What Courage Looks Like

What Courage Looks Like

From A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul

What Courage Looks Like

I know what courage looks like. I saw it on a flight I took six years ago, and only now can I speak of it without tears filling my eyes at the memory.

When our L1011 left the Orlando airport that Friday morning, we were a chipper, high-energy group. The early-morning flight hosted mainly professional people going to Atlanta for a day or two of business. As I looked around, I saw lots of designer suits, CEO-caliber haircuts, leather briefcases and all the trimmings of seasoned business travelers. I settled back for some light reading and the brief flight ahead.

Immediately upon takeoff, it was clear that something was amiss. The aircraft was bumping up and down and jerking left to right. All the experienced travelers, including me, looked around with knowing grins. Our communal looks acknowledged to one another that we had experienced minor problems and disturbances before. If you fly much, you see these things and learn to act blasé about them.

We did not remain blasé for long. Minutes after we were airborne, our plane began dipping wildly and one wing lunged downward. The plane climbed higher but that didn’t help. It didn’t. The pilot soon made a grave announcement.

“We are having some difficulties,” he said. “At this time, it appears we have no nose-wheel steering. Our indicators show that our hydraulic system has failed. We will be returning to the Orlando airport at this time. Because of the lack of hydraulics, we are not sure our landing gear will lock, so the flight attendants will prepare you for a bumpy landing. Also, if you look out the windows, you will see that we are dumping fuel from the airplane. We want to have as little on board as possible in the event of a rough touchdown.”

In other words, we were about to crash. No sight has ever been so sobering as seeing that fuel, hundreds of gallons of it, streaming past my window out of the plane’s tanks. The flight attendants helped people get into position and comforted those who were already hysterical.

As I looked at the faces of my fellow business travelers, I was stunned at the changes I saw in their faces. Many looked visibly frightened now. Even the most stoic looked grim and ashen. Yes, their faces actually looked gray in color, something I’d never seen before. There was not one exception. No one faces death without fear, I thought. Everyone lost composure in one way or another.

I began searching the crowd for one person who felt the peace and calm that true courage or great faith gives people in these events. I saw no one.

Then a couple of rows to my left, I heard a still, calm voice, a woman’s voice, speaking in an absolutely normal conversational tone. There was no tremor or tension. It was a lovely, even tone. I had to find the source of this voice.

All around, people cried. Many wailed and screamed. A few of the men held onto their composure by gripping armrests and clenching teeth, but their fear was written all over them.

Although my faith kept me from hysteria, I could not have spoken so calmly, so sweetly at this moment as the assuring voice I heard. Finally, I saw her.

In the midst of all the chaos, a mother was talking, just talking, to her child. The woman, in her mid-30s and unremarkable looking in any other way, was staring full into the face of her daughter, who looked to be four years old. The child listened closely, sensing the importance of her mother’s words. The mother’s gaze held the child so fixed and intent that she seemed untouched by the sounds of grief and fear around her.

A picture flashed into my mind of another little girl who had recently survived a terrible plane crash. Speculation had it that she had lived because her mother had strapped her own body over the little girl’s in order to protect her. The mother did not survive. The newspapers had been tracking how the little girl had been treated by psychologists for weeks afterward to ward off feelings of guilt and unworthiness that often haunt survivors. The child was told over and over again that it had not been her fault that her mommy had gone away. I hoped this situation would not end the same way.

I strained to hear what this mother was saying to her child. I was compelled to hear. I needed to hear.

Finally, I leaned over and by some miracle could hear this soft, sure voice with the tone of assurance. Over and over again, the mother said, “I love you so much. Do you know for sure that I love you more than anything?”

“Yes, Mommy,” the little girl said.

“And remember, no matter what happens, that I love you always. And that you are a good girl. Sometimes things happen that are not your fault. You are still a good girl and my love will always be with you.”

Then the mother put her body over her daughter’s, strapped the seat belt over both of them and prepared to crash.

For no earthly reason, our landing gear held and our touchdown was not the tragedy it seemed destined to be. It was over in seconds.

The voice I heard that day never wavered, never acknowledged doubt, and maintained an evenness that seemed emotionally and physically impossible. Not one of us hardened business people could have spoken without a tremoring voice. Only the greatest courage, under-girded by even greater love, could have borne that mother up and lifted her above the chaos around her.

That mom showed me what a real hero looks like. And for those few minutes, I heard the voice of courage.

Casey Hawley

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