“Don’t leave, Grandma,” I pleaded as she put on her coat that cold December afternoon.
Grandma and her husband Jack had come to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah with us— carrying in bags of gifts, perfectly wrapped in shiny red wrapping paper, as my brother and I watched with wide-eyed excitement. But that morning, a few days after Christmas, as they were getting ready to go, an unsettled feeling had taken over that I couldn’t quite place. I remember this intense urge to convince her to stay. “Don’t leave,” I repeated again, grabbing her hand and making a scene at the front door.
“I’ll come back and visit soon,” she promised, kissing the top of my head.
That was the last time I saw them.
That night their plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on the way to Florida. The small Cessna plane with just Grandma, Jack, the pilot and his wife, was last heard from at 7:28 PM when the pilot radioed in that the plane was having engine trouble. They were not heard from again until the pilot, the lone survivor, was pulled out of the water by the Coast Guard around 9 p.m. The plane had plunged 150 feet underwater—it took four years for the wreckage to be discovered.
We got the call that night at 2 a.m., the shrill, piercing phone ringing over and over from the Coast Guard, waking us up to the worst news imaginable.
When I found out they were gone, I experienced a pain foreign to me at that time. That pain would later come again when my close friend died in high school of a brain tumor, when my aunt died in a car crash, when my father died the summer I graduated college—but at seven years old it was the first time I felt that kind of debilitating grief, the kind that physically hurts. Grief that cuts through you, piercing your ability to breathe as you struggle to understand how people you care about so much are never coming back. The finality of death is grief’s drug—it keeps you locked in the unsettled reality of knowing you will never see a loved one again.
While my mom, also dealing with her own devastation over this loss, would sit on my bed for hours at bedtime, calming me, answering endless questions and trying to guide me through this trauma— I still decided, at seven years old, that life was never going to be the same. Even though I could not bring Grandma and Jack back, I could protect myself from dying in a plane crash by simply never flying again.
This posed some challenges, of course. During a family vacation to Disney a few years later I debated with my stepfather right there in the Delta boarding area about why taking this plane was too dangerous for our family. No amount of reassurances from him that plane crashes were very rare mattered—we were doomed if we boarded that plane.
It didn’t crash, of course, but this debate and my travel resistance continued. A plane was the vessel that killed Grandma and Jack and flying was a fool’s game—up in the sky, there was no help, no one coming to the rescue if things went wrong.
“Grandma was a fighter,” my mother often says. Her life began in a small, red cigar box. She was so tiny, born several weeks premature, the doctor was certain my grandmother would die.
My great-grandmother refused to believe this was her daughter’s fate. The cigar box served as a tiny crib, while she fed her through an eye dropper and rubbed olive oil on her fragile skin.
When my grandmother turned ten, her mother took her back to that same doctor, proclaiming “This is the child you told me would die.”
She was theatrical with a rebellious side. After high school she joined a theatre group, despite warnings from some people who told her that this was “not the kind of thing that proper women do.” She made her own rules, looking more like a movie star to us than a typical grandmother—always glamorous with her oversized Jackie O-style sunglasses and chic pantsuits.
My grandparents divorced when my mother was young, and for many years she worked hard to provide for and take care of her children.
Years later, she married Jack, a Navy veteran who always seemed to adore her, and they settled into a house on the Chesapeake Bay. This house was like a magical playground and we drove there each summer filled with excited anticipation, never knowing what adventure awaited us. One summer when Jack took us out on a boat, I got stung by a jellyfish as we dangled our feet into the water. I still remember that sharp pain radiating up my leg from that squishy fish.
After the crash, I missed them so deeply, like the brutal sharp sting of the jellyfish, except this pain didn’t relent.
But my intended plane boycott ultimately didn’t last.
I’ve boarded planes throughout the years; life took over and my seven-year-old plans took a backseat to needing/wanting to travel. But every time I get on a plane and settle into my seat, there is that moment where I think of Grandma and Jack. During the take off when the plane first wobbles and shakes before it steadies in the sky, I am acutely aware of their final moments, of being robbed of more time with them, and how quickly something could just go wrong and the enormous loss so many families would experience.
But my 11-year-old son, my travel companion on many trips before the pandemic began, has no fear of flying. He marvels at those first moments during the takeoff—the ones that unsettle me the most. When the plane first starts down the runway, he can’t wait for it to take off —excitedly seeing the moment as the beginning of our next adventure. As the plane ascends into the sky, he looks out the window, quickly narrating, “Look Mom, the city is getting smaller and smaller. Look at the clouds, how high up are we by now? Look at how small everything seems from this high up.” His curiosity and wonder calm me, reminding me that being on a plane and traveling can be about more than loss.
Recently, thumbing through an old family photo album, hungry for memories of loved ones, I saw it. An unposed photo of grandma and Jack at a party. Grandma in a striking red dress and Jack leaning in, whispering something to her, as she laughed—her eyes shining brightly— and I felt a sense of peace, looking at them smiling and remembering their lives. Their memory was no longer mired with how they died.
Months ago on a family trip pre-COVID-19, as the plane prepared for takeoff, my son instinctively took my hand. “It’s okay, Mom. Just squeeze my hand if you feel scared. I know you don’t like the take off, but don’t be worried.” I squeezed his hand back, smiling and blowing him a kiss, then shut my eyes preparing for the ascent.
He held my hand until the drink cart came around, way past the time the plane had settled above the clouds.