It was Halloween, which is a big deal when you’re four. I was sitting on the couch in my Sleeping Beauty costume, eagerly waiting for my dad to come home so he could take me trick-or-treating. He had been away all week on a business trip in Singapore. He was supposed to return earlier that day, but now it was night and here I was, still waiting. Finally I nodded off, an actual sleeping princess. He didn’t come home at all that night. The next morning I begged my mom to let me keep my costume on for him. She agreed, probably because she already knew something that I wouldn’t find out for another couple of days. By then, I was no longer a princess. It was my dad who had a new identity: plane crash survivor.
He told us about it later. It had been raining hard as he got on the plane for home. The pilot was cleared for takeoff on one runway but turned a little too far and ended up taking off on another runway, one that was closed. Because of the rain, the pilot couldn’t see the heavy construction equipment blocking the closed runway, and he crashed right into it. The plane was going 170 miles per hour, half in the air and half on the ground, when it blew up. The left wing was torn off, the fuselage split in two, and fire shot through the middle of the plane. Nearly half of the passengers died, but amazingly, my dad was completely unhurt. After the crash, he couldn’t breathe because of the smoke and fumes, so he ran toward the exit. When the plane wreckage finally skidded to a stop, my dad simply walked out.
When I was older, he explained how stressed he’d been the day of the flight. As the plane took off in the rain that day, he was worrying about money and how to keep everyone he worked with happy. He felt like he was failing. When the plane crashed, his first thoughts were of us, his family. As sad as he felt at the thought of dying and never seeing us again, he also felt a sense of relief that all his business and financial worries would be over.
When he survived, he saw it as a second chance – but not the kind where you give up everything. Dad sold his business and started a new one. The crash made him realize how short life is and how we only have so much time to cram in everything we want to do.
I’m so proud of my dad for this, and his experience has made me strive harder in all I do because I know we won’t be in this world forever. But this also means he’s very busy. I’ve never had a dad who attended family dinner more often than not, who wasn’t always either somewhere on a business trip or preparing to go on one. When I was a kid, quality time with my dad was precious, since it happened so rarely. I’ll never forget when we went hiking through the Grand Canyon. Even though my dad had back and foot problems and was probably in pain, he kept up with me the whole way.
I was always fascinated by that plane crash; it might sound morbid, but I was desperate for any scraps of information. I wanted to understand the effect the crash had on who my dad was. I wish I could remember the way he was before, but I was too young. I wondered how often he thought about it, whether he had dreams or nightmares about it. He didn’t seem traumatized. When he talked about it, he sounded distanced – as though he were telling a story that had happened to someone else.
Then one day, when I was nine, I threw a total fit at the mall. A Ferris wheel had been set up there, and I told my dad I wouldn’t leave until I got to ride it. My dad finally gave in. We climbed in the carriage. The Ferris wheel was a simple one. It wasn’t very high, and the seats didn’t rock back and forth. As we began to climb higher, I looked over and saw that my dad was tightly clenching the bar across our waists. I asked him what was wrong and he explained he was afraid of heights. I felt so foolish for not realizing this earlier. I wondered if he’d been afraid of heights before the crash.
I was so small, a third-grader, but I wanted to comfort him somehow. I put my hand over his and told him everything was going to be okay. He looked at me and tried to smile. We rode the whole ride like that, and when we were back on the ground, he thanked me for helping him. It was one of the few times I learned what was behind his cool, collected exterior. It made me feel closer to him.
The way we spend time together has changed as we’ve both grown older, but our quality moments are still just as important to me. Both of us are quiet people, so we enjoy simply watching a movie together. We don’t even have to talk – and that’s sometimes a lucky thing. Our stubborn personalities are so strikingly similar that we often get into meaningless arguments that last for hours. Once a disagreement is done, we realize how silly it was and laugh about it, but when we’re in the middle of it, we’re both deadly serious. For example, we both adore eating out but often argue about where to go. We argue for so long that by the time we decide, we’re starving.
We also know how to show our love in subtle ways. My dad and I are both addicted to pistachios, so we always keep a bag handy for when we need to get our blood sugar levels up post-argument. Sometimes I’ll pull the bag out as a peace offering. Sometimes he will. It’s a little gesture of goodwill, maybe even surrender – our own personal olive branch. Some of my favorite memories are of the two of us sitting at the kitchen counter eating handfuls of pistachios late at night when all the lights outside are dim and even the trees seem asleep. The house is quiet and the only sound is the crack of the shells.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.