I recently attended the memorial service of a first cousin who was only a year older than I. The beauty of his life intersected with the sorrow of his early death. I came away from the service with a renewed sense of gratitude for the few days we spend on this earth. It could have been different.
I had three childhood brushes with death; two severe illnesses and a near drowning. As a young adult I nearly plunged into the ocean in a small plane while serving the church in Honduras. Below I recount that story from the chapter on fear in my upcoming book.
* * *
I was flying in a small plane between the island of Roatan and the coastal city of La Ceiba, Honduras. There were five of us and our luggage packed in the four-place Cessna aircraft. “I have just enough fuel to reach the coast,” said the pilot before takeoff. “So I’m not worried about having one extra passenger aboard.” We barely cleared the trees at the end of the runway, but soon we were sailing smoothly above the Caribbean on what seemed like a perfect day. After about 15 minutes of flying, we ran into a squall that had appeared suddenly and without warning. The plane started to lose altitude within the squall, and every attempt the pilot made to gain back the lost altitude resulted in the plane stalling and dropping even more. We were buffeted by winds and rain, flailing around at the complete mercy of the storm.
I was gripped by fear. I was ready to hit the water, and imagined what would happen to us in the ocean if we survived the crash. When we finally emerged from the storm, we spotted the shoreline in the distance, but there were no familiar landmarks to identify where we were. We had no idea how far the storm had pushed us off course. Then I remembered the pilot’s word that he had just enough fuel to reach the coast. A new fear gripped me. There were hundreds of miles of undeveloped jungle along the Caribbean coast of Honduras, and even if we were able somehow to land the airplane on a strip of beach, how many days would it take until we would finally be discovered? We had no food or water with us, just several suitcases full of dirty clothes.
We followed the coastline to the west and shortly the city of our destination, La Ceiba, appeared on the horizon. Although I loved to fly and even took flying lessons for a time, we couldn’t land soon enough for me. When I stepped out of the plane, my legs shook uncontrollably. My colleague’s face was ashen as if he had seen a ghost. We both knew that we had barely escaped death, and through our experience, we understood how the emotion of fear can take over a person. We didn’t kiss the ground, but gratitude and a profound love for life filtered in where fear had reigned.
* * *
In the normal ups and downs of our everyday existence, we tend to take the miracle of our life for granted. Unless something tragic happens to a friend or a relative, or we miraculously escape a brush with death, we forget how precious and how tenuous our life is. Because our life is so tenuous, every breath we take is a miracle.
God, help me to be grateful for every moment of every day so that I don’t need any more dramatic reminders. Help me to live each day as if it were my last. Help me to see each moment as if I were being buffeted by a storm and my only recourse is to put my life in your hands. Help me remember that each moment I have is sacred.