What Gets Us There

Preface – Today while sitting in the Denver airport I started people watching, imagining all the stories contained in the vast terminal. Lovers saying goodbye . . . soldiers being deployed . . . families heading off on vacation . . . men and women, weary from yet another work-related trip. I then began to think of our own family flights and the airplanes that have delivered us to places and events . . . and finally, I began pondering this trip today. I share these recollections more for myself than anything – to remember – but I also share to remind us all that this life is a journey filled with twists and turns, joy and grief. We need to tell our stories so when others are journeying we will be able to provide the same comfort and support that God has given us. (II Corinthians 1:4)


Airports hold a dear place in my heart. Incredibly happy events, exceptionally sad farewells, and unremarkable normal connections have taken place in airports worldwide. Airports are a portal for one to travel with ease and comfort (at least in some places); they provide a front row seat to humans of all sorts; and flights, especially when notable, result in memories that remain.

I remember my first plane ride clearly. I was in 8th (9th?) grade and for Christmas my parents gave me and my sister tickets to Indiana to see our cousin Patty who’d recently wed a Hoosier. Of course we were not allowed to fly unaccompanied; Aunt Virginia and Granny Roberts were coming along as well. I was excited; Granny Roberts was scared to death! Sitting straight up, seat fully upright, her black patent-leather pocketbook – her “church” bag – never left her white-clutched fingers the entire flight. Declining all offerings of food or drink,  she spent the entire flight praying that Jesus would keep us safe and sound or take us painlessly to Glory.

There were scary rides in small planes – Gary, an FSU friend, piloted us to Miami for the 1981 Orange Bowl. He had a pilot’s license (barely) and too much bravado so our Sarasota-Miami flight was memorable, as was the one-point loss to Oklahoma. Still stings. Then there was the loss of a landing wheel in 1985 as my friend Marvin set down his Piper on a bumpy Bahamian grass runway, missing tall pines by a hair. He laughed loudly, I got sick, and another plane memory was born.

During our time in Papua New Guinea planes were one of the only means of getting to remote areas. The Highlands of PNG were often inaccessible by road so if my teaching work required me to visit families in far-flung parts, a small 2-seater Cessna was the only option. I remember one flight – I was heading to spend time with the Tomlinson family to relieve Mama Tomlinson a bit as she taught her daughters in the village. Our Swiss Wycliffe pilot assured me that the thick gray fog (so thick that you literally could not see one inch ahead) was “nothing” and that the “small bumps” (think head hitting top of cockpit) were “nothing”. He ate a tuna fish sandwich, I got sick (Are you seeing a pattern here?), and we arrived in one piece. After our wedding in the Highlands of PNG, Devan and I were flown to our Rabaul-honeymoon in a small prop plane festooned with balloons and streamers. The pilot assured us the decorations were placed so as not to get sucked into anything vital.plane

Living internationally for 17+ years allowed flying to become routine, probably more for our sons than for us. All three of our boys thought nothing of boarding planes on a regular basis for long haul flights between Kenya and the U.S., interspersed with stop over flights or short hops to places like Cairo, Mombasa, Johannesburg, Istanbul, the Masai Mara, Amsterdam, London, Kampala, Addis Ababa . . . the cities and the airlines (Kenya Airway, British Airways, KLM/Royal Dutch Air, Ethiopian Air, South African airways . . .) rolled off their tongues like a geography study session. International airlines still tend to treat air travel as a luxury, often including cloth napkins, cutlery, and other amenities even in economy/coach class, the only class we ever flew. After returning to the U.S. in 2006, our flying days lessened but I do recall one trip the family flew domestically. While boarding, one of the boys said, “Geez. They don’t have individual television screens?” We knew we weren’t in Kenya anymore.

Planes allow us to “get away from it all” and to enjoy reunions with family and friends. Planes deliver us to tragic times; our first son, Don Issac, died while I was being transported by a small bush plane from our Ukarumpa Center to a government hospital in Port Moresby, 200 miles away. My daddy and mom cried every time they put their grand-boys (and their baby girl) on a plane during our time in Kenya. Planes, and the airports that house them, truly represent the gamut of human experience.

And now my family is flying from all different places on a flight of hope. On September 3rd a plane flew our youngest son—Jack— to Montana. There were many reasons for this – none which need to be shared here – but the most important purpose was to provide Jack devoted time to consider his life and his choices. Putting Jack on that flight was THE hardest parenting decision we’ve ever made; days have been filled with tears, sleeplessness and prayer. But days have been equally filled with smiles, rest, and encouragement. We have entrusted Jack to the One who loves far greater and deeper than any parent ever could and now, this very day, we take another plane to the place where we will continue this  journey called family. Parents and brothers flying to spend a week with our son, flying with hope of reconciliation. Today’s flight may well be the most important one we’ve ever taken.



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8 Responses to What Gets Us There

  1. Mary Beth Martin

    God bless you all, Sheila. Safe travels and meaningful times.

  2. Sally

    Sheila, you and your precious family will be in my thoughts all week. Journeys, whether alone or with family, bring clarity and appreciation for all that we have. My love to you all!

  3. Melody Harrell

    Prayers prayers prayers. Breath. Breath. Breath. So hoping for an update when you can. Love, Melody

  4. Janet

    Journeys in so many ways, all leading to learning and looking at the world in a new way. I am thinking of you all as you complete this important journey! Hugs!

  5. emily

    so many flights. it was in london on the way back to kenya for yall, that tim and i
    saw y in a hotel and met nathan or jack for the first time. whoever it was was sleeping on the floor and y said sheila words i’ve often heard, “isn’t he beautiful?” as two dark boys slept on the floor between the bed and wall. remember? y’ve always loved those dear boys, those “manchild” you also called them.

    so many flights, so many years. yet another flight filled with hope and humility and desire. i love y guys and believe in all of y and in our loving god’s good work, em
    p.s. i loved this and the last post on dear nathan.

  6. Jessica Crespo

    Have been thinking about you and your family and will continue to keep you all in my thoughts and prayers.

  7. D

    I hope yr visit with your son was full of love. I grew up flying and enjoyed getting to destinations quickly. Your thoughts on flying brought back old memories for me. Thank u for the inspiration!

  8. Jolynn

    You and your family have been in my thoughts and prayers!

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