A little over a month before my father died—when death looked at least a decade away, and that decade promised nothing but more decline, heartache, and anguish for him—he said something I would like to adopt as a mantra. He told me—in response to the fact I was crying, admitting that it was incredibly sad to see him living with so much confusion—“Don’t worry, darling. Nature has a way of working things out, if you let it.”
He sounded as lucid as he had in years, and looked at me steadily, the light of hope saturating his blue eyes. I believed him.
Until my rational mind set in.
My rational mind recognized that in this current situation, his statement seemed incredibly farfetched. He had recently lost his life savings and his beloved homestead in New Hampshire, and was actively losing his mind to what the autopsy revealed to be two advanced brain diseases. He was physically strong (“as an ox,” in the words of one of his doctors) and at 73 was likely to live a long time, requiring care he was currently unable to afford. It was a mess. He would say things that made no sense, like, “See that man over there? He owes me ten thousand shoe laces.” And stare at the bottom of the salt-shaker in stupefied bafflement, as if wondering how the salt got out. But still: he really sounded convincing when he told me about Nature. About Nature having a way of working things out, if you let it. And I held onto that statement as a ray of hope in a bleak time.
A month later, he decisively stopped eating and drinking, pulling off his ten day feat of willing his own death—unfathomable, really, that he could muster that level of purposeful cognitive continuity, given that the week before, he got lost taking out the trash. So Nature did have a way of working things out! My father was able to die a peaceful death surrounded by family. It was not the solution I would have ordered on an iPad menu (I would have selected: Nature miraculously heals my father’s brain), but it was a lot better than it could have been.
I was thinking of this the other day when I read about the emergency landing of the plane whose exploded engine broke a window, sucking out a passenger. The pilot, Tammi Jo Shults, was heroic. She calmly reassured passengers over the sound system while righting a tipping plane dropping thousands of feet per second, which she then landed safely on the tarmac in Philadelphia. Tammi Jo Shults not only must have resourced her own rays of hope in a dire moment, but transmitted them to her passengers as well. And, apparently, some of them were conducting hope transmissions of their own. One performed CPR for twenty minutes on the mortally wounded woman who’d been pulled back inside from the broken window by another passenger. And, in spite of the fact smoke was filling the cabin, some passengers repeatedly removed their oxygen masks amidst the chaotic descent to shout, “It’s Okay! We’re going to do this!”
Did they know it was going to be okay, and they were going to do this? As in: experience the safe landing of the plane by a highly skilled and level-headed pilot? Or did they just draw on an inner reservoir of pumping hope and share it, as a wish, a cheer-lead prayer? Either way, who cares? They beamed hope in a situation that needed it. If they turned out to have been wrong, and everyone perished, at least they went down with rays of hope. If I can’t be like them in a situation like that (and you never know until the situation happens how you’re going to be), I at least want to sit next to people who can.
In the example of the emergency landing, Nature per se did not exactly take care of the situation—unless you count, as a facet of nature, an exceptional woman named Tammi Jo. Or maybe if you think of Nature as the Universe, God, some benevolent life force that kicks in and takes care of things, then in that case, Nature did take care of it.
Nature does not always come to the rescue in the way we want it to. Healing and solutions don’t always happen on our terms. But feeling hope that help is on the way cannot be a mistake. At the very least, we live in the presence of beams of hope. And what those light beams bring us in the moment is as important as what we hope they promise for the future.