By Cynthia Yancey
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! my oldest son texted me. Can I take you flying this afternoon?
Yes! I immediately texted back, happy to be remembered. Happy to think of getting back up over these lovely, old mountains in one of those tiny, little planes like I used to fly myself.
The day was nearly perfect.
Truth be told, in the skies over these mountains, you almost always get either perfectly clear with a good bit of chop, or perfectly smooth with poor visibility. We got a quite bumpy, perfectly clear sky, which made me fear for my life as my talented pilot son flew me over Mount Mitchell with just a four-hundred-foot clearance.
I did not want to vomit all over my son’s Mother’s Day present to me.
Yet I realized for the first time that day, I don’t want to be afraid when I die. I wondered how to get to a space of neither being afraid to live nor afraid to die.
What had happened to me since those days thirty years prior when I was flying myself all around the North Practice Area, invoking stalls that ended in spins, all in the interest of training? What had happened to my fearlessness while up looking for my house and Kay’s, with Papaw out thinking every little plane that flew over had me inside of it as I piloted over these hills searching for home? What had happened in the intervening years since those old days when life seemed to be all ahead of me?
After safely back on the ground this Mother’s Day, and less green around the gills than during the flight itself, I recollected and shared with my son my most vivid memory of one of my own first solo flights.
In the summer of 1988, I had just earned a Visual Flight rating and was working toward the coveted Instrument Flight Rules, which give the pilot ever so much more flexibility in flying, no matter the weather. I likely knew at some deep space within me already I would never get to that pinnacle of flight.
Truth is, my flying days were already numbered. I had tried three times to fly from Asheville to Chapel Hill for an ultrasound course I was taking with the famous Dr. Seed, pioneer in obstetric ultrasound. Each time, the weather had not cooperated. On this day, this fourth try, I called Rebecca, my flight instructor, to express my frustration at the futility of my pilot’s license. In those frequently marginal flight conditions of summer days in our mountains, I might never actually get myself anywhere.
Ever encouraging, she said, “You can do it! The weather’s okay right now. If you get over there and get stuck, just call me. I’ll come get you in a commuter plane. We’ll log some instrument hours on the way back.”
In VFR pilot lingo, IFR sometimes stands for I fly by roads, which is what I was mostly doing back then. Pilotage is the actual term. Back then, prior to the advanced, computerized instruments of today, paper maps were often flying all around the cockpit while the tower guys were giving directions on the intercom. Utter chaos was often the condition of flight in the little Cessnas I flew those days, and I was not afraid of facing those conditions head-on. On this particular day, I soared alone through pea-soup skies, trying to make sure I stayed over I-40. A few thousand feet up, though, there are no road signs to ascertain such. My confidence was not as high as my altitude on this particular flight.
Finally, I thought I had the Chapel Hill airport in sight. I pulled all the maps down, got a clearance to land, and managed to make one of the best landings of my life. The young man out on the tarmac came out and enthusiastically said as much. “Great landing, lady!” Music to my ears. After so many of those jack rabbit landings of my recent past, this one had seemed a relative breeze, for having made it through utterly murky weather to get to the landing spot.
I answered the fellow, with no need to impress and with an equally southern accent, “Why, thank you!” then continued, “But can you tell me please: Where am I?” to which he quickly replied, “Why, this is Chapel Hill, North Carolina, ma’am!”
To myself, I said, “Yes!” I had done it.
To him, I asked, “Can you help me get to the hospital for my ultrasound course?”, and I was off and running until the end of the day when I found myself back on the Chapel Hill runway in the still-heavier-density altitude of late-summer afternoon air in which to head back home. I was so accustomed to the eight-thousand-foot runway of the Asheville airport that I failed to calculate takeoff distance—a sometimes fatal mistake for young pilots, especially in this sort of weather. I knew better, yet it was only as I neared the end of this relatively short runway without lift that I began to pray, “Dear God, give me lift, and I will never make this mistake again…” and She did. With a sudden updraft, I cleared the wires at the end of the runway.
In no time, I was over Hickory, with weather seeming to develop all around. The tower continued to give me clearance to Asheville, in very marginal visual flight conditions. I, having barely scraped by enough times for one day, asked for clearance to land and look at the weather on the ground. The weather guys congratulated me for coming down to look at their radar screens, for bad weather was indeed on its way.
In the old days of pay telephones, I remember dialing home, then with utter exhaustion settling into my bones, I stretched the phone’s cord to its limit and sat on the ground to tell my husband my story. Then one of the sweetest gestures of my life was made to me as the rather matronly weather woman on duty came up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, and asked if I would like to stay in her home that night.
“Of course!” I would be ever so grateful to do just that. Relief at last.
I slept like a baby at the weather woman’s house that night.
The following morning, ever true to her word, Rebecca managed to get herself dropped off by a commuter plane in order to help me back over the mountain, on the instruments this time, through the clouds.
Once not too long after that treacherous journey, when I was pregnant with my fourth child, having to turn my body sideways to be able to check the gas tanks up on the little plane’s wings, and feeling I could hear the guys in the tower laughing at me, I finally decided to quit flying. I wasn’t so afraid back then, just knew it was time to focus my energies elsewhere.
On Mother’s Day, my oldest son Zak, accomplished IFR pilot himself, had given his old mother a very lovely flight up over the Blue Ridge. And I knew that next year, we should take a gentle float down the river instead.
Aging has taken much of my fearlessness from me. Yet there are times to hold on to courage and times to know when to let go of the need to ride the tides of wind and sea. Life has given me so much to live for. Reality has shown me how easily it can all go up in smoke, as on a too-short runway, just trying to get home.
Even when fearlessness fades, still we have our memories and our original spirits. When our older, wiser selves are with our grandchildren, we can occasionally throw caution to the wind. When my eleven-year-old grandson Atticus and I are out biking a country road, I still occasionally let go of the handlebars to cruise down that road as I did in my youth, feeling a bit as if I am sailing, to show him that the little girl in his old grandma still wants to come out and play with him, that she wants to encourage his fearlessness for as long as she can. She wants him to know she once had a daredevil in her too.
Cynthia Yancey was an English major before she became a mother then a medical doctor. Now after working for over 30 years in the trenches of public health, from the Himalayas to the Andes to her downtown clinic in Asheville, NC, she is writing the stories of her life. Yancey received the Suzanne S. Turner Unsung Heroine Award in 2011, an award for public service. She has written a children’s picture book entitled Zak and Niki: A First Look at Rising above Racism, published by Grateful Steps in 2015.She is currently studying with Laura Hope-Gill in the Lenoir-Rhyne Masters of Writing Program in Asheville, NC. Her work has been published in A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Amethyst Review, Atherton Review, Entropy, Streetlight Magazine, The MacGuffin, Broad River Review and The Virginia Normal and is forthcoming in Evening Street Revie