The bushpilot, the stewardess and me
Today I have a wonderful story of fear, friendship and courage to tell you. The adventure unfolded on Sunday, June 5. But before I begin, you should know that I am terrified of heights. Climbing the stairs of a triplex strikes fear in me. I trembled climbing the ladder to rescue my children’s kitten. Even the 4-step ladder I use to change a bulb or place the star on top of the Christmas tree gives me the jitters. All my life I have been afraid to sit on a swing, afraid of amusement park rides, and especially, the Ferris wheel. Some 20 years ago, when I was visiting Toronto with my first grandson, who was 14 years old at the time, I gave in to his request to go all the way to the top of the CN Tower! The youngster absolutely wanted to visit the famous glass floor from which you could see all the way down to the ground – 342 metres below! It was a 58-second elevator ride at a speed of 22km/hour.
I couldn’t bring myself to walk on the glass floor, nor was I able to go to the outdoor observatory a few metres up to enjoy a 360-degree view of the Toronto area. I was terrified, immobilized by fear. My teenage companion laughed out loud at his grandmother. I was his hero, but he had now discovered my weakness. And we’ve laughed about it ever since.
I was raised on a barn floor, with both feet planted on the solid red earth of my native Gaspé. We lived in a small one-story house right next to Grandpa Frédéric’s big white house. Much later, I earned my living, run off my feet in the kitchens of restaurants that became so popular, we had to open locations across the country. I have travelled to my heart’s content, seated in planes more comfortable than my own home. Strangely, it is only cradled inside these great steel birds 30,000 feet in the sky that I forget my fear.
The years passed by and retirement came along, followed closely by its friend, old age. All three of us went through the global pandemic, which most certainly would have turned my old way of life upside down. Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t changed my name, but I have noticeably slowed down. I learned to let go of the daily effort required to run the company and live like others, taking time to admire the landscape, meet friends, drink coffee, discuss everything and anything, create ties and be perfectly content to quietly live in the countryside.
This is how I met two wonderful human beings who I became fast friends with. A retired bush pilot instructor and a young Air Transat stewardess who crisscrosses the skies several times a week between Montreal and Paris. The clever, white-haired giant likes to talk about the flying toy he uses to map the planet. The stewardess is such an astute force of nature that she has convinced me of the benefits of embracing the new. Both of them habitués of the sky, they urged me to experience the thrilling sensation of being carried aloft by the wind.
I promised to think about it, as if I was planting little seeds of poison in the soil of my serene world. Yes, for two long weeks I thought about that plane ride and also about a thousand excuses not to go to the tiny airstrip on June 5. Ten times I called the giant’s number to back out with a little white lie. I tried to hold off the stewardess with complaints that my back hurt, my stomach hurt, my heart hurt, my courage hurt….riddled as it were with anxiety.
How on earth would my two friends understand that I suffer panic attacks involving heights and vast spaces? The day before, I walked around in circles in my big one-story house all day. I tried to meditate, to do some yoga. I breathed deeply, I lay down on the living room carpet, arms crossed. I was scared. I was so scared. What if the plane fell out of the sky? I just wasn’t ready to go. Eventually, the house became dark. I lay there wide awake for a few hours before sinking into an enormous dream. I was in my chef’s white jacket and hat, preparing a huge buffet lunch for 300 people. I spent the night flipping omelettes until dawn flooded my room. The clock started squawking at 6 o’clock sharp, but by then, I was already sitting in the kitchen in orange sweats that could be seen from miles away.
The plane was scheduled to leave at 9:00 a.m. on the dot. I turned my cell phone on 10 times in vain to tell the pilot, “Claude! Something is up, I can’t make it, sorry.” I could hear my heart beating wildly. Have I lost the address of the rural Laurentian airport? I walk slowly towards my Mini Cooper, already lit in sunlight. I start the motor, the car purrs. The world seems fine.
The stewardess arrives as calm as a star settling into the night sky. All is well! The giant helps me climb into the tiny, single-engine Cessna 172 aircraft built in 1987, the year my first small breakfast diner opened. Surely a sign that everything will be okay! The engine sputters, the frame jerks and the pilot winks at the flight attendant. He knows I’m scared, but he doesn’t show it. He snaps headsets around our heads. He smiles and the sound of his voice calms me.
The plane lifts off. The trees grow smaller and, suddenly, the sky embraces us. I fly and glide, light as a feather. The Laurentian landscape below appears like an immense forest with bluish scratches. It would be easy from here to grasp a cloud or perhaps an angel’s petticoat. For a long moment, we let the wind carry us through diaphanous clouds.
Suddenly, the pilot's head turns to the left and the nose of the plane follows suit. The plane almost completes a full circle. I am not at the controls, but I try to understand. It seems to me that we are retracing our course. “And there you go,” the pilot says with a smile. The plane returns to earth.
Thanks to the friendship of these two generous people, who were willing to share their passion with me, I discovered a breathtaking way to admire the sky and the earth. And I overcame my irrational fear of heights. I dared to say yes, I made it to the runway, I got on the plane and, more importantly: I RELIED ENTIRELY ON SOMEONE OTHER THAN MYSELF TO ENSURE MY SURVIVAL! HALLELUJAH!