This past Saturday, my husband nearly died.
On Saturday evening August 26, he was in the Lexington, Kentucky airport returning to Atlanta and learned that his flight—the last one out that night—was cancelled. He was given a choice of a 6:00 a.m. or 9:00 a.m. flight for the next morning. He said he wanted to hurry home to see us, but hesitated at the thought of getting to the airport early enough for a 6:00 flight and decided on the one at nine.
When he arrived the next morning, he was denied entry to the terminal by what was an unexpected and alarming number of emergency personnel. Then the news broke—the 6:00 a.m. flight was Delta-Comair 5191 that crashed on takeoff, killing 49 of the 50 people onboard.
When he got home to Atlanta much later that night, he told me that the man in line ahead of him asked for the early ticket and lost his life. He said he didn’t know his name, but kept thinking of his face. My knees went rubbery as I sat there listening to him talk, and I watched the whole story unfolding on the news. My husband came within a hair’s breadth of being on that plane. "Do you want the 6:00 a.m. or the 9:00 a.m. flight?" he’d been asked, and had a 50/50 chance of living or dying in the answer he gave.
I thanked God, of course, that my husband is still among the living and breathing. But still, it was a weird sort of say "thank you." How do you say thanks for the preservation of one life in the midst of the loss of 49 others? "Thanks that such a horrible thing didn’t happen to us" seems a selfish sort of prayer. I’m profoundly grateful my husband will get to see the face of his unborn child, which he almost didn’t. But what of the newlywed couple just starting a brand new life who were on that plane?
It was problematic, too, when the story got out and some of our friends and family mentioned to us that God spared my husband’s life for a reason, that there is some grand, unfulfilled purpose in his life, something he must do, and this was made more obvious when his life was spared. "You should really pray to discern what that purpose is," they told us.
Now, while I certainly don’t believe in random fate pushing us all about the stage of life like so many dust bunnies swept up by some clown with a cosmic broom, I wonder about that statement. I wonder if the fact that my husband is alive today and the guy ahead of him in line is not, really means any more than just that. Surely my husband wasn’t the only one in line God was looking out for or the only one God cared about. Surely my husband wasn’t the only one with unfulfilled dreams and purposes standing in that line at the airport, trying to get home to Atlanta.
Since we’ve been married, we’ve seen a lot of unexpected, tragic losses in our lives: death, divorce, illness, betrayal, broken dreams. As a result, one of our personal catchphrases has become "life sucks, but God is good." In this world, people die too young and too soon. Bad things happen to good people. Bad people get away with doing horrible things. There is no perfection, no utopia, no protection from the reality of evil and good co-existing side by side in this world. It is why, like Saint Augustine, I believe our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. It is why I believe in heaven.
Maybe my husband’s life was spared because there is some great, unfulfilled plan for him that still must unfold. Or maybe it was just not his day to die. I’m not really sure.
When he and I talked after he got home, he mentioned that the biggest impact this had on him was making him realize that we can only tangibly affect the present. "Sure," he told me. "I can strive to do good work, choose to raise children and instill ideals in them that might outlive me into the future. But, it’s really the day to day life, the present tense where I have the most impact."
And maybe that’s the big lesson to take away from our brush with death: this minute is all any of us have to work with, really. As Lawrence Scupoli writes in his work The Spiritual Combat, "God has granted you the morning, but he does not promise the evening. Spend each day as if it were your last."
So today, I’m offering up prayers for the souls of the victims of Flight 5191, as well as their families. Our family could have too easily been among their numbers. And I’m thankful, too, for the reminder that what matters most to God is not whether or not we figure out what great, grand plan he has for our lives in the future. What matters to God is what we do with this day, this hour, this moment, this breath. You never know when it could be your last.