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At the Heart of Flying

Destined for Maui, the fifteen-seat plane hummed over the inky Pacific and across a diamond-sprinkled night sky. The days ahead shimmered with the promise of warm seas, tropical sights, gourmet food, fine wines, and romance. It was 1990 and I was “Just Married” and on my honeymoon.

Then suddenly, the world shook as the plane hit violent turbulence. Butts and limbs juggled up like circus balls and air rushed into the cabin. My one thought, barely distinguishable over screams, was Shit, I just got married and I’m about to die.

The plane’s door had opened.

Thankfully, we were at low altitude and in an unpressurized cabin. Minutes felt like hours as the copilot shut the door. We landed safely in Maui.

And I’ve been afraid of flying ever since.

For the following twenty-five years, I’ve traveled mainly by car. At times, planes were unavoidable and for when I needed to fly, my doctor prescribed Ativan, “Magic Flying Pills” to carry me calmly and mostly asleep from points A to Z.

I sorely missed my fearless days, childhood flights to Miami to celebrate Passover with family and vacations to Los Angeles to visit my grandmother. On those California trips, I drank in the sights, drove by Hollywood mansions owned by screen legends, shrieked as the shark from Jaws attacked our studio tram, and caught the first Star Wars movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. After the screening, I planted my palms on cold concrete beside imprints from C3PO and R2D2. The seventies were a time when my biggest preflight fretting was over forgetting the hot rollers and curling iron I used to keep a Farrah-styled flip in my hair; my parents would have been wise to buy stock in Aqua Net.

I traveled even farther afield in the eighties. While attending college at Syracuse University, I spent a semester in London, during which time I flew to Paris and Amsterdam for weekends and spent spring break in Spain. After graduation, a career in television led me to Manhattan, from where I traveled on business trips to New Orleans, San Francisco, and Toronto. Even though those were work trips, I always carved out time to explore and to indulge in a little retail therapy. I still own twenty-six-year-old mint-condition fuchsia suede pumps that I purchased in Toronto. The only turbulence on that return flight from Canada existed solely in my mind as I played a mental game of “I Wonder What Outfit Will Match Bright Pink Shoes.”

After 1990 and my disastrous Hawaii flight, if I traveled by choice it was predominantly on the East Coast and within two days driving distance. Meanwhile, my husband has always traveled for business and a benefit gleaned from all those nights away was that he accumulated frequent flyer miles. With sky-rocketing gas prices and the need for motel nights to break a long drive, at times it cost us more to travel by car than by plane.

Three years ago, there was a stretch of several months when I repeatedly drove up and down I-95 to attend college tours with my daughter. A friend joked that the roadway powers-that-be should rename a section of it the Sharon Kurtzman Highway.

Driving practically everywhere became exhausting.

Yet, after that long-ago honeymoon flight, I couldn’t imagine I’d ever overcome my fear of flying.

Then last fall, at eighty-seven, my father was hospitalized with congestive heart failure. I was in New England, moving my daughter into her college dorm when my father called from the Florida emergency room. “The doctors say I’m in bad shape. My lungs are full of liquid. When can you get here?”

When and how fast? I thought.

Thirty-six hours later, I arrived in Fort Lauderdale and because drowsy and a medical emergency wouldn’t mix well, I’d flown on half of my one-pill dose.

Days passed and his health deteriorated. By the end of a week medication alone had failed and so he had surgery to insert a chest tube. At the same time the surgeon performed a pleurodesis, a procedure that fuses lung and lining in order to prevent future fluid buildup. After a week and with my father still in the hospital, I flew home as my brother arrived from New Jersey. This was our tag-team approach to watching over our father.

For the return flight, I took only a quarter of a pill because I needed to jump back into my life at a full run as my youngest child was already knee-deep in college tours and applications.

My father’s surgery proved successful and his lungs cleared. Seven days post-op, my brother oversaw our father’s move to a rehab facility, a place to regain his strength before returning to his retirement community and independent living.

Three weeks later, in October, my father phoned about a piano concert at the rehab facility. “I stood with my walker and danced to a whole song,” he joyously reported.

Sheer strength of will had yanked him from death’s jaws. I dubbed him “The Medical Miracle.”

And of course, the following day his doctor said he was well enough to go home.

I flew to Florida to help my father resettle in his apartment.

Again, I’d needed to hit the ground running and though I carried Ativan in my purse, I didn’t take any. Instead, I planned to board with my right foot, considering it lucky, inching toward the cabin door with right foot, right foot as a mental mantra.

During midflight turbulence, I whispered, “You can make it.” Then I cranked my iPhone music and buried my nose in my reading.

Upon landing, I sent smiling-emoji-filled texts to loved ones: Just took my first unmedicated flight in twenty-five years!

I experienced the same heartfelt thrill watching my father return to his retirement community and then a few days later to his favorite pastime, afternoon gin rummy with his old cronies.

Men of varied ages and ailments stood at my father’s clubhouse arrival, wrinkled cheeks damp with quick tears; everyone had thought him a goner.

I was determined—and succeeded—to fly home medication-free.

The true test of my newfound fearlessness came in November when I traveled to New York for a weekend with college friends. I flew Raleigh to LaGuardia and back again without medication.

Also by November, my father had resumed his life and activities—dining out with friends, shopping with his girlfriend, and playing cards with his pals.

“I’m schlepping along,” he told me in a recent call, but he added a laugh. My father has long considered each day of his golden years a bonus, because he’s outlived all of his older male relatives. Post-medical emergency and once again my father’s days are filled with the things he loves to do.

My husband and I will soon be empty nesters and we’ve long talked about how someday I should tag along on his business trips, explore cities that I’ve never visited. I’ve long envisioned these someday adventures; during the day my husband would tend to his business while I wrote at Starbucks, checked out the local attractions, and slipped in a bit of shopping. After work, my husband and I would go for dinner and do more sightseeing. The only thing that had darkened this rosy picture was my fear of flying.

Those stormy clouds have rolled past in large part due to my father’s admirable constitution. If he can move forward now, then it’s time I did, too.