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Thursday, December 01, 2011

Seventeen Years Gone

I wrote about this subject before.

Seventeen years ago, three of my colleagues and friends died in a helicopter crash in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They were the crew of an air ambulance, a helicopter, which was headed out to pick up a critically ill patient.

This was the moonlighting job I had while I was in residency and fellowship.  Most of our transports were for cardiac patients, folks who had recently suffered a heart attack and were being moved to a hospital where there was a cardiac catheterization lab, or failing that, a cardiac surgeon.  This was pretty routine for us.  The rest of the transports were 'out in the field,' and could be anything: motor vehicle accidents, gunshot wounds, whatever.  These were far more exciting, because you never knew what was waiting for you when you hopped out of the helicopter while the blades were still spinning above your head and you tried to anticipate what you would find when you did reach the patient.  I like to think of those transports as if I were reaching into a box of Cracker Jack: sometimes I got the cheap stickers, but every now and then I would pull out something really exciting.

I was scheduled to fly the day after the helicopter crashed, so I thank God I was spared, allowed to go on caring for my wife and children and my patients.

I recall the local newspaper published a picture of one of the dead being lifted out of the aircraft in a body bag.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

Here is the kind of helicopter I used to fly in. This is one outfitted for flight in Switzerland:

Months after the accident, while working a shift at this moonlighting job, I came across a passage in Wind, Sand and Stars, a book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  It was about the loss of one of Saint-Exupery's friends, a colleague and a fellow pilot.  He writes:

Bit by bit, nevertheless, it comes over us that we shall never again hear the laughter of our friend, that this one garden is forever locked against us.  And at that moment begins our true mourning, which, though it may not be rending, is yet a little bitter.  For nothing, in truth, can replace that companion.  Old friends cannot be created out of hand.  Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions.  It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak. 

So life goes on.  For years we plant the seed, we feel ourselves rich; and then come other years when time does its work and our plantation is made sparse and thin.  One by one, our comrades slip away, deprive us of their shade.

There is more to what he says, but I invite you to read it yourself.  Upon re-reading this passage tonight, it appears that human relations were the most important thing for Saint-Exupery.  I would have to disagree; I would put our relationship with God to be far more important.  If one loves God, then it makes it easier to love one another.  If we are alone in this world and yet have the love of God, then we find that we need nothing more.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was not perfect, but I always remember in his book The Little Prince how he would test every friend with a picture he drew when he was a child.  He used it to see who his true friends were by how they would respond to the picture.  In the same way, our son Theodore was sort of a litmus test for determining who was a true friend.  Like Saint-Exupery, we are deprived of Theodore's company and shade in our garden.

 Please, in your mercy, remember to pray today for the repose of the souls of Richard Elliott, Janice Nowacki-Tobin, and Terry Racicot.

Eternal rest grant unto them, oh Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them.  May their souls, and all the souls of the Faithful Departed, rest in peace.

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