It was just a routine news story. Accidents happen all the time. People are killed all the time. But still….
A plane crashed late Sunday morning in Tuscaloosa County, not far west of Birmingham. Three Mississippi couples were returning to Oxford, Miss., from a dental conference in Florida. Four of the six — including a husband/wife pair — were dental professionals. The plane had engine trouble and radioed the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport that it was going to make an emergency landing — but it crashed violently just short of the airport, leaving no survivors.
The news stories identified the six dead passengers and said they left a total of 11 children behind. Dr. Michael Perry and his wife, nurse Kimberly Perry, had three children. Dr. Austin Poole and his wife, Angie Poole, had five children. Drs. Jason and Lea Farese (in the photo below) had three children. And then I noticed what the story said about the youngest Farese child:
“The youngest just started kindergarten this week.”
For some reason, that hit me hard and it’s left me sitting here in a daze thinking about those 11 children — and somehow it left me thinking again about my own mortality and the uncertainties of life.
Those three couples left their children at home with no thought they would never see them again. Those 11 children felt certain they would see their parents again soon. But death had different plans — and it reminds me that not a single one of us knows what plans death has for us.
I think about that 5-year-old who just started kindergarten. How does that child deal with the deaths of his parents? All 11 of the children have something terrible to face as they deal with this, but the 5-year-old is the only one I can personify in any way — because I can remember being 5. I can remember feeling small and powerless. I can remember feeling confused about my place in my family and in the world.
How will that child deal with the loss of what he knows? How would I have dealt with it? I can’t even imagine. I wonder whether it would have changed my view of the world and forced me to realize early how short and precious the years of our lives are.
When I was very young, I had all of life ahead of me to figure things out and to achieve whatever I wanted. Time seemed limitless. My life seemed limitless.
As I grew, I naturally absorbed the culture and values around which I was growing up. Those were the things that mattered to me. But as I have discarded more and more of what I was taught as meaningless (or even dangerous) myths, I’ve been forced to look for broader and deeper meaning on my own, based on my own experiences of God, love and beauty.
When I was young, I was content to pursue the things other people pursued, because those things seemed meaningful to me at the time. How was I to know any different?
As I have had to construct new meaning for myself — as I’ve set aside the values that once seemed so important — I’ve found those commonly valued things to be marginally useful but ultimately useless for building meaning in life. Money and success and power can be useful tools, but as priorities, they’re as useless as gold was to King Midas.
Time no longer seems limitless to me, so I feel incredible urgency lately to fill in the details of broad truths I’ve started to understand about meaning. Making those things my central focus means I have to virtually ignore things that others consider important — and it means fewer and fewer people will understand my priorities — but if I’m right about the way to find meaning, this is the only path to choose.
It’s simply a lonely and frustrating path to walk without others who understand things as I do and who are seeking to walk the same path and understand the same values.
I don’t know why these six deaths have me thinking about those issues so much. It’s partly the suddenness and unpredictability of their deaths that hits me, but the effect on the 11 remaining children is what really leaves me feeling emotional and introspective. Will their experience — of losing both parents at once — destroy them or give them a painful perspective about life that will benefit them as they grow older? I have no idea, but something about it leaves me feeling very empty for them.
It terrifies me to realize that nobody is guaranteed another minute of life. I could get up from the table in this restaurant and be killed driving home. I could die in my sleep tonight. A million things could happen for me. I have no control or knowledge about my death, which reminds me of what French writer Jean Cocteau said: “The day of my birth, my death began its walk. It is walking toward me, without hurrying.”
Any reminder of mortality makes me want to run toward the things that matter — love and connection with those who are emotionally healthy for me — and away from the things the world is so intent of selling me as important.
Love matters. Wealth doesn’t.
Connection matters. Pride and ego don’t.
Understanding matters. Awards and honors don’t.
I can’t imagine the terror those those six people and their pilot felt as they crashed to their deaths near Tuscaloosa Sunday morning, but I know they weren’t thinking about wealth or honors. I can’t imagine what each of those 11 young children is feeling today as they are informed about the loss of the people most important to them.
I can’t imagine any of that, but it tears at my heart to try.
What I can know is what it feels like to be me — to know what I need and what I don’t need, to know which values matter and which values no longer matter, to know which people are emotionally healthy to me and which people are toxic.
I can look toward the meaning I still struggle to find — and the love and connection I need as I struggle — and know what I need to do in the years to come, even knowing that the death which has been walking toward me all these years will meet me when I least expect him.
I pray that those 11 orphaned children in Mississippi can find peace and happiness as they go through their own struggles in the days and years ahead. I hope their loss can teach them at an early age what really matters in life. I hope they can one day find peace and meaning in the face of this devastating death and loss.