A Miraculous Start For 2009

One week into the new year, my first week with a new boss and a new job – and I take off work to go assist my mother, who’s just come out of an emergency three-day stint in the hospital. I fly across the country to St. Louis and drive two more hours to their house. And while I’m at Lowe’s with my dad, shopping for new fixtures to make it easier for her to get in and out of the shower, I get a phone call from Frank: “Donnie’s plane just crashed – but he’s OK. Check CNN”. A quick look at my iPhone tells me that a US Airways jet has, in fact, just crashed into the Hudson river, and my nephew Don was on board and is standing on the wing of the plane as it’s sinking. And how was your week?

Yes, 2009 has certainly come in with a bang here in the Henderson household(s).

I don’t normally blog about my job, and I won’t start now – except to note that due to an internal reorganization, my first day back at work this year involved moving all my stuff out of my cube and across the company campus to another building, into a new cube, reporting to a new boss, and with a new set of responsibilities. With that as background, you can imagine that I’m doing my best to impress. But just two days into the week, I get a call that Mom has been rushed to the emergency room and is currently in the hospital in Rolla, Missouri.

Even after my mother checks out of the hospital, it’s clear that she’s going to need help during her recovery period. My father is partially disabled as the result of a series of strokes, and while he has lofty intentions, he is often simply not physically capable of accomplishing things. My sister pitches in for the weekend, but she cannot stay longer than a day. After a morning chewing my lip and pulling my hair, I decide that I’m going to have to fly to Rolla and do what I can to help out. Fortunately, my new boss is understanding, and with the help of Frank’s airline connections, off I go.

Monday morning, January 12th, I arrive in St. Louis after a series of hops across the country courtesy the friendly folks at Southwest Airlines. Having lived in South Florida for almost five years now, I’m always shocked when I travel north in the winter and am reminded of how barren and dead everything looks in the winter – which is, in fact, one of the main reasons I live as close to the tropics as is economically feasible (Hawaii was our original plan, but that didn’t work out). Rolla is a small-ish town about a hundred miles from St. Louis, so I pile into a rental car and drive down the frozen interstate to go Meet The Parents.

Mom looks gaunt and thin (imagine a blond, female Steve Jobs in her late sixties) but is in reasonable spirits. However, their house is a mess, and they clearly need a hand. They’ve got four dogs, four cats, and three horses on their 38-acre gentleman’s farm, so having both of them incapacitated for a week is bad news all around. So, I begin pitching in, cleaning out horse stalls (aka “mucking“, a disgusting task which I have not had to do since I was 18 years old), fixing electronics, patching walls, baking cookies, you name it.

While this is going on, of course, I’m always in constant contact with my other family and friends (as detailed in my previous post about connections), so I know that my nephew Don is currently on a business trip in New York. Don is my nephew by marriage (Frank’s sister’s oldest son) and we are very close. In fact, we’ve worked together at two of my last four jobs. Don, his wife Elizabeth, and son Ethan are our most frequent visitors here. They often drive or fly down from Charlotte, and we have a tradition going back over 15 years of always spending Thanksgiving together. Naturally, we all keep touch several times a week.

And so you can visualize my state of mind as I’m standing there in Lowe’s, a shopping cart filled with shower stall handles, safety treads, new wiring and spackling, searching the aisles for some slider thingies to put on the bottom of chairs to make it easier to move them around, when my phone rings. I know in the back of my head that Donnie is flying back to Charlotte this afternoon, and since Frank works in the airline business, he always tracks everyone’s flights when any of us fly anywhere. I fully expect him to say something like, “Well, Donnie’s back from New York, blah blah blah”.

Instead, I hear his panicked voice: “Donnie’s plane has crashed.”

I yell “What?” at the top of my lungs into the phone, as Frank quickly adds “But he’s OK. He’s OK. He’s on a rescue ferry right now, he’s shivering cold and wet, but he’s OK. Check CNN. I gotta go call everyone else now”. I tell Dad “Donnie’s plane just crashed” tersely as I log in and check CNN, to see a picture of a US Airways plane floating in the Hudson River, both wings covered with passengers trying desperately not to slide off into the water. And standing very near the end of the wing is, in fact, my nephew Don Norton.

The rest of the story is well known international news now. Don himself has been on TV numerous times in the past two days, and was on Larry King LIve last night with two other survivors, talking about the crash. But not just talking about it passively – because Don was sitting in seat 11F. The emergency exit row seat right next to the emergency exit door. Because Frank has always insisted that we sit in the emergency exit row for the additional legroom. And while the plane is going down, right after the pilot yells “Brace for impact!”, my nephew Don Norton is studying the emergency card, going over how to get that door open the second the plane stops.

Which he does. You can watch him describe doing just that here on Fox & Friends, or here on Larry King Live. Oh, and my other nephew Shane Norton, his brother? Works for ESPN. And so of course he got Don to call in to his network. Thus you can hear Don on the ESPN Mike and Mike show here – which is a sports show not normally known for covering plane crashes.

Today, Saturday January 17th, I flew back to Fort Lauderdale. Someone asked me if I was nervous about flying, considering what just happened. I laughed it off. I figured the odds of being in a plane crash are remote enough. But being in a plane crash the same week my nephew was in one? Not gonna happen.

In 3 days we’ll swear in a new President, and start a new era for our nation. But my little family? We’ve gotten a head start. My mother’s stint in the hospital has revitalized her spirit and given her new courage to take on the challenges in her life head on. Rather than depress her, the incident seems to have given her a new zeal and charge for life. And so I have to conclude that although it was painful for her and scary for the whole family, the end result seems to be positive and uplifting. And I leave Missouri feeling almost glad that Mom went to the emergency room, because I get the very distinct feeling that she will actually be stronger as a result.

My nephew, meanwhile, was a key part of what’s been called The Miracle on the Hudson. And how can that not make you feel good? We’re all so happy and grateful for his safety, and so proud of the way he handled himself. The story of Flight 1549, with every single person on board surviving, has become an uplifting tale for a nation that sorely needs some good news. So once again – although I’d never, ever, ever wish it to have actually happened – a possible tragedy has turned into a positive, an event that makes everyone feel better and resolve to be a better person as a result. How can that not be a good thing?

There was a John Carpenter movie back in 1984 called Starman, about an alien who has to live on earth for a few days disguised as a human until he’s rescued. Near the end of the movie, someone asks him what he thinks is beautiful about the human race. His answer?

“You are at your best when things are at their worst”.

And so this week of illness and plane crashes comes to an end… and I feel uplifted. I feel a new sense of hope and promise. Times have been hard, and things have been bad. But if family is a microcosm of society – and I believe that it is – I cannot be depressed. I look around me, and I feel love and comfort. I look up into the sky tonight, and the stars shine with hope.

2009 is going to be a great year.

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