The tires under the right wing touched the ground for a split second before a gust of wind thrust us back up into the turbulence.
Manhattan lay to my left, Newark to my right.
Another rush of pressure pushed us back down to the tarmac as the pilot opened the flaps and brought us to a stop in a land I had only visited once as boy—New York, New York.
Prior to landing, the captain informed us that Newark had put us in a holding pattern over the city. The wind had restricted the air traffic to one secondary north-to-south runway. Conditions for all the other airstrips were too dicey for safe landings. So we circled high above in our holding pattern as I peered out my window to the cramped streets and high-rises of the Five Boroughs below.
So this is New York? This is where I come from on my mother’s side? Am I really, in a not too distant story, a New Yorker?
If you asked me, I would tell you I’m from rural Indiana. That is where I grew up, and my father, and his father before him. Most all my memories are there: my first love and subsequent first broken heart; the first time I saw The Karate Kid, Rocky III and Back to the Future; the first and only time I punched another kid in the head, and the first and only time another kid punched me.
Included among my memories there are those of a Subaru Station Wagon covered in the scuffs of New England turning up our gravel road carrying my Nana and PopPop. I remember my nose pressed against our living room window, watching and waiting for that car to come into view so my brother and I could race outside to meet them in the driveway.
I must confess the reason we did this was because they always brought us presents, and we figured if we could carry their bags, one of us might spot them. And as any kid can tell you, locating a gift is half the battle to possessing it.
Well, last month Nana died.
She lived to be 89. In her waning months she went from a strong, proper, educated, former French teacher to a dignified yet frail woman with a childlike manner and appreciation for simple things, like rides in the car and the card game War.
Nana was born 4 generations ago at the beginning of the roaring 20’s—a decade punctuated by the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Nana was 9 years old when that happened. She was born before the advent of the telephone, refrigerator and traffic light. Before the band aid, FM radio, and the Model T Ford. Before penicillin, nylon, television and the zipper. She was 11 when the Empire State building was completed and the Star Spangled Banner was named our national anthem. She was 21 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She lived through World War II, saw the civil rights movement, the Korean War and Vietnam. Her life spanned 19 different presidential administrations.
But that’s not all.
She was also the last of a generation. PopPop died several years earlier. Uncle Gordon before that. Great Grandma Brown before that.
Like a line formed this side of eternity’s gate, when she stepped through, we all took another step forward. Now my kids are the ones with their noses pressed against the window, watching for my parents to arrive, so they can meet them in the driveway to snoop for presents.
And I feel for the first time that I can reach out and touch eternity’s door.
Cutting through the shifting winds of change, I was inbound to officiate her memorial service—a few relatives and friends gathering at a New Jersey church built in 1717.
But I wasn’t there just to oversee the passing of a generation. I was there to explore their city—the Staten Island Ferry where PopPop courted Nana every day on their ride into work in Manhattan, the house on Fingerboard Road where they lived when my mom was born, the Hippodrome Building where my mom and dad met working for Eastern Airlines.
My mom had it all planned out. She meant for us to set out on foot to walk the streets of New York. And she meant to give me a gift—details of a chapter in my existence I knew little of.
The Holy King of Israel who loves me here in America also had a gift for me—the gracious admonition that while this is my story, it is not primarily a story about me.
The story is really about Him, and He is the One telling it.
And He is so faithful.
This has been a hard stretch. Removing my shoes to walk upon the holy ground of security, I’ve felt suspect and in disarray. I’ve struggled to make my connections. There has been a lot of turbulence.
So I’ve been in a holding pattern, circling. Sure, the holding pattern suspends me high above the crosswinds, but for what? I know I can’t stay there.
Either the winds will calm or we’ll have to go through them, but one way or another we all know we must land.
On the ground, the stewardess suggests we might want to thank the pilot for his skillful landing. We all clap. We all mean it, too.
The bell sounds and the cabin lights come on. I sling my backpack over my shoulder, clear the jet way and step out into the city that never sleeps.
For this night, she will remain a mystery on the other side of the Hudson.
But only for this night.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).