I Dream of Plane Crashes6 min read

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.

Shifting

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.

Missed Connections

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.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Pretty heavy. I was glued to the text, style & story. Kudos.

    1. Author

      Thanks for reading and sharing your cap­ti­va­tion. 💜

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