As I post this story on September 22nd, I mark the anniversary of an event that shaped my life in ways I could never have imagined.
On this day, 22 years ago, my husband’s tight-knit Air Force squadron suffered a fatal plane crash. All 24 crewmembers were killed, including the three close friends Bill had just been on a hunting trip with ten days earlier. One of them was his best friend.
The crash was devastating for our family and for our military community. The loss of so many vibrant lives, all at once, was beyond comprehension. It was something none of us were prepared for.
I had never worried about Bill when he flew. The plane he routinely boarded to fly missions was considered to be extraordinarily safe. No AWACS E-3 Sentry had ever suffered a catastrophe. But no matter how well-designed, well-constructed and well-maintained an aircraft may be, when geese fly into jet engines, everything changes.
The next days and weeks were a blur, but snapshots of specific moments froze themselves into my memory . . .
The day of the crash: I remember the crisp scent of autumn air as I walk to my best friend’s house to wait for news, not yet willing to consider the idea that her husband might be gone. An ugly cloud of black smoke grows in the sky over the mountains bordering the Air Force base: I sense that it foreshadows sorrows to come and it makes me shiver.
A few days later: I remember waiting for a doctor’s appointment at the base hospital, when a fresh wave of grief overtakes me, bringing sobs that won’t be shushed. I double over and let the wave take me, not caring that the people around me hear and see me openly weeping.
A week later: I remember standing with my husband at a base-wide memorial service. I watch his tears bounce off his uniform name plate as the names of the lost are being read. He’s standing at attention, so I don’t touch him, yet somehow I’ve never felt this close to him before.
A few weeks later: I remember the effort it takes to breathe the steamy, greenhouse-like air in Arlington, Virginia—so different from the cool, dry air in Alaska—as our procession crosses the grass to lay our dear friend to rest. Looking out at row after row of tidy white headstones, the scene is surreal; it’s as if I’ve stepped into someone else’s body, someone else’s life, someone else’s unthinkable dream.
If I could go back and change that fateful day in September of 1995, I surely would.
If I could go back in time and somehow shoo those birds away from the runway, or keep them on the ground as the E-3 made its ascent, I’d do it; I’d find a way!
But that’s the stuff of fantasy and science fiction. I can’t go back and change any of it.
I wish with all my heart that the events of that most tragic day hadn’t happened. But given that they did, as strange as this may sound, I can’t say that I regret being included in the circle of pain they caused.
I don’t regret the pain, because it shaped me—in ways that nothing but the pain of deep sorrow can.
That pain filled-in some of my shallow places. It rendered a compassion in me that wasn’t there before. It left behind a depth of spirit that can only emerge out of brokenness. It formed in me a heightened appreciation for simple, joyful moments that can only come from having experienced the saddest ones. I believe the events of that day have changed me in ways I can’t even identify.
I’ve learned that there is value in pain. But first I have to choose to come into agreement with it, resisting the urge to dull it with busyness or denial or with self-medication. Pain will have its day; trying to deny it only postpones its effects and makes dealing with it more complicated.
Today, as I think of the loss I experienced all those years ago, I feel sadness, yes, but I also feel something deep and warm and complex inside of me that I find hard to put into words—a hidden treasure left behind by tragedy. I can’t find the right words to express it, but the artist Renoir did, stating quite simply: “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”
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