We boarded in Atlanta’s deepening twilight, destination DFW. The flight was packed, my family stretched across the row, kids in the aisle seats, wife and I in the middle seats. The flight took off with the normal delays. Everything about it was normal at first.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached our cruising altitude.”
As soon as the words were spoken, the plane slowed and began a steep descent. We felt it in our stomachs more than saw it in the darkness outside the windows. I looked across the aisle at my wife. She gave me a lip shrug in return that meant ‘yeah, odd.’
Meanwhile, our son was giggling. He leaned out into the aisle, looking forward.
“Hey, helper! The plane slowed down!” He looked backward. “Hey, helper!”
I elbowed him. “Dude.”
His mother was smiling her embarrassed smile across the way. She opened her mouth to say something.
At that moment, the plane turned upward, and we were pressed backward into our seats.
My son shrieked in delight. “Helper, you did it! Hey, Dad, the helper did it!”
There was some snickering in the row behind us. I turned to say something to them. What that might be, I wasn’t sure. Sorry, my son is four.
Or this. Sorry, he identifies everyone in a service industry as ‘helper.’
Maybe this. Sorry, I am not so great at the fathering thing.
I only had time to open my mouth. The plane turned downward again. It was a giddy moment. An instant of lessened weight. What it would be to be twenty years old again. And everything with that.
For my son, it was simply joy.
“Down, down, down! Hey, helper!” He had some ear troubles, and always spoke a bit loudly.
By now, the people behind us were chuckling. They should have been worried. This wasn’t normal flight behavior.
My son looked down the aisle. “Hey helper!”
His mother caught his eye and tried to say something. He didn’t pay attention.
People several rows back were laughing.
Whatever hills we were rolling along, whatever rollercoaster ride this was, we hit bottom and turned back upward.
“You did it!” My son was laughing loudly now. Worried people in the rows in front of us glanced back. Their eyebrows said, I should be worried. But this kid…
And without turning fully away, they spoke among themselves. They smiled.
My son put his hands out like a symphony conductor. “Now, down, down, you can do it. Down, down!”
And the plane turned downward. His laughter erupted from deep within. Virtually everyone within six rows either side of us was laughing now.
But my son seemed oblivious to everything except his control of our airplane. And he controlled it masterfully.
The laughter went like a wave down the cabin, row after row.
I don’t know how long it lasted. How many cycles. With every inflection point his laughter made us breathe.
The aircraft finally stabilized itself. When he realized the rollercoaster ride was over, my son said, “Aw man!”
And I heard laughter from far back in the plane.
The cabin crew unlocked their beverage carts and came down the aisle. My son leaned out. “Helper! That was fun!”
The rest of the trip was normal.
Years later, I learned of a thing called pilot induced oscillation, which sounds a lot like the rollercoaster ride we were on that night. But who knows. I’m not going to call out any pilot who gets me and my family home safely. And really, my son was right. It was fun.
I share that story with you because I want to know something:
How do you let go of a son like that? When he turns eighteen and goes off to college. When he turns twenty-two and goes off to life. When you’ve raised him from the ground up, and now, he’s gone.
What do you do?
“Burke’s Mission” is a story about a few things, but mostly, I think it’s a story about a man and his son. It’s a story that began for me with “Hickey Urquhart’s Trajectory” in 2006 and has continued in bits and pieces among other stories from my fictional Valentine, Texas. Burke Urquhart has raised his son Hickey the best he could, imparting his own sense of structure and wonder and questioning so that Hickey could see with the best sight Burke could give him.
And now, Hickey is gone.
And now, what do you do, Burke?
Because I don’t know. My own son was born with a chuckle in his heart. The kind of chuckle that makes an entire airplane of worried passengers relax and breathe. And of course, he has that effect on me.
When my journey is rough, his chuckle levels me out.
Maybe that’s not a fair thing to put on a son.
But it’s what he does.
“Burke’s Mission” is dedicated to my son, Brett.
Hawk left engineering in 2005 to pursue his teaching and creative writing interests. His poems have appeared in small literary presses over the years, including The Davidson Miscellany, Wind: A Literary Magazine, Cold Mountain Review, Word River, and New Plains Review.
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