Just found this month-old sketching for a possible column, some longhand on a notepad the day after the funeral for our nephew Jason who died in a plane crash off Dana Point, Calif., in November:
A plane crashes and everyone plunges into an abyss. Extended family. Friends. His mother, father, brother and sisters. But most of all, his wife and two young daughters, a first-grader and preschooler. Utterly lost.
The priest said to not let our hearts be troubled, to keep our faith. But that’s just about impossible. At least in this moment. Sitting toward the front of this giant Catholic church in Newport Beach, the place overflowing with people outside for these heart-breaking services.
For our nephew Jason Baldwin, 35, this was a simple flight in the family Cessna on his way home from racing off-road in Baja. We didn’t know him well, just enough to really like him, which of course extended to love by family connection. He married Mary’s sister’s daughter, the first of the generation of my wife’s siblings’ children.
So now two people in my life haved died young in plane crashes. The other was friend and one-time roommate Ted Sveum, whose air tanker plowed into a hillside during a retardant drop. A 15-foot-long wingtip broke off late in the dive. And that was that. My crew arrived on the fire the plane ignited toward evening, just as the body pieces had all been picked up and bags taken away. I remember looking, irrationally of course, far outside the fireline, just in case I’d find Ted alive somehow. I did find two blue feathers, just like one on the cover of what I later learned was his favorite book, …, by Richard Bach. The funeral in Crescent City, near the Oregon border, included a number of quotes from that book. Which of course I later read.
Ted was the co-pilot. Jason no doubt was in the co-pilot seat, as always, too. The Cesna apparently lost power and spiraled into the Pacific about three miles off Dana Point, a couple of hundred yards away from a tall ship. It hit, and sunk like a stone, the witnesses said. The four men inside were found still strapped in nearly a week later on the bottom, 200 feet down. Just like that. On a sunny, stunning Southern California Saturday afternoon.
Faith? God’s got a wicked way of testing that. If there is a point in taking our friends, our family, our loved ones so young, it’s well beyond human understanding. It’s out there in the abyss.
Grief pulses in waves. Like the rock tossed into the pond, the closer you are, the higher the steeper the waves, and the more they rise and churn.
Ted guided me to the Forest Service while he was earning his final ratings to fly air tankers, the Korean and World War II-vintage bombers dropping orange slurry on wildfires.
We’d argue over who had the riskier job ” me as a ground-pounding member of a hotshot crew on the fire’s edge far from water, or him swooping and diving into tight canyons, sometimes to save our lives.
In the end he “won” the argument. We mopped up overnight on the larger fire his plane started, eventually around little warming fires, camping with the ghosts near the sheared pine, the crater, the partially burnt plane.
Ted knew his risks and took them. Just as I knew mine. It’s a paradox of life, I suppose, being more alive for those risks. All the more so when someone close pays that price.
Every flight, especially in the helicopters. Every fire, every big wave, every decisive moment in my life after that I kept Ted’s memory as guide. It wasn’t cautionary, as in look what happened. It was go for it. Ted was one of those people who really lived. He went for it. If he did, well, I could, too. In his memory, in addition to whatever was in me already.
Same with Jason, nephew by marriage. Jason and Ted were kids with the same light in their eyes, mischief tugging at the corners of their lips. Life burned bright for them both, and we with dimmer bulbs couldn’t help but be energized in their presence.
Jason, as his wife Eve put it, led a thoroughly charmed life. The family building empire was substantial enough to be among the wealthiest in the wealthy beach town of Laguna Beach. Homes, second homes, a custom family yacht complete with helicopter, planes with pilots, not wanting for anything and lots of time for adventuring around the world. His wife, our niece by blood, had just the energy and spirit to challenge that young man who had everything.
What I really liked about him was that his friendships were humble, and many of his friends were just like you and me. He would have fit right in with my hotshot crew back when, or on Ted’s air tanker. He had his toys, but there was nothing highfalutin’ about the kid’s soul. His hired nanny for the girls spoke warmly at the reception at the Dana Point Marriott near sunset, overlooking the ocean where he died, about how he treated her with respect and dignity always.
Grief comes in waves. The storm is ebbing enough that we can ride more of them after all that early tumbling. Maybe the church services helped. The priest’s wisdom, with his experience at that lifeguard station. Maybe.
Jason’s older daughter asking everyone in a small voice to pray for her daddy sent 1,000 or so folks tumbling, though. As did the video on a giant screen at the reception, overlooking where, somewhere we could see, the plane broke all those hearts just a week before.
And then the sunset, which Jason treasured, making friends, family, employees stop and take time to watch. Oh God, in surfer parlance, that was over the falls.
Let our hearts not be troubled. Was the priest kidding? We have no choice but to accept that a loved one was ripped from us. In time the waves break and crack and play out on the sand with a kiss, all that force now memory.
Time heals, most certainly. Our niece and her daughters will learn this in their own time. But there’s no justice, no higher lesson here. It’s flat not fair. Our only consolations are treasuring our own lives and our surviving loved ones, along with whatever lessons we can pull from realizing life is so short and so fragile.
That’s an awfully steep toll, though. Did we really need to lose Ted and Jason in full youth in exchange? The finality of the price, this awesome, awful fare, is just too much.
But too bad. It’s done. What’s left? For me, it’s looking at how they lived in their too-short time and taking from memory, in their memory, what will make me a better person in the time I have left.
This is how we give their deaths an iota of meaning, how we honor them and not forget them.
This is how we keep them alive in our hearts ” however troubled.