More than anything, I remember her smile.
Of course, I couldn’t have seen her smile. But I knew it was there. I could hear it in the words she told me over the phone. I was able to see her smile, as real as the red dirt under my boots, as I listened to her voice, carefree and elated.
The first time I saw that smile, I knew that I could never stop loving my amazing daughter. The way her eyes shined brightly as she had beamed at me, half a decade ago, had reminded me, in a bittersweet way, of her mother. Still reeling from the way she left us, I had touched down at the airstrip near our home, consumed by sadness. In the air, my mind had been replaying over and over an endless film reel of all my life’s failures. As I tied down my rickety Cessna to the tarmac, I had turned around, and walked through the front door of our little home. As the wooden door creaked open, I had been greeted by the face of my daughter, that infinitely happy smile plastered on her face. As I had held her in my arms that day many years ago, I could feel the sadness of the previous hours melting away.
These are the memories playing in my mind as I lay on the hot sand, unconscious.
My ears ringing, a low groan escapes my mouth. In a gesture that takes all my effort, I labour to raise my head a couple centimetres off the ground. I try to take in my surroundings — however, my efforts are thwarted by the cough that racks my body, sending a sharp dagger into my chest. Again, I lift my head, straining all the muscles in my neck just to accomplish this simple task. I cast my eyes around me. Alas, my vision is much too blurry to notice anything but the orange sand on which I lie. Arduously, I push myself off of my stomach, and roll over. The effort is too much for me, and I can do nothing but lie, immobile, under the glaring sun, as I slip from consciousness.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. You know I have to make this flight.” I had told her apologetically. “If I didn’t fly in the cargo, they wouldn’t have their groceries.”
My daughter’s face had fallen, as she had shrugged. “I know dad, but still, I’m going to miss you.” A pregnant pause had filled the room. “You know?”
As vague as they were, I knew exactly the message that those two words held. As my heart swelled, I had held her close and kissed the top of her head.
For the second time, my eyes creep open. This time I am successful in pushing myself up. I can finally take in my surroundings, and when I do, my breathing hitches in shock.
The bright sun, making its way down the horizon, casts long shadows behind the broken pieces of the fuselage strewn haphazardly on the ground around me. Slowly, I crawl over to the nearby broken horizontal stabiliser, which I use as support as I stand myself up. Surveying the scene before me, I see the ruins of the plane that, for 3 600 hours, had kept me in the air. All protruding parts had broken off and are now lying half buried in the fiery sad, angrily aglow in the australian twilight. I run my eyes from the crumpled nose over the cockpit, taking in the mostly intact body and the tail, sticking up in the air like a proud flag. From a distance of a couple metres, I peer into the cockpit again, trying to…
My thoughts trail off as a glimmer of hope catches my eye, accompanied by the reflective surface of the emergency kit, shining with the right angle of the sun. Excited, I reflexively begin to hobble over the wreckage. Before I have taken two steps though, I already know that my strength is too fast waning. The pain coursing along the right side of my chest nearly stops my progress, but I force my battered body to take the final steps, as I collapse on the broken door. No longer supporting my own weight, I reach my hand into the plane, groping blindly for my saving grace. Happiness floods my being as I reach the handle and pull it onto my lap.
But my efforts have left me dizzy. My fingers slip as I try to open the box, my hopeful curiosity pushing me to find out if it still contains the essential things for me to — my breath catches, as two fingers on my left hand find a problem. No, no, no! I plead, but as I flip the box around, I already know what I will find.
Staring back at me is a gaping hole in the backside of the box of emergency supplies. Beyond it, the emptiness of the container reflects that of my stomach.
On the verge of tears, I feel the hope drain from my body.
“Hey Roger. Do you mind if I use your phone right quick?” I had asked not too long ago, beaming. After a quick nod, I had quickly turned the numbers to my home phone line and held the receiver to my ear. Almost immediately my daughter’s voice had responded. Happily, I had told her the news.
“I’m gonna be coming home early. I’ll be back tonight!”
Her excited squeal filled my ear. Among the chatter of what she just had to show me once I returned, I could hear her smiling through her voice. I could feel it through the phone. I could see it, right in front of me.
And I loved her smile.
As I hung up, a concerned Roger had raised his concern. “Mate, are you sure that you want to leave right now? I don’t know if that’s the best idea. I’m telling you, I can take a look at that horizontal stabiliser — it doesn’t look so sturdy — tonight, and you’ll be right on your way first thing tomorrow.”
I had given him a friendly clap on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry mate. I’ll be fine.”
Starting up the engine, I had looked at the photograph sitting on the dashboard. As I was gaining speed along the runway, I thought of my daughter’s smile.
I am woken up by the sun. Standing up relatively quickly, I know I have a chance of survival only if I can get a hold of my situation. I search the rest of the plane, hoping to find some hidden water bottle somewhere, anywhere. Without luck, I conquer my mind with a steely resolve. I will set out to find water. Many, many times before have I flown this route. I know that there are some lakes along the way. The only task ahead is to make my way to one of those water pools and await my rescue.
Yes. That’s what I will do.
My strengthened mind lends courage to my body. Slightly appeased, my chest still throbs every step that I take. And steps there are aplenty. The hours drag on as I make my way in a straight line away from the crashed plane. My parched throat begs for water. Often, I turn my head to the sky, each time praying to find a vast, dark, angry rain cloud hovering above me. Not once do I spot a single white wisp.
It must be late afternoon. I have been walking for so, so long. The pain in my chest is unbearable — however, it is now getting some competition from my swollen feet, begging for rest. However, my efforts are being rewarded with nothing. I look around myself for the upteenth time. My eyes report nothing but the same nondescript red dirt of the Great Sandy Desert. Even though I see no lake, there is an image that I can see clear as ever.
I can see her smile.
My daughter must be so confused. I let her down. With these thoughts running through my mind, my hope starts waning at a worrisome pace. Seeking inspiration to continue on, I look up to the sky. Seeing nothing but the poisonous apple that is the clear blue sky, a heavy sigh emanates from my lungs. Licking my dry lips in a vain attempt to give any moisture to my dehydrated mouth, I bow my head and shut tight my eyes, trying to will the pain away. Without expectations, I open my eyes.
And I see it.
The floodgates of my heart open up. In flow the rivers of hope, filling me up with optimism and courage. With a renewed resolve than burns stronger than a fire under me, I stand up triumphantly. I try to run, but my legs are far too weak. I’m running on fumes as it is. Shambling unevenly, I continue my journey.
The closer and closer I get, the clearer and clearer it becomes. I can see some gum trees, the blue of the water. Only a couple more minutes of walking, and I will be saved.
I get closer even. I can see the oasis.
I approach it even more. Something must be wrong with my vision, for the water is becoming blurry instead of sharpening in my view. No matter. I will reach it soon.
I am getting even closer. Strangely, it is becoming more and more blurry.
Another good effort and I will reach it. Desperate, my stride stretches out. My foot catches on a rock, and I almost fall. I spend the next couple paces looking down at where I am placing my feet. I know now that I am a couple metres from the edge of the water. Hope has given way to confidence. I will survive to see my daughter again.
I look up as I sense I am approaching the oasis.
Nothing but coarse red sand, taunting me.
Frantically, I look all around me, trying to find where the lake is. No!
The certainty of it crushes me like a thousand pound weight. My knees buckle from the heaviness. Every single drop of hope that I had, stored up within my body, seeps out. I collapse onto the hard ground.
My face, propped to the side, faces the terrain. My eyes rake over the landscape. A single dead brush sits against a beautiful sunset. The orange and yellow colours wash over the ground.
However, the natural beauty is not what gives me happiness. For I see something else.
I see her smile. I close my eyes.
And I smile.