©2009 by Chana Wilson
The tiny Calistoga airport sits at one end of the Napa Valley town of Calistoga, a tourist resort known for its hot springs. Along the town’s one main street are the spas boasting various treatments: mud baths, hot whirlpools, massage. My mother and I have come here for my 30th birthday, but not to seek the waters. I long to soar, to lift into quiet far above the world’s din, and Mom is giving me the gift of flight: a glider ride in one of those motorless little planes.
My mother is scared of heights. She has had phobias since I was a child. I remember her arms and back stiffening as she drove on highway overpasses, bridges, and narrow roads with drop-offs. When Mom got in one of those states, all I could do from my passenger seat was put my hand on her lap and chant, “it’s okay, Mom, it’s okay.” Sometimes that wasn’t enough, and she just froze up altogether, somehow managing to pull the car onto the shoulder and sit there, hyperventilating.
Now, my mother wants her daughter to fly. At least, she makes a brave show of it, smiling at me before I walk off toward the plane. I know her fear lurks underneath, but we both ignore it as she says cheerily, “Have a great time!”
I walk onto the tarmac where the pilot waits next to the glider. It looks like a blown-up toy, a narrow white fiberglass body with long thin wings and a domed clear hood. The pilot adjusts something in the tiny cockpit, then ushers me into my seat directly in front of him, gets in and closes the Plexiglas lid that bubbles over our heads. The clear nose of the glider encases my legs. After I strap myself in, I can’t even turn to see the pilot behind me, and it’s as if it’s just me and this tiny bubble of plane.
The small twin-engine aircraft that will lift us aloft taxis into position in front of us, and with a rough tug we’re pulled down the runway. I watch the tow plane lift, and then we rise. Just before the hills, the plane cuts us loose and banks away. We’re catching the thermals that let gliders soar, those warm pockets of air that rise from the valley up the mountainsides. The noisy plane disappears, leaving us in the quiet, the hills green and brown below me.
The whoosh of the air currents over the wings is the only sound. I know my mother is down there on earth, waiting for me, but as the glider dips, sensation roars through my capillaries—drowning out anything but the moment. To be free to forget my mother is her greatest gift to me. She has reclaimed her own happiness, and I have let go of vigilance to a depressed mother. In childhood I slept with my ears attuned for the thud of her falling, woozy on too many sleeping pills; I’d jolt upright out of sleep, and rush to lift her. Now, she’s been well for over ten years, though her phobia of heights remains.
Hawk-like, we swoop and glide, taking in the hills below, the tiny rows of vineyard grapes, the dots of houses. I am filled with wind, sound, and light. I must have laughed, the joy bursting out of me. The pilot, who has been respectfully silent, asks, “Would you like to do some stunts?”
“Sure,” I blithely respond.
Barely a beat passes and the pilot puts the plane into a full dive. The Plexiglas nose in front of me is now headed directly for the earth. Nausea lurches in my stomach. My intestines are both jelly and hard knots. If my chest-belt is digging in, I don’t feel it, because I am screaming like a middle-schooler on a roller-coaster ride, full-out roaring. When I find words, I yell, “STOP STOP!” The pilot pulls us out of the dive.
“I guess-that’s-why-I’ve-never-been–on-a roller coaster,” is all I manage to choke out. I think of my mother then, her breathless terror of heights, the silence of it. There were never any screams. I have a sense of it now: how it must have felt in her frozen body, stiff and sweating, with her choked breath, her panicked eyes. I remember the sour smell of her fear. Oh, Mom. My banging heart regains some of its steadiness as the glider resumes its gentle arcs. I release my own breath, come back to pleasure in the soaring.
Mom is waiting for me. She is standing next to her car in the parking lot that butts right up against the airstrip. One hand is shading her forehead, as if she has been squinting into the distance for a long time. A lit cigarette dangles from her other hand. When she sees me coming toward her, she drops the cigarette and stomps it into the gravel, then smiles at me. I can tell from her smile she has not seen the plane suddenly dive toward the earth. We must have been on the other side of the ridge. Still, I imagine she must have been nervous, searching the empty sky for her daughter.
“How was it?” she asks.
I hesitate, just for a moment. Then I tell her the truth, “It was the most amazing thing ever.”
Her face breaks open, fully lit, and we stand there a moment, beaming at each other. “I’m so glad, sweetheart.”
Chana Wilson is a psychotherapist and writer who lives in Oakland, California. She is published in the journals “The Sun” and “Sinister Wisdom”, and in several anthologies, including “The Next Step: Out From Under, Mentsh: On Being Jewish and Queer”, and “I’m Home: What It is Like to Love a Woman”. “Calistoga” is adapted from the memoir she is currently completing. Contact her at email@example.com