80. The Road Less Traveled

80. The Road Less Traveled

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

The Road Less Traveled

The best way out is always through.

~Robert Frost

It was a cool, sunny spring Saturday in our high chaparral community of Anza, California. My husband Steve planned on flying his newly painted powered sailplane. In the early afternoon, he rode to the airstrip in our community of Lake Riverside Estates.

Our greenhouse window off the kitchen provided an unimpeded view of the runway below. As our four children and I watched Steve taxi east, then take off to the west, we waved and the children returned to their lunches. For some reason, though, I continued to watch as he struggled to gain altitude, then plateaued and flew out of sight. Immediately, I saw dust trails from cars lining the runway racing towards the runway’s end. I knew he must have crashed.

I yelled for Chris, my eldest, to run and get my keys, which he obediently did. As I reached for the knob on my front door, I knew my life would be altered forever. I would not see my children again for two weeks. My new reality would revolve around the intensive care wing of a hospital, while my children’s reality would be living with close relatives and friends who cared for them in the ensuing days and weeks.

When I arrived on the scene, the terrifying scope of the accident lay before me. Steve appeared physically whole, but upon looking at the devastation of the plane, I knew he must be gravely injured, both internally and externally.

I knelt down beside Steve, and saw that his eyes were milky white. He was thrashing, mumbling incoherently, and crying out as an EMT, who happened to be on the runway looking at property that day, attempted to remove his boots to check for leg injuries. I did not know how long I had with him, and wondered whether I would be a witness to his death. But a sense of peace encircled me, and I was momentarily comforted. He was in good hands after all. What were the chances that an EMT would be on site in such a remote location at the very moment needed? It was providential.

After another twenty minutes, local emergency medical technicians arrived and monitored Steve’s vital signs. It took an additional thirty minutes for Life Flight to arrive and take Steve to Loma Linda University Medical Center in Redlands, California. After a seemingly never-ending drive, a pilot friend and I joined him there. We checked in with the ER reception desk, and I was eventually led to Steve’s room where medical personnel were attending to him.

His stay at Loma Linda turned into days, then weeks, then months. He was constantly in and out of hospitals those first two years following his accident. We lived two and a half hours from Loma Linda, where most of his hospital stays took place. But he also spent time at St. Mary’s in Long Beach, and at Palomar too. It took a great deal of coordinated effort from family and friends to get the children to preschool and elementary school and church activities. We remain awed and grateful to this day for the blessing of extended family and friends in our lives during that difficult time.

As authorities began to unravel what had happened to Steve’s aircraft that day, they determined that the engine had failed on takeoff when he was about one hundred feet in the air. As he attempted to correct the free fall by returning to the runway, a crosswind had stalled his left wing and taken him into an unrecoverable tailspin.

In the coming days, weeks, and months, we learned the extent of Steve’s injuries. In addition to the not-so-noticeable injuries were the noticeable ones. In the hospital, after his first surgery, his face was littered with railroad track stitching from lacerations incurred when his face penetrated the plexiglass windshield upon impact.

I had to decide right then, in his hospital room, how I loved him, not why. I knew the whys. I determined that I loved all of him, then and always. William Shakespeare once said, “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.” I took that insight to heart and made it my mantra.

During his recovery, Steve, a dentist with two thriving practices, decided to expand his interest in business. He searched for an MBA program that would allow him to acquire his degree while he continued recovering. He found one that fit his needs and began the program about a year after the accident.

Within a year, he finished the course work and graduated from the program. He immediately began consulting with dentists in Southern California regarding their dental office overhead control. With a growing clientele and improved health, he began giving lectures around the United States. But, as his success as a consultant grew, I found that I could no longer ignore some of my own health issues. I was advised by my physician to move to a wetter climate. After careful consideration, we decided to move to Salem, Oregon, leaving behind those haunting memories of the accident.

The move to Oregon was an act of faith for our family. We left behind a safety net of family and friends. Yet, we felt inspired to move here. Our children received excellent educations, formed lasting friendships, found and married their life partners, and gave us six wonderful grandchildren. We made friendships that bound us to the wonderful community in which we now live. Steve now manages a dental public health program and is doing cutting-edge dental research. I am busy being a grandmother, and continue being creative.

When contemplating the challenges Steve and I have faced in our lives, we have learned that life is not predictable no matter how perfectly we plan. If we question that voice inside that clearly says, go here, take this road, meet this person, we might inadvertently miss something wonderful, something providential. I am reminded of the words in one of Robert Frost’s poems: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

~Joanne Stephenson Duffin

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