-seven years later when I joined the family, still mad for another decade until my father-in-law died, and still simmered for another 15 years after he was gone.

Mick was pretty good at not letting anything go.

So naturally, when we started shopping for an airplane, I promised Mick her long-overdue plane ride. She was very clear that she wanted to circumnavigate Vegas from the air; and I was very clear that it would need to be a perfect flying day to make it happen. After all, this was a woman who got airsick on porch swings.

But it’s a promise I never kept, damn it.

One thing after another always seemed to get in the way. Of course the Plane Tales Plane spent the first six months of her life with us in the A&P’s shop. Along with other members of the family, Mick visited Tessie at the mechanic’s shop, and you could see a glint of anticipation and longing in her eye. But while Tess got progressively fixed up, Mick progressively fell apart. Her assorted degenerative diseases began to take their toll on her body and mind. Walking became harder and harder, stairs a nearly impossible challenge. I had my handyman install a grandiose double-sided ramp for access to the house and pondered how I’d get the frail lady up onto Tess’s wing and over the high fuselage wall and into the cockpit. Getting into an Ercoupe is something like getting onto a horse. Well, worse. More like getting into one of those boxes on top of an elephant.

Then Mick’s dementia began to come and go like the tide. One week she’d be laughing, telling jokes, and making keen—if wicked—observations about the latest shenanigans of the local politicians. The next week she’d come out of her quarters and ask who I was and what was I doing in her house. (She was actually living in my house, but there’s no point in arguing with someone who doesn’t recognize you…) I desperately wanted her first flight to happen on a “good” week and hoped the experience would imprint on her failing mind so that she’d be able to remember it. I also worried about safety issues. Sometimes her behavior was bizarre and bordered on violent. What if she flipped out on me and grabbed the controls on short final?

And the obstacles didn’t stop there. We bought our plane after a decade of drought and perfect flying weather 365 days a year. Naturally as soon as we owned a plane, the drought promptly ended, and we’ve had some of the most airplane-unfriendly weather I’ve ever seen. Much needed rain soaked the parched desert and left Tess trapped in her hangar. Then we had fog. For days. Seriously? Fog in New Mexico? I got good at checking the dew point spread when checking the weather. When it wasn’t foggy, it was windy. And not just a little bit windy. One day the windsock on our back porch literally flew away. To add insult to injury, the weather had vexing timing: What good weather days we had never seemed to line up with my flying days.

The one time that weather was great and Mick was in fine shape, I came down with a nasty flu bug. I idly wondered if the spirit of my dead father-in-law was still trying to prevent Mick’s flight.

The delays and re-scheduled flights became the norm, and every time our mission was “scrubbed,” I just said to myself that it was no problem, we can still do this another day.

But that day never came.

At Christmas this last year, Mick was happy, smiling, and engaged. She talked more than I’d heard her talk in months. Once again I got out my calendar, looked at available dates, and optimistically wrote “Fly Mick” on a Saturday January 24th, and drew a starburst circle around it like I’d done so many times before.

She died Saturday, January 17th.

She was cremated, and following local tradition, services were set for the soonest day available—in this case the following Thursday.

It occurred to me that while it was too late to keep my promise in a meaningful way, I could still keep it in spirit. Cautiously, I breached the subject with my grieving spouse: What do you think of taking your Mom’s ashes for the flight we kept promising her?

Somewhat to my surprise, Debs loved the idea. We arranged to pick up the urn the day before the service, and planned an early morning flight. Mick would fly to her own funeral.

But my father-in-law’s ghost struck again! The night before Mick’s funeral, a fierce blizzard hit. Dawn arrived with blowing snow and near zero visibility. Driving with the guest of honor in our Jeep, we barely made it to the church on time. I was pretty down on myself about not being more aggressive at getting her into the air as promised while she was still alive.

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Mick’s ashes were supposed to be interned immediately following the services, but the blizzard worsened to the point that the priest decided to delay the internment. The professionally perpetually glum gentleman from the mortuary pulled me aside at the end of the service. He held out the red and brass urn, and said to me, “It looks like you get a second chance to take your mother-in-law for her flight.”

Next time on Plane Tales: Will Mick finally get her flight, or was it never meant to be?

 

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