A certain date offers significance beyond a birthday or coincidence sometimes and October 17 is such a day for my family. Simmering beneath the surface the last few days and finally percolating to the point of a story to tell, October 17 begs me to share.
It was a gorgeous Indian summer day in Calgary 1974 with a high of about 15C, light winds and that crisp clear visibility offered by autumn Alberta skies. I was enrolled in the Aviation program at Mount Royal College (now University) and Thursdays were my assigned days at the North American Air Training College at Springbank Airport.
The only female in a class of 60, it had been a tough go for me in the Aviation program. The program coordinator and ground school teacher had suffered a bitter divorce between the time I was accepted in the spring and the start in September. He showed me his contempt for women mostly out of sight of others, however, he had an insidious way of casting a disparaging light on me in the class by such remarks as “I’d love to share a joke with you fellows now, however, we have a woman in the room, and I’d get in trouble for it.”
My male colleagues were actually pretty good to me – particularly the small group assigned with me to Thursday flight days. Unfortunately, my draw on flight instructor also netted a chauvinist. I was only 20 at the time and didn’t immediately recognize it. He’d make cracks to me during our walk around the plane about how he probably wouldn’t have to explain mechanical things so completely if I was a guy and had been brought up around such things. I recognized immediately that there’d be no return in sharing with him that my Dad had spent considerable time with me as baby of the family on such things. My older brother Barry was a talented hockey player and cared more about the game than learning how to change oil. My sister Sandee was a beautiful girl and activities such as figure skating, baton twirling, dressing up and marrying quite young appealed to her. As last child at home, I learned basic car maintenance, how to change furnace filters and other skills once considered male domain.
Later I even learned the pranks this chauvinistic flight instructor pulled on me while we were flying did not happen to any of the guys in their lessons. At this point I believed him when I asked him why most of the guys had been solo that I just wasn’t competent enough.
Unknown to me my group classmates had listened carefully as we shared our air experiences over coffee or beer after flight school was completed for the day. They recognized the inconsistency in approach and risk in his actions. They went behind my back on my behalf to the chief flying instructor (CFI) to report what I had related.
So, it was on this magical fall day, when I reported to the flight school that CFI Vic Jewett called me aside to announce I’d be flying with him that day. Vic said he was just doing a routine check ride with me and I had no idea he was checking out what the guys had told him.
We went through the standard exercises on the ground and in the air practice zone and he signalled me to return to the Springbank airport. We landed and he asked me to just pull over by the control tower. I was busily processing what this meant, wondering what I had done wrong, when he opened the hatch, hopped out of the plane. “Off you go,” he said, advising me to take off alone to do one circuit and return.
Solo flight! Like so many of life’s milestones it’s difficult to capture the significance or impact of the moment. Suffice to say it was pure ecstasy and one of my happiest accomplishments.
As per tradition, Vic and the guys were waiting for me on the ground with scissors to snip the tail of my shirt and celebrate. The joy was like a narcotic rendering the skies deeper blue, the wheat fields more golden, the fall leaves more orange and the sun more radiant as I drove home to share my news.
Yes, it was one of those days when the horizon blurs between the fall colours and the setting sun. Here fuses into there, now into future and earth into heaven. Pure Zen when time stands still. Vividly, I recall a vision of an angel as the light slipped from the foothills behind the Rockies.
With this heightened perception as I entered the house excited to relive my day with family, I smacked into the change in energy as surely as hitting a concrete barrier.
Sandee at full term with her second pregnancy had spent that same day in emergency. I learned that they’d raced into Calgary to Dr. Buchanan, her specialist with coincidentally our last name although no direct relation, when the especially vigorous kicker in her belly suddenly just stopped. Months of nurturing the growth inside her and preparing Quinn, their two-and-a-half year old, for how things would not be the same when his sibling came home, were lost. The baby had been so active he had gone beyond twisting the umbilical around his neck to actually tying a knot in the cord itself sadly cutting off his own oxygen.
Of course, this part of the story is Sandee’s not mine and perhaps the details inaccurate in my memory. Sandee and Bob had wished only for a healthy baby and had not elected to learn the sex in advance. When Dr. Buchanan gently broke the news the baby was stillborn, Sandee quickly declined to see the lifeless form. He left to let her absorb what had happened. I can only imagine how cold and sterile that hospital room felt and how heartbroken they were. Truly, a polar opposite to the joy that day had held for me.
Dr. Buchanan returned and offered once more to bring her the baby. Again she tearfully refused. Knowingly, Dr. Buchanan merely nodded and said he had a few things to do before releasing her. Through the pain, she grew aware of the clinical activities of cleaning the room and preparing it for the next patient. No doubt she felt as far removed as if she was in outer space. The disinfectant burning harshly on her senses, the disbelief creeping cruelly to acceptance.
Re-entering the room more purposefully, Dr. Buchanan advised her clearly, this was the last offer for her to see her baby. As she was shaking her head to say no, he turned his back to leave, and she called out, yes, please, Dr. Buchanan.
He placed him in her arms and with the love and recognition that only a mother knows, Sandee saw him and knew her son as surely as he’d lived a full life. And she said something like “Dr. Buchanan, I’d like to introduce my son Michael Christian.”
It’s fuzzy to me now if the names were ones they had considered in the excitement leading up to a birth or if she just saw him and knew him. In the end, she and Bob decided to bury him at the cemetery not far from their home at Bowden with a private ritual.
In dealing with such loss, she wrote a beautiful tribute poem to him that he was so beautiful heaven could not wait his lifetime to receive him. For my part, I believe the angel I saw on my drive home was him being welcomed to the hereafter.
Months later little Quinn would slip from the house when she was briefly preoccupied by some task. She searched frantically; terrified she’d lost him, too. She called Bob at work and he sped home to assist. Along the road, they found Quinn trudging along toward the cemetery. When they scooped him up and asked him where he was going, the tiny toddler replied that he was going to see his brother.
They have no recollection of mentioning where or even that Michael was buried rather that they had deliberately left him out of the private ceremony believing him too young to understand. So, together they went to the cemetery and said a prayer for Michael.
Eventually, they had a daughter, another daughter and then a brother for Quinn. To this day, should anyone make the mistake that there were four children in the family, Quinn corrects them. He is forever bonded to his brother who didn’t come home from the hospital.
The San Francisco Bay area earthquake of October 17, 1989 offers yet another significant reminiscence to Mark and me. We were on our first vacation to Los Cabos in Baja California Sur, Mexico. We had enjoyed a bounty of activities and were craving a connection to global news. We were delighted to be let in on a local secret that a scruffy surfer bar with satellite television would be showing the World Series baseball game. We had happily settled into our seats with margaritas and a plate of nachos and were amused by the enthusiastic betting in the room as the game warm ups were shown. Suddenly the screen crackled and went blank. Given the pregame coverage, it would be the first major quake to be broadcast live.
No one in the room was quite sure what had actually happened until coverage was restored with word that an earthquake was in progress. The Mexicans did not miss a beat. If there was no betting to be done on the game, they’d throw their money down on what the quake would register on the Richter scale. Amid chaos, there would be gaming. As the news reports came in we learned more of the extent of tragedy. Although the jolt was not so deeply personal to us, Mark and I recall the day vividly and if I close my eyes I can still smell the aroma of cheap cigarettes, cheese melting on taco chips and the fragrant lime of our drinks.
And so it is, each October 17, a muddle of glee and grief climbs into my consciousness and I must pause to remember.
*The lyrics of Velvet Revolver’s song seem to complement my story. http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/velvetrevolver/falltopieces.html