Drink carts rattle down the aisle as I try to concentrate on a magazine, and I think to myself, “Are those rattles prefacing shakes, drops, and rolls?” Normal take-offs and landings require shutting my eyes, breathing slowly, and counting. I cringe at every jump of turbulence, rough landings, entering/leaving clouds, and basically every part of the flight that doesn’t involve sitting calmly.
[ Editor’s note: this article mentions grief, death, and a plane crash. ]
I can’t relax on planes, much less sleep.
I have what some people would call an “irrational fear of flying,” but it isn’t irrational to me, and I wasn’t always afraid. In fact, my fear came on quite suddenly when my Aunt Mary died in a plane crash, Colgan Air Flight 3407, on February 12, 2009. She was 44 years old.
Flight 3407 was the last major U.S. commercial airline accident; it killed all 49 people on board plus one person on the ground (an accident on a Southwest flight in April 2018 killed 1 person). Regulations resulting from this crash brought unprecedented safety to the skies, as families fought to uncover the crash details and guide legislation through Congress.
The stories all mention the Colgan families standing strong together to push for change, and it’s true. They did. I’m proud of the effort my family members and others undertook to prevent accidents like that. I do wish more regulations were in place, but the legislation would be difficult to pass considering the decade-long track record of safe air travel in the United States.
With the eleventh anniversary of the crash this year, I assumed it would be like the past several: quiet remembrance of Mary, a short note sent to Buela (Mary’s mother and my grandmother), and then…. Scorched earth. Burning. Bitter stinging. Sadness.
It sounds like I’m describing imagery from the crash, but I’m really just expressing what happened within my family in the months and years that followed. Mary was successful in business, mostly lived alone, and had no children, so her wealth was to be divided.
The Crash Beyond the Crash
A lawsuit against the airline, plus accidental death insurance policies, meant that more was coming. This is not a story about a Colgan family standing strong; it’s a story about grief, gaslighting, and greed.
After the crash, Mary’s two sisters took over. At first, it was welcome—one was Mary’s designated will executor, and they both seemed like natural advocates for the family. Then, they started shutting others out, saying they were merely giving the family space to grieve while dealing with the hard parts.
Finally, they just started ignoring everyone. Jewelry went missing, information was withheld, and there was a motorcycle fight. Money was eventually distributed, but I have no way to tell how fairly.
The money hardly matters; it was helpful, of course, but I’d give it back to talk to Mary again. I’d give it back if I could mend Buela’s broken heart. On that fateful day, Buela did not just lose one daughter; she lost all three. One to a plane crash and two to greed.
Her son (my dad) was the only child she didn’t lose that day. He has mostly been his steady, compassionate self since then. He wasn’t a part of the sisters club, but he seemed to be closest to Mary out of any of them. Mary’s dad (my grandfather) died in December 2018, bitter at life until his last breath.
I grew up close to my cousins because my dad’s family was tight-knit. Only a generation removed from immigration to America, the family stayed close both emotionally and physically. As the oldest of the cousins, I suppose I expected myself to be strong or hold the group together somehow.
It didn’t work.
It didn’t matter anyway; my cousins followed their parents, and I suppose I can hardly blame them for sticking with close family. I don’t laugh at this irony.
Fate and Trauma
Following the crash, I was actually dealing with my own trauma: I was due to be on Flight 3407 myself. Same plane, same time slot, same flight number, but three days later. I had planned a trip home to Buffalo, and I was excited to see my family—especially Mary and the fixer-upper house she just bought and was fixing-upping.
Instead, her plane crashed. I saw the news make national headlines online before going to bed that night, and I remarked to my partner how weird it was that my flight number had just crashed in Buffalo. My dad called me in the middle of the night to tell me the news; and, of course, I couldn’t get back to sleep.
The airline changed my flight number and “3407” as a flight was retired. I was immediately put on a different plane to Buffalo. I got a grand tour of her house and the work she had done, but Mary wasn’t the tour guide.
Mary and I both lived in the Cleveland area for a couple of years before we parted ways to Los Angeles and Buffalo, and I got to know her quite well during that time. Even before that, we were close—she became my aunt at the age of 17 and was often around to hang out. I was her oldest “nibling” and excited to have an aunt that was always up to something new. I always felt a connection to her.
She was the cool lesbian aunt before it was cool. She drove a Subaru, rescued greyhound dogs, and was a member of the Motor Maids motorcycle club. She was in the Army Reserves, worked for Invacare helping patients access and use medical devices, and routinely called people out on their bullshit.
Lately, I’ve been seeing her image in mirrors, in perfect harmony with my own features and movements. Her fixating eyes, round chin, and soft face (belying such a strong inner self) move under tight curls whenever I walk by the bathroom. I’m not just hallucinating. I’m growing my hair long myself, after a 20-year buzzcut, and my dark curls have started sprouting beautifully.
I’ve been feeling my womanhood more strongly as well—I recently realized that I am a lesbian aunt myself (a transgender lesbian aunt to boot!). However, I’m still working on being as cool as Mary. I’m a mom, and my kids think I’m cool, so that has to count for something, right?
Preparing for Crash Landings
Seeing my aunt in the mirror would be fun if I wasn’t also seeing planes crash in my dreams. They started with turbulence and shakes, but over the past few weeks they have culminated in vivid crashes.
My brain, in its own complicated way, is preparing for the anniversary of a terrible event that set off a series of terrible events in my life. I’m writing this mostly in the hope that putting words to the page will stop the nightmares. I’m also channeling Mary to call her sisters out on their bullshit.
My life is crashing in a lot of ways now, too. I left an emotionally abusive environment at my last job to fend for myself in the freelance world. My body is degenerating, and I’m in chronic pain. My partner and I may be selling our house and moving soon because the area is too expensive.
Friends and relatives are clashing with us because we dared to be ourselves and stopped putting up with their ignorance. I’ve been looking into hormone replacement therapy lately, revealing all sorts of wonderful, confusing feelings.
The climate crisis, rising fascism, and other societal issues provide quite the omnipresent, moody backdrop.
The Footsteps of Giants
My oldest kid recently told me about a recurring nightmare she was having. A giant (like from Jack and the Beanstalk) appears and uses its thunderous voice and crushing steps to terrorize people. I told her that since it was her dream, she could probably assert some control over it and tell the giant a joke the next time it attempts to smash her mind’s calm countryside.
She thought about that for a second and then cracked a smile; she’s going to try making friends with the giant in a subsequent adventure.
“Why did the giant cross the road?”
“The giant doesn’t know, because it’s just one step for them.”
Why did the plane cross my mind?
The plane doesn’t know, because it’s just one step for me.