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The plane, a nine-seater, is a single-prop Cessna. It's perched jauntily on its three big tires, nosing into the wind that skitters down the runway and whines at the door to the Kenai airport. There are seven of us waiting to board, shifting from foot to foot under the rude fluorescent lights. There's no need for an intercom; the guy behind the ticket counter just raises his voice a shade: "OK everyone, line up for boarding at Gate One." Since there's only one gate and we're already gathered around it, the boarding process appears to be well underway.
I've hugged my mother goodbye already, but as I turn toward the gate she lunges forward and plants a kiss on my cheek. "Be careful," she says. I lean against the wind as the door opens, but she's not done yet. She's yelling something after me, which I can't hear but which I know is "Call me when you get there!" I board the wobbly plane, fold myself into a tiny seat, and hunch my shoulders to look through the window. My mother stands inside the airport, her face inches from the plate glass, waving frantically in case I haven't spotted her. She is wearing a yellow turtleneck and a bright orange vest, set off with the orange silk scarf I got her for Christmas. She's a small, bright spot of color in the windy dark, backlit by those hideous lights and looking very far away despite the mere thirty feet of space between us. A sudden shudder of mortality runs through me.
Only my mother can do this to me. I don't have children, so she is the most delicate, the most vulnerable and loving person in my life. She reminds me of a chickadee, a tiny cotton ball of a bird which somehow survives the harsh Alaskan winters with a song always in its feathered throat. My mother approaches everyone as if she's never been hurt, because she knows Jesus has her back. She and Jesus are great friends; she talks to him every morning and thanks him for every meal. I don't have anything against Jesus, but I'm skeptical about his ability to protect her from the things that might befall a gentle, vulnerable person in this world. I wonder how Jesus compares to my father, whom she worshipped and who left us when I was very young.
We're taxiing for takeoff now, the Cessna's sturdy little wings shivering slightly as if eager to prove themselves against the moonlit sky. Our journey will barely take us up to a thousand feet for the half-hour flight to Anchorage, but that's more than high enough to feel the capricious wind tonight. My mother's bright, urgent presence is far behind, but I can still see her face at the window.
I don't blame Jesus for my mother's fragility. Still, you'd think he could have lent her a tougher skin: something to shield her from harsh words and ugly realities, all the crazy, painful things that happen around her. Instead, I've evolved the tough skin to protect us both. I screen movies before she watches them so she won't have to leave the room for sad parts. This leaves us with mainly Disney classics (but never Old Yeller), schmaltzy feel-good movies, and comedies (as long as they don't use swear words). Newspaper articles are hard on her, too—there's too much tragedy and not enough hope in them. She can filter most of them through her Jesus glasses, which help her see that everything has a purpose and is working together for good, but some stories are too much to bear. Iraq is a sore subject. Anything to do with children being hurt or abused, anything to do with rising rape statistics—all are taboo.
The plane bucks and rolls, along with my stomach, on approach into Anchorage. I think to myself that I will call my mother when we land, to tell her I'm safe. "Praise the Lord!" she'll chirp, her standard way of greeting anything that remotely sounds like good news. Morbidly, I've often wondered what would happen if she never got that call from me. What if the engine fails and we crash into the icy water below? What if the plane explodes on landing, its wheels blown sky-high, the fuselage a fiery inferno? What will my mother do without me? It occurs to me at this point that I may be suffering from an exaggerated sense of my own importance. Either that, or straight-up paranoia. Still, the thought of my mother being hurt, or sad, or even just embarrassed, can send me into a kind of spastic, sorrowful rage. Much more so the thought of her losing a person she loves.
We don't get to have any guarantees about what's going to happen to us in this life. We don't get to know for sure that tomorrow is going to be like today. We don't get to know that we will be loved, successful, grounded, sane. What we do get to have is hope, and this my mother has in abundance. She hopes I will start going to church again. She hopes I will be happily married, have lots of children and live next door. She knows this hope is hopeless but she still hopes it. In my finer moments, I think I might live up to her dream of me as a happy, stable, and spiritually fulfilled human being.