Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Prepare for Landing

Our flight to Rome was set to depart at 6:30 p.m. on the Monday of April vacation, 2019. Norwegian Airlines had a deal that was too good to pass up and thanks to my mother's heavy subsidy, we took the kids on their first trip to Italy.

The flight was delayed in Boston. Then delayed some more. We ate dinner to waste some time. The delay continued. "Technical problems," they told us. We wandered the terminal, bought the kids more snacks, and wandered some more. Sometime after midnight, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner finally took off into the dark sky. 

Despite that the first half of the flight was relatively smooth, I was still a nervous wreck. I hate to fly (oh, have I already mentioned that)? Well, I do. But I love to travel, so unless I want to go by boat to Europe (I do not), the plane was necessary. 

I admit, I freak out on planes at nothing. Any sound, movement, bump, or flight attendant facial expression and the adrenaline will rush through my veins. But then this happened. I froze. Just froze. 

Yes, at an altitude of approximately 41,000 feet, the pressure system gave out in the cabin. We would learn later that the part of the plane that was broken and had caused all the delays was the air pressure system. Unfortunately, the "fix" lasted to only about halfway across the ocean. Fun times. 

Now, when the pressurizing system fails midflight, the usual solution is that airbags drop down, right? Well, that didn't happen. Broken, too, perhaps? (I would read later that yes, there was an issue with this happening...) So the pilots did the only thing they could do: they took the plane down as fast as they possibly could (again, I would learn all this later). I would say I have never been so scared in my life but there had been a few others times (anaphylactic shock to chemo comes to mind). Yeah, so at the time, this took the silver medal of life's scariest single moments. I remember looking at Brian and thinking that we would be dead in seconds. I remember being mad, which is funny because that is an emotion that I feel relatively rarely compared to most other people. 

Obviously, we didn't nosedive into the ocean. Instead, the plane leveled off at 9,000 feet, then climbed to 15,000, where it stayed for the next two-and-a-half hours. But lets revisit the 20-ish minutes after the "rapid descent"...

For that whole time, a message covered part of the in-flight info screen on the seatback. The message read, "Prepare for Landing." There was just one small problem, however: we were clearly over the ocean. Nevertheless, I was relieved that we had a chance to prepare for a water landing. Brian and I decided that I would keep close with Teddy and he would take Annabel. For that 20 minutes, with no word from anyone in the cockpit or any of the flight attendants (who had taken their seats), we prepared to land in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. 

Finally, the pilot came over and explained the malfunction (I debated deleting the "finally" there as it implies pilot fault in the delay but I know they were busy up there saving our lives and all). Anyways, the captain explained that we would need to stay at a low altitude for the rest of the flight and we would need to divert to Paris to make an emergency landing there. And that's what we did. The airport in Paris was slightly nightmarish but finally, about 20 hours after leaving Boston, we left Paris en route to Rome. When we got there, the whole plane erupted in cheers. 

*  *  *

Today, March 10, 2021 is my 41st birthday. But I didn't write the above text today. I wrote it on Tuesday, February 16th. On that day, I also wrote this...

Today [February 16th], I feel like I got thrown back on that plane. A recent MRI on my brain has revealed two "masses." Life feels like it took a nosedive. 

Prepare to land.

Prepare to land. 
But there's only ocean down there. 

I see a neurologist tomorrow. 

*  *  *

Back on February 16th, I ended the post there. I honestly couldn't find any more words. I also knew that I couldn't post it. When I first began this blog, my kids were 4 and 1-year-old. They couldn't read. But now, at 13 and 10, they are literate and can find things on the internet. I could never tell the blogosphere more than what I would want them to know. And they already know what metastatic cancer means. They know that breast cancer coming back in my brain would be a tough uphill battle. 

The hours between hearing "two masses" and the neurologist telling me that the masses appear to be meningiomas (90% of which are benign), were full of indescribable fear and pain. It's a fear that makes my throat get tight. It's a fear that people living with metastatic cancer must feel every day. It's a fear I wish with every cell in my body I could obliterate forever. 

Looking back, I try to think of what helped me breathe in those two days. Love helped. Hope helped. Counting to 10 helped. Science helped. 

But do you want to know what helped most? Human resilience. In those days, I admit that I made lists in my head of friends and family members who had lost parents, children, siblings, and cousins. I thought about how they still found happy moments in life. Of course there was and would be pain between those moments but the hope that my kids, my husband, my family, could move on without me was perhaps the only real peace I found in those two brutal days. 

Since then, I have felt a gratitude for life that I could never articulate. Yes, I am adjusting to the reality that I have two tumors in my head. But I'm the luckiest person in the world that they appear to be benign. My heart aches for people who are not as lucky. It's a heavy, painful ache. 

I have not been brave enough to read the report so I don't know the size or location of the meningiomas. I know that they are in a relatively good place (between the brain and the skull -- in the dura). I know that lots of people have meningiomas and they can go years without having any symptoms. I know that I will be followed closely with brain MRIs every few months. I know that when I have to get the tumors removed, I will be my bravest and the brain surgeons will be my heroes. And I know, for sure, that others have been through infinitely worse challenges. 

Here's the thing I'm left thinking after 41 years of life. When the world shows us fear and pain, we must decide what to do with them. How to hold them in our minds and our hearts. How to find a shelf or lockbox or dumpster for them. Sometimes, it feels like there is absolutely nothing we can do but fasten our seatbelts and hope the pilots know what they are doing. Other times, it feels like just taking the next breath will be our greatest accomplishment. And other times, we brace for a Dreamliner landing in the middle of the ocean, and we believe, as I sincerely did, that we will survive it all. Sure, we will lose all our luggage and our bodies will endure injury. But our souls will make it through. That's today's definition of hope, I guess. 

And so today, 41 years after my amazing mother brought me into this terrifying, beautiful world, I still have fear and I still have hope. But mostly, I have love. Because if there is anything that this year taught all of us, it's that we need connection. We need each other. We need less than six feet between us for hugs and holding hands and pats on the back. For shared meals and naked faces that reveal our smiles. That deep, pure love is what scares me most about this uncertain world. But it's also what I know this life is all about, no matter how many birthdays we are lucky enough to celebrate.