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Skywalking

by Mafalda Von Alvensleben

I’m sure the flight instructor introduced himself, but all I can recall is the name of the plane: N007 Bravo Kilo painted in thick serif font underneath the cockpit. She was gorgeous. The curves of her body bending the light from the mid-noon sun, and dazing my eyes as I examined her inch by inch in my pre-flight dance: Tires? Full. Nose? Sharp. Lights? Flashing. Wings? Smooth.

This was my intro flight, which is usually meant to weed out the weak stomachs and the fast fainters unable to withstand the G-force of being a minimum of 3,500 feet off the ground. But I wasn’t going to be one of those. Sure, I was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder and severe PTSD. And perhaps the prospect of a Chemistry exam has sent me into a panic episode that turned me into a shivering, useless heap for a good two days. But flying a plane? I got this.

Finally, after thirty minutes of lectures on break fluid, fuel gages, and forbidden aerobatics, it was time. With two seat bolsters stacked on top of each other (so I would be able to see over the dash) and a brief moment of what am I doing, my instructor shouts, “Clear prop!” and the propeller blades thundered on. Clear for take-off.

***

Flying may be fun, but I absolutely hate walking. It hurts, and it has continued to hurt for a quarter of my life. This is mostly on account of two open biopsies, a femur resection and reinsertion, femur fracture, cauterized muscles, and stem cell grafts from multiple parts of my pelvis. And that’s only after seventeen rounds of chemotherapy, and two months of daily radiation. Hey, cancer bites; you bite back.

I remember being in the hospital for some round of chemo or surgery (it all blurs together at this point) and trying my best to sleep. The thing is, hospitals and sleep rarely coexists. Forget the physical discomfort of whatever procedure I was undergoing, I had morphine for that. Here, I had around the clock hydration (which meant a trip to the bathroom every two hours), monitoring (to make sure I was still alive), and a testy IV pole (affectionately named Steve) that would protest every time it detected the slightest problem. Beep. Beep. Beep. Upstream occlusion.

But I had my star machine: a wonderful invention that projected a hypnotizing lightshow on the ceiling of my hospital room. The low hum drowned out the various clatters and yelps outside of my little cell. And the stars? They were mesmerizing. Watching, swimming along with the pinpricks of light flitting around me. Steady now. Breathe in and out in and out. My body is down there, my mind is up here, weightless and floating in the night sky.

Up there, I found a way of existing.

***

Three hours after my intro flight, miles closer to the ground than I care to be, I stand leaning on my crutches in a crowd of familiar strangers. Parties are not my element, but I play my part.I nod and smile politely, knowing some faces, pretending to recognize others, and exchange the customary teeth extracting niceties: “How are you? How is school, class, life? What have you been up to this summer?” I know everyone sees them. Their glances aren’t as stolen as they think. But the topic remains as untouched as the warm, flat soda that I nurse in my hands.

Being young and sick is an oxymoron. One that makes the subject near impossible to handle, let alone discuss, at a party without having first hand experience. Young is supposed to be careless; sick is not. Young is supposed to be invincible; sick is not. Young is supposed to be riding at what feels like 100 miles per hour down a steep slope on a skate board, crashing, rolling far off into the street, and laughing at how very stupid, and fun, and stupid that all was. But I cannot.

***

The music finally drowns out these conversations (or lack-there-of), and people start to dance. I, however, retreat to the periphery for fear of injuring, or worse, embarrassing myself, and I feel tired, old, and angry. It’s been five years and I want out. Out of CT scans, and echocardiograms, and blood panels, and x-rays. Of leaky livers, and weakened heart muscles, and failing kidneys, and brittle bones. Just out, out. Up, up and away.

But here I am, stuck in place and held together by titanium rods, Tylenol, and stubborn pride. That’s what I’m supposed to have: these years of relatively pain free ignorance. That experience of being young together, and then growing old together. So that when our joints begin to rot, and our skin crumples like wet paper, we’ll be able to say, “I’ve had my fun, and now is my time.”

***

Honestly, I am so, so afraid. Afraid of pressing the wrong button, of turning off the engine in mid-flight, of unpredictable weather, of injuries, and illness, and pain, of spending the rest of my life resenting what I could not do and pining for what I could have been. 

Perhaps that’s what made me want to spend my days chasing altitudes. Because I can. I know it requires countless flight hours, a practical and theoretical exam, extensive knowledge of engine and instrument function, and proficiency in aeronautic lingo; not to mention a healthy dose of hubris to think that Little Old You could hold on to the controls when the wind blows a bit too far south, and the turbulence sends your heart plummeting to the ground below.

And yet, as I sit in a chair, watching people dance, I feel my hands going through the motions: landing- light, fuel-pump, carb-heat, throttle. I am back up there, waltzing with the stars. Reveling in the swashbuckling joy of learning something that few people have ever dared try. Just watch me. It’s in the click of a switch flip between my fingers, my body reverberating with the power of the engine, and bathing in the smell of kerosene flowing into open air. That is where I feel a little braver and a little less broken– because if these feet aren’t made for dancing, I’ll have to settle for flying.

***

It’s the second time I take off and my heart pinballs into my throat, ears filling with pressured cotton balls as I watch the needle of the altimeter steadily rise. 1,525, 1,897, 2,285, 2,625, 3,000. “You can level off now,” says my instructor, and I finally look outside.

The world cracks open like an egg. Sun spilling runny yoke over the topography of the California I grew up in. But far more magnificent. Purple tree tufts wedged between little box houses peek out through clouds that marble the sky. Ant-sized cars snake through freeway rivers, all unfolded like the city is a dollhouse, and it’s mine to play with. But the ocean? That looked to me greater than ever — going on and on until the water creeps upward and becomes the sky. 

The massacre of the darlings:

1. When I announced to my family that I was getting my pilot’s license, I was met with blank stares and wide eyes. What do you think you’re doing? None of your family members were in the military. Your mother is afraid of flying, your father has severe vertigo. And unlike most pilots, you were never fascinated by planes as a child. To us, they are a means to an end. The unpleasant, pressurized nowhere between here and there, between abroad and home.

But I suppose it is always up to the next generation to do what is deemed impossible, or worse, improper by their parents. And so, my mother sits in a commercial plane with clenched teeth, and I sit in the pilot seat of a tiny jet sweating bullets.

2. One being that my entire extended family lives across the Atlantic Ocean, and if we don’t visit them, we become the stuck-up American pricks.

3. All of the plane I.D.’s

4. Yes, being young and sick is never something I would recommend

5. Ever since I could remember, my mother has been afraid of flying. She’s done it a million times, jetting from Europe, to the United States, to Asia, and Australia in a single month. And yet, whenever we sit together, and the flaps of the airplane go down, and the sound of the engine raises a good two octaves, I can feel her ever tidy nails digging into my forearm. The marks carved into my skin lingering until the day of our return. “At least if we go down, we go down together,” is her version of encouragement as I feel the familiar downward inertia from the wheels lifting off the ground. My grandmother was even worse: incapable of getting into a car, let alone sitting in a crammed seat fixed to a tin can hurling through the sky. Better stay at home and make dinner. That’s what’s best suited for ladies anyway.