I’d been following the controversial Abby Sunderland story with interest. Remember Abby? She was the sixteen-year-old sailor who, while attempting to sail her vessel around the world solo, found herself stranded in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Her parents took quite a bit of flack over the situation.
I’d looked at this story from many different angles – and, as usual, my feelings were mixed.
The helicopter Mommy in me shouted, “What the &#*% were her parents thinking?!” But after calm reflection I saw things a bit differently. I too have a child with “dangerous dreams.” My son, The Boy, has been flying airplanes since he was thirteen.
Sure, I’ve heard all the arguments – the most dangerous part of the flight is the drive to the airport (blah, blah, blah). Let me tell ya, when it came to plunking my junior high school-aged kid at the helm of a single engine plane, I quickly called B.S. on that line of logic.
When The Boy came to us with stars in his eyes and told us that he wanted to take flying lessons, my initial reaction was “ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?”
Luckily, David stayed calm, gently peeled me off the ceiling and we discussed a game plan.
As with all of our kids “endeavors,” whether it be violin lessons or rodeo clown school, we required multiple beggings to prove that we were dealing with more than just a passing whim. And beg The Boy did – relentlessly. So we agreed to one free introductory lesson.
Unfortunately, after the flight The Boy was hooked. In response, we upped the sneaky tactics ante to test his resolve.
I arranged for The Boy to work for a local pilot in exchange for lessons. I was convinced that cleaning planes with kerosene under the vicious Caribbean sun would diminish this crazy passion of his. Nope. In fact, I’ve never been more disappointed in an offspring having so much pride in his work. I’d pick his reeking, sweating, smiling self up at the airport and listen to the glory stories all the way home.
I gave in. The Boy had found his passion. I couldn’t find a fear strong enough or an argument sound enough to tear him away from his dream.
My terror didn’t ebb as the years went by. I forced David and The Boy into a pact. I was not to hear (or overhear) any talk about these subjects:
–Stall training (also referred to as “deadstick” — nice, huh?)
–Flying under the hood (yup, wearing a hood to simulate flying with no visibility)
To name just a few of many.
If we were actually going to do this, I needed to be blissfully unaware. And I did all right – for three years.
The Boy had set a goal to fly his first cross country solo at the earliest legal age, sixteen. Because we lived in the Virgin Islands, this meant allowing my baby to go up in a plane – all by himself – to fly a hundred miles across the two-mile-deep ocean to Puerto Rico. It certainly didn’t help that a close friend of ours had recently died doing just that.
The Boy was the only chick left in the nest and, to add to my dismay, his equally horrified sisters, The Piglet and Decibel, were calling home at regular clips. “Mom, this is crazy.” “Mom, please don’t let him do this” and the like. I appreciated their concern but the last thing I needed was this kind of fear provoking encouragement.
Heading to the airport, I was a calm-on-the-outside nervous wreak. I was aware that it wasn’t going to do The Boy any good to have a terror-stricken Mommy hovering over him.
I sat proudly on the sidelines as my son fielded questions from newspaper reporters that his equally proud instructor had tipped off – Local Boy Flies Solo on Sixteenth Birthday. This was, after all, a lofty and rare achievement.
So, like Abby Sunderland’s parents, I let him go.
And like Abby Sunderland’s parents, I got the scare of a lifetime.
The circumstances of what happened next are vague – I was so petrified that my brain can’t fully remember the details. At the time it was most unhelpful that I had purposefully kept myself ignorant of aviation lingo.
About an hour into the flight I received a phone call from an airport in Puerto Rico. The woman on the other end explained to me that The Boy had never “closed his flight plan.” They didn’t know where he was.
I did what most proactive people do when they can’t be proactive – I handed the phone to David and became comatose. I was incapable of comprehending any of the ensuing conversations David became engaged in. I just sat there like a petrified lump.
The eternity that passed was probably only twenty minutes while David and The Boy’s instructor sorted out the situation. It turned out to be a miscommunication between two airports and a phone call to the emergency number (ours), rather than the contact number (the instructor’s) on the flight plan.
Having gone though this experience gave me a glimpse into what Abby Sunderland’s parents must have felt when Abby was lost at sea. It’s not possible to explain this unique mingling of terror and guilt.
Where does the line between being a parent that supports a child’s dream and a parent that enables dangerous behavior lie?
I don’t have enough information to make a judgment in the case of Abby’s parents. I can’t know how hard Abby trained to make this endeavor possible.
Would I allow my own child to sail around the world by herself? Probably not. But then none of my kids are sailors. Abby’s parents would probably have reservations about sending Abby up in a plane all by herself. Parenthood and comfort level rarely coexist.
My guess is that, like my son, Abby was so focused on her objective that she did not engage in many of the behaviors that endanger teens everyday. I tally this on the plus side of having a kid with a passion.
The Boy, now 21, is in college studying Aviation Science and has spent his summer obtaining his instructor’s license. While I still refuse to listen to the scary stuff, I couldn’t be more proud of him. I’m also proud of myself for not letting guilt, fear and selfishness get in the way of my child’s dream.
My guess is that we’ll be seeing Abby Sunderland sailing off into the sunset again very soon.
YOUR TURN: You’ve heard my story and (sort of) opinion. What’s yours?