Michael and I just returned home from our latest venture to Ethiopia. We spent twelve days, including travel, visiting rural and urban areas of the country where Charlie’s Heart Foundation works. It was an amazing, difficult, and eye opening experience, as it always is, each time we visit. The more we learn, the more we realize there is to learn. Our partnerships with Addis Jemari and A Glimmer of Hope are doing amazing things for the people of Ethiopia. The need is so great and will continue to grow with the extreme increase in population expected over the next decade. I had every intention of coming home and filling my writing with stories and facts about all the program areas we saw, the families we met, and the places we visited. But right now, I am simply paralyzed … paralyzed by fear.
One would think that in the humanitarian work we do, we become almost like super heros, shielded by fear above all worry. But in fact, during our trip, I was plagued by it.
I have never been a great flier. As a child, I only flew once. We weren’t a jet setting family. Most of our vacations were to the beach or the mountains, not necessary for air travel. My first international flight was solo, when I flew to Switzerland after my freshman year of college to visit a dear friend of mine whose family temporarily relocated there. Since that inaugural trip, my subsequent travels on airplanes were alone. I thought I was a badass of sorts, flying around by myself, taking on the world … pretty much the typical twenty something’s attitude towards life. I wasn’t tied down. It was me, myself, and I that I needed to answer to.
When I met MIchael, one of the many things we fell in love over was travel. We much preferred to spend time and money on trips than on material things. That remains the same, even today.
We traveled to Europe when I was pregnant with Charlie, Latin America when Ellie was only months old, and Ireland just months before Charlie died. We always had faith that God would protect us, and the risk of disaster was far less than the reward of experiencing the world and the many cultures within it.
The shift came when Charlie died.
My first trip back to Ethiopia after Charlie died, I was still in a state of fog. I have written about that in previous posts. But basically, when everything in life around you is hazy, you can only absorb what is staring you in the face. Long term thinking is not available at this stage. Honestly, I think it gave me the ability to hop on the plane with my sister-in-law just months after Charlie’s death. I do remember the brief discussion I had with Michael before booking my flight. At the time, Michael and I were literally joined at the hip, in protection mode for one another. Even a few hours apart was almost too much time away. He said to me that he would love to go on the trip, but he feared for Ellie. He didn’t want to leave her so soon after Charlie died because he didn’t want her to feel abandoned or worried that we wouldn’t come back. In his eloquent words, he said, “You know, she is already f’d because her brother died. I couldn’t imagine if something happened to both of us.” The truth of the matter is that he is typically the rational one out of the two of us. When he said it, it made total sense. But the ramifications of his statement weren’t clearly realized until we traveled together to Ethiopia just a few weeks ago.
I’m not sure if it was hormones from nursing (I pumped and dumped for 12 days!) or leaving Causby for the first time (probably also hormone related) but my anxiety about flying was at an all time high when we left for Addis this time around. Each time we boarded a plane, I could feel my heart race, my mind spin with terror, and my breath grow shallow. Michael, I love him dearly, would try to “talk” me out of my phobia … and I would just yell at him “Shut up! That’s not helping.” Even other friends traveling with us would remind me of how safe flying is, and that Ethiopian Airlines has an amazing track record for safety. Sometimes these pep talks worked, other times a Xanax had to be the solution.
When we made it home last Tuesday afternoon, I was thankful in so many ways. I was thankful for the opportunity to travel, to meet the most amazing and resilient people on the planet, to hug both Causby and Ellie, and to have completed 9 flights in 12 days. I did it.
Processing a trip like the one we took, takes time. In fact, for several days following I was too tired (but mostly too overwhelmed by everything we experienced on our journey) to share it with others. Just as I was coming out of my own thoughts, I woke up Sunday morning to the news of the Ethiopian Airlines’ crash. I literally couldn’t breathe as I read the articles. I had to remind myself that I was home and safe, although I did not feel safe at all. We were just in that airport. It had only been days since Michael had given me yet another pep talk before we took off. How was I safe, and 157 others, many of them humanitarian aid workers, UN staff, mothers and fathers, had perished? I was paralyzed with fear.
It has been a struggle for me the past few days in a big way. I am sad for all the lives lost in the crash, all the families who are and will forever experience the grief and trauma of losing a loved one in such a horrific way. But if I am being transparent, I am truly struggling with myself and how I will move forward and not be paralyzed by the fear that is so very present in me in this moment. Is it right for me to take the risk, boarding planes with the chance that my living children could not only have to deal with the death of their brother but also be orphaned by their parents? Is the reward of sharing Charlie’s life, his love, working to keep families together, and modeling for Causby and Ellie that we can’t live in fear but spend time making the world a little better place than it was before outweigh the risk?
I know the answer is yes. I believe it in my heart. But I have to get my mind to find its way back there. There is always work to be done with myself. There was even before Charlie died. But now, I have to be acutely aware of my insecurities and phobias as they arise because I know I can easily fall into a pattern of holding on so tight to everything I love, that I forget how to live. That isn’t fair for me. But mostly, it’s an unhealthy example to set for our children. They can’t be raised to live in fear, nor do I want them to be. I have to reach out to my people, namely our ministers, friends, family and especially my therapist for support. As much as we want to end the discomfort, allowing our fears to take over will not give us the ability to grow, to learn, and share the gifts God has given us with the world.
I’m willing to do the work to remind myself of that …
… and I promise, more to come on our incredible trip to Ethiopia!