Heather’s thirtieth birthday was only a few months after Maddie passed away. For many people this is a milestone birthday, one where you look around and feel good about what you’ve achieved in life, but for Heather it was just another depressing reminder that everything she’d been working toward had been blown to pieces.

Jackie also had a less than desirable milestone around that time – the first anniversary of her diagnosis. To get away from it all, the three of us decided to go to Catalina Island for the weekend. Catalina is only twenty-two miles off the California coastline, but we were hoping that it would feel like a lot more.

The most common way to go to Catalina is by ferry, and each of us had traveled there that way in the past. On this trip, however, we decided to go by helicopter. None of us had been in one before, and when we got to the heliport we were a bit nervous. Our unease didn’t last long though as after a couple minutes the gallows’s humor set in.

“What are we so afraid of?” we wondered. “Jackie has terminal cancer and our baby just died. If there’s ever a time not to care if the helicopter goes down it’s now!”


With that thought in mind we all piled into the helicopter and flew into the sky. We were used to being in the air in a gigantic airplane, but in a cockpit not much bigger than the interior of a car? That was surreal. It almost felt like the wind could blow us away at any moment. The view from up there was pretty amazing though:


We soon landed on Catalina and it was as beautiful as ever. Of course, we had only ever been there in happier times, so this trip felt different. We tried out best to enjoy ourselves nonetheless, and ignore our problems.

After checking into the hotel we went out to dinner. In earlier, happier times we would have celebrated with a drink or two, but times had changed. I no longer drank (and still don’t), having recently quit after leaning on the bottle too much following Maddie’s passing, and Heather was pregnant with Annie, so she wasn’t drinking either. That left Jackie alone to drink, and Heather and I weren’t going to let her forget it.

“Have another, Jackie!” Heather said after Jackie finished her first drink. “One for me!”

Not long after that I added, “You gotta have one for me too!”

Jackie was happy to oblige, and by the end of dinner there was a lot of laughter at that table, far more than anyone would imagine from a trio like us.

We soon grew somber, however, and took a quiet, reflective walk on the beach. In the morning, when we woke, we learned that Farah Fawcett had passed away. This saddened Jackie because she had seen a documentary on Farrah and her battle with cancer and could relate to a lot of what she experienced.

A few hours later Twitter blew up on our phones with a rumor that Michael Jackson had died. Eventually, after searching the Internet on our phones, we learned that it was indeed true.

“This sucks for Farrah,” Jackie said. She felt bad about Michael Jackson too, but she didn’t like that Farrah’s death would undoubtedly be overshadowed by his. Jackie admired Farrah as someone who had been on a similar journey as hers, and felt she deserved better than to be relegated to a footnote. It was yet another example of how Jackie was empathetic, and so cared about others.

We made our way back to the heliport and watched the news on a TV as we waited for takeoff. It showed mobs of people gathering outside the hospital where Michael Jackson was taken – the hospital, it turned out, where Annie was to be born. The hospital where Farrah died, perhaps not incidentally, was the one where Maddie was born. It was a weird day.

We took the helicopter back to the mainland, and once again felt at peace with whatever might happen. There is good that can come from accepting what comes and not being afraid of where life takes you. Accepting that uncertainty, in fact, is one of the keys to enlightenment in zen Buddhism, if I remember correctly from the Eastern Religion class I took in college long ago.

That day, high up in the clouds, was the closest I’ve ever come to understanding that philosophy. Somewhere along the way though I’ve since lost track of it, and I’m not sure I’ll ever find it again. It’s hard to be accepting of anything that may come when life has proven it can be so cruel.