Wings

Manhattan awoke to a snowstorm that Thursday morning in January. Flakes whipped through the skyscraper canyon and a bright white coat covered all that was gray. Arctic air brought in winter’s coldest day, a single-digit wind chill, as ice formed around the edges of the Hudson River. The day was already rough for Martin Sosa, an architect, who was heading to Charlotte with his wife and kids because of a family emergency. They arrived at the airport in the early afternoon on January 15, 2009 with their four-year-old and nine-month-old and suffered through the inconvenience of security officials who insisted on checking their infant’s baby food, jar by jar.

“Would you like to enter a private room for inspection?” probed the inspectors.

Fifteen minutes later, the family moved on. They boarded Flight 1549, a plane that had been flying for ten years and was about to make its 16,300th takeoff. Before departure, Mrs. Sosa protested the separation from her husband and daughter who were seated three rows back but Doreen Welsh, a flight attendant, settled her down in her middle seat with her baby. The man on her left was sleeping. The man on her right coo-chi-cooed the baby, informing her that he was a father of five.

In the cabin sat 150 passengers and three flight attendants. Some had been anxious from the start. One, an experienced flyer, sat six rows from the back and began counting the seconds at lift-off. She had heard that the first two minutes of flight are the most dangerous.

Everyone could feel the tug of the aircraft as it moved into eleventh place for take off. Sofia, Mr. Sosa’s daughter, nudged his arm. “Are we flying yet, daddy? Are we flying?” Her excitement soared with the aircraft up into the clouds.

We met mid-September in the evening at the city’s cemetery during my last semester before college graduation, just as the leaves began to crinkle, exposing their true colors. I phoned Mr. Larson a week prior and we arranged to meet by the flagpoles. I turned the sharp right-hand corner into the cemetery and drove toward the three representative flags: Wellsville, Utah, United States of America. While I stood at the foot of the World War II monument, recognizing I was the only living body covering the cemetery grounds, my arms hugged my bright yellow, one-subject notebook to my chest, my fingers suffocating underneath my armpits. Soon, the rumble of a large, powerful engine radiated beneath my feet. I waved as it approached. Mr. Larson parked his walnut shaded cargo truck, swung open the heavy door and stepped out.

“Hello, Mr. Larson! I’m Marlee Bennett. I spoke with you on the phone.” I pushed my purple glasses up the bridge of my nose. “It’s a pleasure —”

“Please, please. Call me Kent! Thanks for meeting me here today.” Kent is the Head Chair for the Wellsville City Historical Committee. His work is voluntary. He wore a sweat-stained blue Hawaii hat and sandals that exposed his bare toes.

“I think you’ll really be fascinated with this place. There is so much history, so much life. What I love most about the individuals buried here is that behind every stone, there is a story. Each of them lived with challenges just like we do.”

Kent led the Wellsville Cemetery Tour earlier that month on Founder’s Day – a tour of remembrance for those who established and settled Wellsville, and he guided me through the same tour. He introduced me to six deceased individuals who were admired citizens of Wellsville, some even being his own ancestors who were pioneers and World War veterans. His uncle, Dennis Speth, earned a Purple Heart while serving with the U.S. military. Other than that, and the fact that he was born May 1, 1921 and passed February 1, 2009, I don’t know much about him. I admired his grave learning only what my eyes could see.

At the end of the tour, Kent thanked me. “You know,” he said to me. “I am really impressed you chose to come here. Not many of our young people today have interest in those who have passed on.”  A grateful smile stretched across my face as I shook his hand in agreement.

The spring before my sixth birthday, I discovered I was terrible at soccer. The rules were so complicated. My older brother Tate spread mom’s salad dressings and condiment bottles across the kitchen counter, posing them as imaginary players, helplessly explaining what “off sides” meant. I still didn’t understand. One Saturday game, coach switched me out for goalie. “It can’t be that bad,” I thought. The pressure was off to prance around the ball and kick it past my opponents. Three minutes into the game, my defenders failed to block our attackers from dribbling the grass-stained ball to the goal and shooting. Without training or practice, I was too slow to snatch the rolling ball from the webbed trap behind me. Coach buoyed us up from the sidelines as I refocused my breath and decided to try again. Another kickoff at centerfield, but the previous play repeated itself again and again. After three goals scored against me in a row, I hyperventilated. Embarrassed, I threw the micro-aired gloves to the ground storming off the field in tears. Though I demanded to be exactly like my older brothers and do all that they did, soccer would not be one of them, and I was sure of it. My parents struggled in their decision where to put me next; sewing lessons, piano lessons, tennis, but there wasn’t much they could afford in 1997.

Something about my very first class, though, sparked my passion for dance. Maybe it was the pink ballerina slippers or the polka dotted tutu. I mimicked my teacher’s every move. She taught me plie, passé, hops and jumps. I pretended I was a baby kangaroo, or a popcorn kernel about to burst. My feet placed perfectly into each position; first, second, third, fourth, fifth. My breath remained calm and steady throughout every move, my arms encircling about my imaginary beach ball filled with summer’s air.

dance flower

A week later, I am back at the cemetery. At 8:07 a.m., I’m surprised by the middle-aged man walking through the overgrown trees in black Under Armor, his hood draped over his ears and the drawstring pinched around his chin. He must have just finished visiting someone. I briskly walk towards the sunlight as goosebumps cover my soft skin, wishing I wore more than my yoga pants and Chicago t-shirt.

Baby Christofferson

November 11 – November 12, 1945

He is the first headstone I see, and lived for one day. Buried beside him are his parents.

Fenton Kirby Christofferson                                      Irene Christofferson

June 3, 1919 – February 27, 2000                             February 17, 1920 – January 21, 1992

 

They were married March 17, 1944.  A few headstones to the right I see

 

Father

Fred Leishman

February 22, 1913 – July 30, 1989

Mother
Genevieve Jensen Leishman

June 29, 1915 – November 22, 1989

  

“Oh, good,” I whisper to myself, thinking how widows must get so lonely. “She lived alone for only four months before she joined him.”  By them, a little girl lay peacefully.

Our Daughter

Beth Mary Leishman

April 29, 1924 – December 27, 1926

 

Their daughter was two-years-old and died two days after Christmas.

I wonder if Beth Mary had brown hair or red, blue eyes or green, any allergies or severe diseases. Could she put together more than two-word sentences? Was she right handed or left? My stream of thought is interrupted as I notice from the corner of my eye something I’d never seen before: a heart-shaped headstone.

I roam through the green grass freckled with shriveled yellow leaves toward the heart. Pebbles of rain sprinkle my bright yellow, one-subject notebook, the wind tussling its pages. The sight astounds me.

McKenzie Janette Hawkes

October 16, 1992 – May 10, 1997

The heart-shaped headstone stood there in cruel irony with its youthful glow, strong and erect, yet the buried girl had already perished and begun her inevitable decay. McKenzie and I were born on exact same day, the exact same year, but her life ended when we were five years old. She hides beneath the earth’s surface next to her father, Travis Randall Hawkes — he passed the same day she did. McKenzie’s mother is still alive, but her death is acknowledged with a burial plot reserved next to her husband.

Annette Wright Hawkes

August 28, 1964 –

As I sit with McKenzie and her father, I realize there are only 12 days left until her (until our) 24th birthday. Tears cloud my eyes, unable to understand how unfair, how cruel, how selfish life is that I have lived all 8,766 days of our life, and she has not.

Doreen sat in the aft galley strapped into a forward-facing jump seat with a view up the aisle. Donna Dent and Sheila Dail were side by side, just behind the cockpit. They felt the thumps and heard the engines wind down about one hundred seconds after take-off.

“What was that?” Sheila whispered.

“Sounded like a bird strike.”

Jeff Kolodjay sat in 22-A, just over the left engine, when he felt the shuttering bang. Out his window, he could see roaring flames and the faint smell of gasoline wafted in. Up in the cockpit, Captain Sullenberger (Sully) assumed that the burning scent was the smell of burning birds. The aircraft quickly lost altitude and the cabin turned eerily silent. The lights flickered, an engine slowly clanked. In the back of the cabin, Doreen unstrapped herself from her seat and stepped forward, checking overhead for the source of the smoke. When she returned to her seat, she strapped herself in again, assuring passengers that everything would be fine. She assumed the airplane would be returning to LaGuardia airport.

When the airplane hit the birds, it was climbing with its nose pitched up 10 degrees above the horizon. Then the deceleration was dramatic, and the pilots were frantic, desperate to gain some kind of control. With seconds to decide and minutes to find a course of action, Sully tried to restore thrust to the engines, and they were still turning, but at a dangerously low speed. It was possible that with the standard engine-start igniters he could relight the fires.

“Ignition start,” he demanded, rotating the knob. The engines refused to respond. They were simply not meant to swallow geese and survive.

“Try the other one.” Co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles was almost breathless. They did and heard nothing. During communications with air traffic control, they concluded that returning to LaGuardia airport or attempting to land at the Teterboro Airport in New Jersey was impossible. There wasn’t enough time, speed, or altitude to make the safe landing.

At 3:31 p.m., the plane descended to its death, never to meet its destination.

I walk downstairs wearing my white Roxy hoodie that has shaped itself to my body. I cuddle inside, nuzzling my chin and tip of my nose against its soft cotton, my fingers picking at the small, crusty stain of raspberry jam on the right-hand sleeve. I slide my baby blue book bag off the counter and toss it over my shoulder. Dad is on the phone, his quivering voice echoing throughout his bedroom. He hangs up, steps through his bedroom entryway, and opens the large wooden front door. Curious, I follow the thud of his footsteps out onto the driveway. Mom jogs down the street, slowing her speed as she approaches. He meets her.

“Good morning!” she offers with a chirp.

“Your brother…” he trails off. “Scott died.”

My Uncle Scott snorted cocaine. He snorted it fast and hard with all kinds of things: a rolled up piece of paper, a dollar bill, a straw. He wanted to escape what he thought was a polluted life, so he did, by polluting his body. Grandpa Ephraim found him dead that October morning with a non-beating heart, ruptured blood vessels in his brain, damaged lungs, a damaged liver, and destroyed nasal tissue.

The day after his funeral, I returned to school and spent my afternoon recess in the school’s gym trying to understand what I had just experienced for the first time in my young twelve-year-old life. I stood in the middle of the scuffed floor, imagining a melody, one that soothed my numbing limbs. Each one sprang to life, my bangs sweaty and swirling, my feet elevated on all five toes: point, pirouette, tendu, fouette, and glissade. As I danced, I performed for no one but my Uncle Scott.

McKenzie’s photograph dominates my mind as I press the power key, my laptop screen brightening my small apartment living room. It’s black and white and engraved on her headstone. She is preschool age, and her hair is curled and secured with a big, fluffy bow. She still has her baby teeth that are all different shapes and distances apart.

Refocusing my attention on the search engine, I type McKenzie Janette Hawkes, Wellsville Cemetery. I search for anything that can teach me about her: an obituary, her death certificate, but all BillionGraves.com tells me is the GPS location of her grave, her name, birthdate, and family data. I click on Find a Grave and type in her information. Over 5,000 records of deceased people with her last name appear. I scroll through pages and pages of names and dates searching for her, but all I have are absences. The Logan Herald Journal doesn’t hold answers for me either, but there’s a link where I can offer condolences or tributes, send flowers, or create an online memorial.

My fingers peck the keyboard again, inserting letters into the long, slender text box: Libra. It’s our zodiac sign. I investigate Libras, hoping to discover her personality and human characteristics. Air, I learn, is our astrological element, meaning we are “individuals who breeze in and out of the world to analyze and interpret. We are lovers of beauty, of harmony, and love to be surrounded by people.”

I continue reading. Our traditional Libran traits describe us as “sensitive to the needs of others and we have a gift to meet them with our own innate optimism.” I want so badly to find her, to connect with her, but my breath falls short and heartache overwhelms my body, realizing this task is becoming nearly impossible. I’m ready to give up but I’m also not ready to let her go.

“Are we going to be OK?” Mrs. Sosa asked the man seated next to her.

“Yes,” he responded.

“Are you sure?”
“Yes. We’re turning around and heading toward the runway. We’re going to be fine.”

Then they heard the warning from the cockpit:

“Brace for impact.”

The flight attendants started shouting. “Brace! Brace! Heads down! Stay down!”  Some people held their neighbor’s hands. Others prayed. Some frantically dialed numbers on their cell phones. One woman got through to her husband, but the connection broke. Another woman sent a text to hers: “My flight is crashing!” By now, the plane had descended through 400 feet, and there was nothing to do but fall.

Ten seconds before touchdown, the plane suddenly descended much too fast, at a rate six times faster than the belly of a plane can endure. Sully was out of options with the nose 11 degrees up and the descent too strong. He had to trust his plane and believe that landing was possible.

Mrs. Sosa with her baby on her lap was beside herself with the order to brace. The man next to her – the athletic looking, father of five – asked if he could brace her son for her. They stared out the window, realizing the aircraft was descending not toward an airport but toward the Hudson River. As the nine-month-old boy fussed on the man’s lap, Mrs. Sosa could hear her daughter Sofia trying to leave the seat with her father to get to her mother. Sparing the few seconds she had until they were sinking to the bottom of the Hudson, she turned around and yelled back, “We’re going to be OK, Sofia! We’re going to be OK.”

The belly of the plane ripped open at the point of contact and water furiously gushed in through the tail and the cabin wall. Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling, the floor buckled upwards, and components broke in lavatories and the galley. Some people tried to jump over each other and over the seats. Some people were going for their luggage. While the river poured in heavily, Doreen hollered at passengers: “Go! Go! Go!” directing them forward. “We have two minutes until we sink!” By then, water was rising to chest height. She started pressing forward, slicing her leg on a beam that had pierced the floor.

After peering through the prism-like portals, they swung the doors open, the slide raft on the right side inflating automatically. Bloodied and in shock, Doreen made it to the raft. Donna struggled with the slide on the left. While she did, the first passenger appeared by her side, took off his shoes and dropped into the frigid water, holding his breath. One-by-one, others slid down the inflated raft. Mid-cabin, passengers popped open the over-wing exits and began piling onto both wings. Half a dozen others assumed the plane was rapidly sinking, so they jumped into the gelid water instead, the shock of it instantly paralyzing their muscles. Mrs. Sosa found herself in the aisle with no memory of having arrived there.

In ninth-grade, Mrs. Reeder paired up partners for our school’s social dance performance. It wasn’t easy because when I danced with mine, my nose met his belly button. We spent weeks preparing and I trained my body to smoothly transition from pattern to pattern, match my footwork to the character and timing of the music, and glide across the floor in a counter-clockwise fashion, simultaneously with a taller, stronger body. She taught me the appropriate body positioning to my partner as I followed his leading steps, moving my arms as if I had wings. For so long, I lived on my own physical strength, my own breath, my own flexibility, my own artistry. I never imagined letting go of that responsibility and handing it to someone else, an unfamiliar body I had to trust.

Chase and I stood backstage, nervously awaiting our cue to slide through the velvet curtain onto the bright-lit stage. Salty sweat slid down from the top of my hairline and I anxiously rubbed my clammy palms against the pleats of my dress. My heart beat, pumping more oxygen and glucose to my muscles. My senses dialed high, my energy turbocharged, my breath speeding up — a good sign that all of my systems were properly functioning.

It’s three days before McKenzie and mine’s birthday, so I drive the familiar road of US 91 to the Wellsville City Cemetery to give her a vase of flowers. My favorite is a miniature pink carnation so I like to imagine those are hers, too.

I stroll through the frosted grass, the moisture seeping through my neon green Nikes as I notice three small stones lined in a perfect row. The engravings are completely faded. I can hardly decipher the words. I create the image in my mind of another family of three who filled each other’s lives with love. A few stones beside them, I notice a bundle of deflated birthday balloons with no buoyancy left to float in the air. They were in celebration of Kurt Stephen Wright’s 50th birthday.

As I approach McKenzie, I see a fresh bouquet of flowers has replaced the withered ones from my last visit, an indication that she has regular visitors. Her grave is a place for people to go when they cannot bear the separation any longer. I place the miniature carnations next to her name and hold my breath.

“Hi, McKenzie. It’s Marlee, again.” I can’t speak. I don’t know what else to say.  “I wanted to come and wish you a happy 24th birthday.” My knees touch the wet ground and I fold my arms tightly as if I am about to pray. “Our final destination in life is always death, but why did yours have to be so soon?” I pause like I am waiting for her response.

“McKenzie,” I start again. “Are you happy there?”

The wind blew my ponytail, tickling my neck. On the back of her headstone are the words, “Touched by an Angel” and that is exactly how I feel.

Near the end of my junior year, my high school ballroom dance team gathered at the Spaghetti Factory in Salt Lake City for our team banquet. Candice and Jay, our coaches, awarded dancers as “Best Team Player,” “Most Dedicated,” “Best Leadership,” “Most Spirited,” “Choreography Award,” and “Best Stage Presence,” but they awarded me something that was unexpected and came with leadership responsibilities: Alta Ballroom Dance Team Captain 2010-2011. It was now my duty to maintain the unity of our team, to schedule practices and performances, organize pep-rallies and Friday night half-time shows, choreograph routines and perfect them for competitions.

With winter showcase quickly approaching, we rehearsed eight hours a day for two weeks, ensuring each number was polished and fine-tuned. I broke our dances into segments of 8- counts and count by count, I analyzed and corrected everything from head placement, arms, feet, and legs. We repeated our medley routine, a combination of cha-cha, salsa, rumba, and tango, to the point where our feet were bleeding and the outsoles of our Latin shoes were peeling off. My partner and I shuffled across the stage as he led me through each step, centering ourselves into formation. His robust left hand guided me to the floor, and I placed my feet, spotting and prepping for the pot-stir. My legs in arabesque, a body position when it is supported on one leg with the opposite leg extended behind the body, he spun me around and around while I gradually pressed the ball of my supporting foot into the floor, elevating myself back up into the air. My weight was improperly balanced when we heard the POP. I abruptly collapsed back to the ground.

My right kneecap was completely askew, and I awoke from my sudden loss of consciousness with my back on the auditorium floor, my legs elevated above my head. Candice frantically wrapped a compression bandage around my knee to support the patella and prevent it from moving while bitter tears formed as a response from the pain. One hour later, the doctor in the emergency room explained I’d be going in for surgery to reattach it to its designated spot.

“Your patella is the largest and most complex joint in your body and it slipped sideways to the outside of your knee, scraping the ligaments behind it when you spun. We’ll secure your knee cap, but after that —” He stopped, noticing I wasn’t listening.

“When can I to dance again?” I yelled at him.

“I’m sorry, Marlee. You won’t be able to place weight on your leg for at least six months. Once your knee is secure, your MCL and LCL will need plenty of time to heal and reattach themselves.”

I hyperventilated. The air around me suddenly became impossible to breath. It was as if I were dying a slow, painful death and I was incapable of coming back to life.

The Sosa’s ultimately found themselves together on the wing of the sinking plane, standing in water that was steadily getting deeper. After securing his family on a life raft, Mr. Sosa stayed on the wing, pulling the raft closer to make it easier for others to be saved. His hands turned blue, but like everyone else on the plane except for a woman who broke both her legs, he suffered no serious injuries.

As people were pulled to safety onto the rescue ferries, Captain Sullenberger waded up and down the aisle of the plane through the chest-deep water, ensuring no passengers were trapped. He was the last off the plane, the last to leave his raft, and the only one who remained silent. He did not know how many of his 155 passengers had survived.

Being unable to live as a dancer for a full year was an unwelcome break. My body demanded more rest, more healing, but I could not live a moment longer without movement. I began a program of light jogging for cardio, yoga for flexibility, lunges for thigh strength and coordination in order to transition my body back into shape and revitalize my technique.

My leap of faith back into dance was an audition for Utah State University’s Dance Company at the start of my Freshman year in 2011. I was placed into an audition group with three other girls and we were asked to choreograph a one-minute combination including specific turns, leaps, and jumps across the floor, but my body completely forgot how to move. My flexibility was right out the window, and I couldn’t dance at the pace I used to. Group by group, we performed on the Kent Concert Hall stage, each of us competing for our spot on the team.

After the six-hour audition, all participants gathered into the auditorium for the new members to be announced. One-by-one, my opponent’s names were called. I sucked in my breath and my nerves accelerated. I never thought it possible, but eventually I heard mine.

“Number twenty-three. Marlee Matta!”

“Really? Are you sure you called the right person?” I bounced out of my chair, sighing deep breaths of relief. I felt as though I jumped out of a plane, diving through the sky, craving the adrenaline, possibly risking injury or death, but I survived, and I wanted to jump once more.

My debut as a colligate dancer was the first basketball game of the season at the Utah State University spectrum. We took our places on the court, the applause of the audience engulfing the room, my gaze remaining locked on the ground as we waited for the music to begin. It was my chance to prove myself as a freshman athlete to the jam-packed student section. Every inch of my body filled with adrenaline, rapid heartbeats, and post-pirouette gasps for air. I was finally living again.

Miraculously, the 155 passengers who were aboard the crippled US Airways Flight 1549 survived the water landing on the icy Hudson River. All have returned home to their families, and many have gone back to their jobs. Some participate in an e-mail group, sharing their progress and their thoughts. Some are struggling to regain their balance emotionally and some have spoken of a newfound appreciation for life and focus on family they gained from their brush with death.

Once an avid swimmer, Mrs. Sosa has stopped her near-daily trips to the pool. “Swimming reminds me of carrying my baby to safety, of looking back and seeing my husband in the flooded cabin, hoisting our four-year-old daughter above the rising water, of thinking we wouldn’t make it out.”

Mr. Sosa has yet to get on a plane again. “Once you get on,” he’s said, “they close that door and you’re strapped in your seat. You’re not going anywhere. The flashbacks will still come. What happened will always be there.” Still, he insisted, “At one point, though, I know I’m just going to have to do it.”

Even now, Doreen Welsh is afraid of water and experiences panic attacks while in the shower. Her therapist has her doing shower exercises where she takes increasing amounts of water into her mouth. When she takes a bubble bath, she practices putting her head under water. She has returned, uneasily, to flying but not to work. She has yet to wear a uniform; hers was shredded and bloodied. One decision she has made, however: She won’t be seeking cosmetic surgery to hide the prominent scar left on her leg from the gash she suffered that day.

“When I look at it, it gives me that jolt to be grateful, and maybe I need that. It just brings me back to how grateful I am that I’m here and I’m happy I lived through all that. We all did.”

A snow- storm twirls above the Wellsville Mountains and cows roam the muddy hills, sniffing the air.  It’s 8:55 in the morning on November 1st, the world still quiet and dark. I pull up to McKenzie’s grave and notice her pink carnations still vibrant and alive. Before I step out of the car, I tug my hood over my head and place my keys into my zip pocket. My floral print rain boots splash the puddles as I walk across the road to her grave.

Janet Hawkes

January 14, 1947- July 1, 2012

“Climb Every Mountain”

 

I hadn’t noticed before, but McKenzie’s grandmother lies right in front of her. Her headstone tells me she was the mother of Travis Randall (McKenzie’s father), Candis Michelle, and Britney Sue. Janet’s husband (McKenzie’s grandfather), has his burial plot reserved right beside her.

Randall Dean Hawkes

June 8, 1945 –

 

Before I leave, I walk around to spots I hadn’t been to before because there’s plenty of people I have yet to meet.

 

Robert Eugene Pierce

June 30, 1919 – February 9, 2010

Pearl Harbor Survivor

 

His kids or grandkids must have left the freshly carved the pumpkins for him last night for Halloween. And there’s a stone not far from Robert’s that’s buried underneath the soaked and supple leaves. I brush them off.

Baby

1913-1913

 I continue the loop back around to my car, reading headstones as I pass by, watching my every step. McKenzie is straight ahead of me so I walk to her to say goodbye.

“Thanks, Kenz. You truly are an angel.” I kiss my three fingers and place them on the heart. Before I climb into the car, I tap my muddy rain boots against each other and the warm air from the tiny vents blow as I look out the water-spotted window.

“Oh, and don’t worry,” I say with a smile. “I will visit you soon.”

With dance, I felt alive but I feared that I would leap into the air and the landing would hurt me once more. Unwilling to take the risk, I let it go. After almost four years without it, I’ve taken up running in an attempt to fill the void. It allows me the chance to move, to breathe, and decompress all at the same time, but dance gave me all those things that nothing has fully been able to replace.

The Logan City cemetery sits on the north side of Utah State campus and no matter which running route I take, I pass it by along the way. For a while, I tried to avoid it, running along the outskirts while looking straight ahead, unsure of what I might find by looking in. However, it has become one of my favorite landmarks. Its cracked roads and tree roots reveal its age and the gray granite tombstones reflect the sunlight. Much like running, it is peaceful and spiritual, a place to contemplate.

One morning after a day of heavy rains, I ran its paths full of puddles, my last training run before my half marathon in St. George, Utah. I silently paid respects as I passed by those who lay at rest, those who could no longer run. I worried of disrespecting the graves, but the dead who were six feet below me might have enjoyed the company.

As I run, I focus on the way my body is moving. My temperature rises, my breath circulates, and I’m suddenly alive in my own body. McKenzie’s cells once deprived of oxygen now contract and relax with mine. It’s as if she has finally been revived and allowing me to extend her life through mine.

Like many young children, Sully had dreams of flying. He was five when he asked for his first toy airplane for Christmas and he went on to become an Air Force fighter pilot where he watched many of his service men struggle – and in many cases, lose their lives. In 1980, he launched his private aviation career as a pilot with US airways. By the time he retired in 2010, he had racked up over 40 years and 20,000 hours of flying.

Initially, Sully suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic-stress-disorder for the first couple of weeks following the crash, including sleeplessness and flashbacks. He was uncomfortable being hailed as a hero because he simply saw himself as a man doing his job. However, this condition improved because of the survivors. For Jeff Kolodjay who sat in 22-A, the event has defined the rest of his life.

“There hasn’t been a day in seven years that I haven’t opened the blinds and felt grateful for another sunrise.” Kolodjay says he thanks Sully every day – and in turn, Sully now sees why his actions gave people hope.

After 30 years of service with US Airways, Captain Sullenberger retired on March 3, 2010. His final flight was US Airways Flight Number 1167 from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he was reunited with his co-pilot Jeff Skiles and a half dozen of the passengers on Flight 1549. Sully said that his advocacy for aviation safety and the piloting profession would continue.

I may not ever know more about McKenzie; how or why she left this earth as early as she did, but I will always feel her presence in my life and as I continue to run, I will try to run faster and longer for her each day. McKenzie has taught me why I need to keep running, to keep breathing, to keep living, that the living and the dead are much closer together then I ever knew. Sully has taught me to trust my body, to believe that landing is possible, and one thing I know for sure: those who soar above us in the skies are the ones with the strongest wings.

grave

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