I read your obituary today for the first time—even though you’ve been dead now for over two years. After reading it I felt sad, but not for the reason you might suspect. Indeed, I regretted that I hadn’t sought to learn more of your story while you were still alive. There are so many questions I’d have loved to have asked you, Louise.
If I remember correctly, we only enjoyed one dinner conversation when you were still of sound body and mind. I’d flown in to visit my parents from Venice, Italy or Dallas, Texas—I’m not sure where I was living at the time. But I do remember my fascination with your tales of flying in those days when even few men took to the skies. And then there had been your experiences during World War II—as one of the Women Air Force Service Pilots. I was amazed to learn that sometimes you and the other female pilots practically fulfilled the role of test pilots—as you made inaugural flights in planes you were delivering from factories to places of embarkation.
I can hardly imagine how it must have been for you—and especially that time when the plane you were flying caught on fire. What did it feel like to eject from over 1,500 feet above the earth—having to trust that your parachute would bring you safely to land?
Fortunately for you and many others in this world, you survived this ordeal unharmed.
Ah, you know why I wrote this last statement, don’t you? See, it was through reading your obituary that I learned about your missionary work in that sizeable hospital in Maharashtra, West India over a course of twenty-one years. Plus, what might you have told me about the five years you spent in Kathmandu, Nepal—following your West India experience?
Needless to say, I’d also like to know what it was like being a single woman all those years—at a time when most women went from their father’s house to a house provided by a husband. For that matter, how was it to finally marry and settle down in Kentucky after you’d already retired? Was that a difficult adjustment after leading an unconventional life?
After you became a widow, you decided to live out your final years in the same continuing care retirement community to which your sister had retired. Needless to say, it was also where my parents had chosen to live after spending their married life in New Jersey. So, I ultimately did see you time and again after I’d moved to New Hampshire to be near my elderly widowed mother.
The thing is, by the time I came to see you at least weekly, you were incapacitated by dementia—as was also the case with my mother. And so, I would often see you sitting there in the activity room looking like little more than a skeleton in a wheel chair. There would be a vacant look in your eyes. However, because I had some idea as to the person you had once been, I would ask you questions about your former life as a female pilot. Then, to the staff’s amazement, not only would the normally silent you speak words, but you shared your story in an intelligible way. In fact, you could still tell me how you’d first discovered your love of flying at an airfield in New Jersey. Plus, when I made a statement about you having been a friend of Amelia Earnhardt’s, you’d made a point of correcting me and stating that while you had met her and had tried to recruit her for some flying exhibition, I believe it was, the two of you had never been more than acquaintances.
That all said, thank you for reminding me, Louise, that it behooves those of us of sound mind to continue to believe that there might yet be a person behind vacant-looking eyes and silent lips. In fact, it is best that we believe there is yet a spark in there which can be ignited by asking the right questions—questions that hit upon those things that shaped the person’s life or delivered meaning and passion. But of course, this means we can’t wait to discover these things through the person’s obituary. We must have such conversations now—while we are all of sound mind.