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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."


Type rated on A330, B747-400, B747, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sometimes The Road Is Long...

And we travel that road to heal. I asked Mark if he would like to share his strength in my upcoming book, Flight To Success. This is the story Mark sent. Touching and beautiful... you don't have to wait for my book to read it.


Susanne died on July 17th, 1996. She was my fiancée, she was thirty-one, and it goes without saying, she was the love of my life.


I’m a pilot: I was then, and I am now. I’m also an alpha male, and sometimes I’m stubborn beyond reason. Stubborn isn’t the same as being resilient, but I pretended it was for many years. I tried pushing forward; engaging life with my personal pain hidden behind a flat affect—what some call a thousand-yard stare—and it concerned my supervisors, my family, and my friends. My airline grounded me for a while, but eventually allowed me back in the cockpit. This saga is revealed in more detail within my memoir 13,760 Feet—My Personal Hole in the Sky. Did I mention that Susanne died onboard one of my airline’s jumbo 747 aircraft? She was one of 230 passengers and crew who blew up offshore Long Island on TWA Flight 800.


I moved forward, but I didn’t move on. I encountered some beautiful people along my post TWA Flight 800 journey, but I kept them all at arms length, even while embracing them in passionate moments. I was able to go through the motions of courtship, even the horizontal motions reserved for the dark, but I was emotionally grounded. Not the good kind of grounded either, as in an electrical metaphor, but the bad kind: I was a pilot who didn’t bring my heart along in my suitcase. I’d buried it with Susanne, so it was more than grounded; I’d left it six feet underground.

For ten years I wandered the Earth: playing touch-and-go with feeling people’s hearts—and I even circled the planet once—but endless days came and went, and they didn’t mean anything. Remember those concerned family and friends? A couple of them finally sat me down and challenged me to move forward with my life. Ten years, and I was still as detached as the day I heard the news of Susanne’s demise.


Sure, I wanted to move on. But being told I was failing at feeling was not the same as being handed a roadmap to a new life. My inner circle of friends, the ones I wasn’t able to completely shut out of my heart, handed my life report card and it was covered with Fs. They didn’t tell me how to improve my grades, either. They just pointed at the hole in my life that I was ignoring, and told me to find a way to fill it.

That’s when I decided to try creative writing. Oh, I was still a long way away from touching my own story, Susanne’s story, or even looking TWA Flight 800 in the eye. But I did put pen to paper, and attempted to coax my angry and hurt feelings out into the light. I discovered the joy of fiction, and wrote a survivor’s guilt novel Pushing Leaves Towards the Sun. In it I was able to assign my feelings to other people—characters I made up—and I made them dance to my pain like I was shooting at the ground under their feet to see them hop. I penned a dozen original companion songs within this novel and felt really proud of myself for this personal accomplishment. But what reviews did I receive for creating my great American novel? “Good job; now quit hiding behind fiction and tell your real story.”


I received this advice to tackle TWA 800 directly from Professor Schwartz at UMSL, where I took a fiction and poetry class. Nonfiction wasn’t even supposed to be an option, but before our twelve weeks together were over, he challenged me to write an essay rather than a short story for a change. I locked myself away, and at last dug into the night of TWA 800, recounting it on paper for the first time thirteen years after it happened. A counselor I saw at TWA (to address my grief) once told me that feelings we bury, we bury alive. Mine came crawling back out.

That essay was accepted in the newspaper of the town where I grew up—Greenwich Time—and then syndicated throughout Connecticut. Since it felt like my big publishing breakthrough, I included it with my grad school applications. I decided I wanted more formal training and hoped to enroll in a creative writing MFA program for fiction, and write another novel. But just because I let my feelings out of the dark for a moment didn’t mean I was going to give them a big hug. I still had fiction on my brain when the Director of Fairfield University called to offer me a seat in the next winter residency… as a nonfiction student.

 

Did I mention that I’m stubborn? I didn’t want to write nonfiction. I wanted to make up another story for my first novel’s characters. I wanted to bury my TWA Flight 800 feelings for another thirteen years. I wanted to negotiate an acceptance into the fiction program. The Director, my dad, my best friend, and my former professor all wanted me to write a memoir—something I thought was reserved for celebrities and/or narcissists. I was definitely not the former, and didn’t want to be the latter. But to escape narcissism, I needed to learn how to truly listen to others, and embrace their opinions. It finally became obvious I needed to dig into my past if I wanted any kind of happiness in the future.


I spent the next two years writing, rewriting, work-shopping, and further rewriting the darkest chapter of my life. At last I graduated, and my personal journey became my master of fine arts thesis as a collection of essays. Some of these essays became articles and were published in Airways. A handful of them found their way into additional magazines and literary journals. Then I worked on story structure, and rewrote all I’d accomplished though the MFA program for another two years, finally creating a coherent memoir. My stubborn streak paid off as I rewrote 13,760 Feet—My Personal Hole in the Sky at least ten times before it was finally published. It’s not enough to just write a book; it needs to grow and mature along with the author.


It’s now eighteen years after Susanne died onboard TWA Flight 800 and I have almost converted my memoir into an audiobook. Once I finish the recording and mixing of all 345 pages (plus the 34 companion songs that are infused into the story), I will finally be ready to polish my second novel Street Justice, the one that has been on the back burner for so long. After that, I want to return to nonfiction and write somebody else’s compelling experience. I was pushed into revealing what I’d buried so deep and for so long, it will feel like I’ll have completed a full circle if I am able to help someone else tell their story.


In many ways Karlene Petitt is on a similar journey as mine. She first wrote two novels and revealed her passion and feelings for commercial aviation safety through compelling characters and fiction. At last she is completing her advanced degree and then tapping her education and professional experience to create her own nonfiction thesis for the benefit of others.

Whatever you are facing, don’t let yourself become discouraged. Sometimes the road to a better place is long, but unless you are content to remain where you are unhappy—either literally or emotionally—the effort you eventually put into your own personal growth is worth it.



Mark L. Berry's journey 
from loss to life will touch your heart
  Click HERE 
to share the journey 

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a powerful story. Can't wait to read the book. Mark, I'm impressed with your courage.

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