I stood near the runway at the Santa Paula airport and it was as if a rubber band that had been stretching for 30 years was cut, leaving me vibrating with sensations from long ago. Air filled the lungs of my slim 20-year-old self it seemed; how could that be? The 51-year-old me has been trying to revive the younger me for a while, hoping she exists somewhere within the larger hourglass that I’ve become. The sands of time start to get in your eyes. In the late afternoon light I could swear it was she who took a step forward, awake, reborn.
Who in midlife hasn’t been stunned into a memory of simpler days? Maybe hearing a song or finding a long-forgotten keepsake is the transport vehicle. In my case it was an airplane and a flight designed to inspire hope and dreaming.
I love being a mother and how it has developed me. My children carried the most interesting seeds that bloom my life’s garden. But I have been a single parent, and one of my daughters is severely developmentally disabled. The trek was hard financially, emotionally and socially, wrenching me in so many ways. Now, with one daughter on her own in San Francisco and the other in a loving nearby group home, I keep trying to launch out of my empty nest, but feel like a boomerang mama tied to those achingly hard, sweet years.
When a child has limited capacities, and help and funds are in short supply, it is survival training, and “‘lightning rod parenting.” I still experience this when my special needs girl is with me. I hold the tension of interpreting the world for her while explaining her to the world, sometimes with only my body language. I kiss her cheek as my arm around her shoulders steers her from danger or something she wants to grab inappropriately, like someone else’s food as we’re being seated in a restaurant. My demeanor must reassure other customers, too.
Is it fair for me to do things my child cannot do? That notion feels out of the order of things and vexes my maternal inclinations. She’s not aware that she isn’t riding a bicycle or vacationing in the mountains. But I feel strange if I step much beyond her limits.
Fly Hope Dream is a nonprofit that gives dream flights to family members of children with life threatening illnesses, as well as to people who lost homes in last December’s Thomas Fire. Due to recurring bone-deep weariness, I was allowed to wiggle in for a dose of hope. Pilot and founder Gareth Williams is a survivor of his own deep heartache. He lost his son Timmy to a rare heart condition in 2008. He is soulful and easygoing.
I am 5 ft. 9 in. and not skinny anymore, but thank goodness I exercise because there was some hoisting, wrangling, folding and unfolding involved in getting in and out of the small seating compartment of the bright yellow 1946 Piper Cub. We rose to an altitude where homes, roads, orchards and bridges appear as an elaborate train set — which sounds cliché but feels wonderful and expansive. I felt safe despite the plane rattling like a 1960s Volkswagon.
For fire victims, seeing the empty lots within the landscape can be part of grieving, healing, recognizing that human endeavors are small, ever subject to change.
After an arc over the ocean just beyond the Ventura Pier we returned.
I flew a nearly identical circle out of Santa Paula in the 1980s, which is why my 20-year-old self showed up on the tarmac. I was living, then, in the San Fernando Valley and was playing hooky from an ill-fitting job in order to drive unknown roads and explore small towns with my camera and journal. A sign offering 40-minutes flights for $40 grabbed me. The lifted feeling, the bird’s-eye view — unforgettable! I wanted to learn to fly.
I didn’t follow my dreams at that time. I was insecure, in one bad relationship after another. In fact, it was the hard knocks of single parenting that shaped my determination to complete my bachelor’s degree and run my own creative business several years ago. Though I have faltered from exhaustion many times, my friends say I am doing better than I give myself credit for. When we are beaten down by circumstances, or judge ourselves harshly against markers that don’t fit every life, we truly need hope and space to dream. Don’t miss the panoramas that can reawaken possibility.