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Sarah trailed behind Grace's travel Isolette with its built-in ventilator. The ambulance attendants and neonatal nurses kept a careful watch over Grace as they moved toward the blue-and-white plane that stood waiting for them. The pilot, his golden hair blowing in the stiff November breeze, wore what looked like a World War II flight jacket. It looked as if he was checking the little blue plane from a list on a clipboard.
Sarah shivered. Little planes. She'd hated them from the first plane ride she could remember at age four. She and her parents had flown to a small settlement in Africa, landing on a bumpy rutted strip of dirt that she still thought must have rattled her baby teeth loose.
The logo on the blue plane was made up of what appeared to be angel's wings that were attached to a cloud. Agape Air was written in a semicircle below. Once, in the past, her worry would have eased at the thought of the word agape. It was the kind of love she'd been taught came from God alone. These days Sarah had a hard time believing He loved her at all.
That He cared at all.
He'd let Scott die, hadn't He? And with him the promise of a better, happier life.
He'd let their precious baby enter the world too soon. Now Grace's every breath was a struggle to stay alive.
And as far back as the very beginnings of Sarah's life, He'd sent her to parents so busy doing His bidding that she'd always been an afterthought. Her disappointment in them was such an old and uncomfortable wound she wondered why she kept revisiting it time and again. It was futile and painful. Sort of like poking a sore tooth with her tongue.
The thing was, she missed her parents and not Scott at times like this, just asshe'd missed them in nearly every moment of doubt and pain all through her life.
Maybe that was because she and Scott had had so little time together. They'd met at work and dated during the second half of a busy school year. She'd joined the Piedmont Point Christian School's staff in January after leaving her post at an African mission in Doctal. Scott had started talking about the possibility of marriage not all that long after they met. And then, within a month of those preliminary chats about a possible future, his National Guard unit had been called up. He'd gotten a little frantic, not wanting to leave for war again without the bond of marriage between them. So even though she'd had doubts, felt rushed and as if something was missing between them, Sarah hadn't had the heart to say no.
He'd left for Iraq a bit over a week after their small hurried wedding. And then, within three weeks, Scott was gone forever. All they'd had as man and wife was a one-week honeymoon and the two exhausting days before he left that they'd used to move his things into her apartment.
Sarah hadn't yet come to depend on him. She hadn't had a chance to get used to his dayin and day-out company and emotional support.
She knew what she missed about Scott were all those possibilities they'd talked about.
The plans that had never had a chance to come to fruition. Togetherness. Belonging. A happy, devoted family life. All the things she'd always wanted so desperately but had been denied.
And had been denied again.
The truth was that Scott couldn't help being dead. And she was confident that he was happy in heaven. But she was still here and alone while her parents were, once again, off serving God, too busy to offer comfort to their only child.
Sarah knew she was always mentioned in her parents' prayers, but she'd wanted them at her wedding. She'd wanted their arms around her at Scott's funeral. She'd wanted them to fly to her side when her child was born so early and so fragile. This past Thursday she'd wanted what her friends from college and the school where she worked had had. She'd wanted a family, a turkey and her child strong and healthy.
She shook her head. When would she learn? Unfair as it felt, to her parents as God's soldiers in a war for souls, she was, and always had been, insignificant.
So she'd spent the holiday alone at the hospital, trying to bond with a baby she couldn't even hold. And worrying because Grace still hadn't gained even an ounce over her birth weight since her birth six weeks earlier.
Instantly Sarah felt selfish and guilty the way only her jealousy over her parents'other commitments could make her feel. Their work was important. She knew that. But couldn't she come first with them just once? Just for a little while?
This past Thanksgiving weekend was supposed to have been about family and giving thanks for all the blessings life held. Sarah had had a hard time thanking God when her parents were in a far-off land, her husband was dead and their baby barely clung to life.
She tried to remember that it was a friend of her parents', Doctor Joachim Prentice, who'd agreed to evaluate Grace and if possible operate, and that they'd offered to pay for the surgery. And that through their contacts, they'd secured the help of Angel Flight East. Angel Flight was a volunteer organization of pilots and plane owners. They flew critically ill patients and their family memberslike Grace and herselffree of charge in their personal aircraft to hospitals for treatment. She would be forever grateful for the organization and the small airline who'd loaned their plane for the trip.
Sarah glanced ahead at the tiny plane that was to take them to Philadelphia. It didn't look any bigger now that she'd gotten closer to it. Out of habit she found herself praying that God would watch over the plane and Grace during the flight. Her child had defied the odds so far but now her heartthe heart that had astounded the doctors at her birth by continuing to beat in her one-pound-three-ounce bodywas in trouble.
"Mrs. Bates," a deep voice said, breaking into her thoughts.
Sarah turned toward the voice, realizing she'd reached the plane. The blazing sun was so blinding this close to the shining blue-and-white fuselage that she could see only the man's tall, imposing outline. "Oh, am I in the way of you and your checklist?"
He shook his head. "No. You aren't in my way at all."
Sarah blinked, trying not to stare as the pilot stepped into the shadow of the plane. She blinked again. Except that his hair was a few shades lighter, he looked like a very young Jimmy Stewart as she'd seen him in an old movie. His vintage flight jacket and wire-framed aviator sunglasses only helped the World War II reference along.
"I wanted to welcome you aboard," the pilot continued, "and offer you the copilot seat for the flight. There's not a lot of comfortable seating in the rear. I had to take out two seats for that whizbang Isolette I brought along from Children's Hospital. That only left the two for your baby's nurses and a bench that's hard as a rock. You'd be a lot more comfortable up front. Suppose we go check on Grace, then we'll get this show on the road?"
Sarah nodded, impressed that he'd cared enough to learn her baby's first name. So many of the doctors and nurses referred to Grace as the Bates baby. She'd heard that somewhere in history children weren't named till their first birthday because infant mortality rates had been so high. But she'd given her baby a name. And Sarah wanted her to live. She'd move mountains to make sure Grace had every chance.
The pilot climbed the steps into the plane then stood aside while Sarah entered the small fuselage. Once again she had to give him credit. When they reached Grace's Isolette, he didn't recoil or gasp at the sight of her tiny daughter as her fellow teachers at Piedmont Point had. Grace's pale skin was still nearly translucent, her musculature and blood vessels still evident to the naked eye. Sarah herself had been shocked and frightened at her first close look at her child, wondering how her baby could survive.
When the pilot squatted down next to Grace's Isolette and took off his sunglasses, he proved he was made of sterner, kinder stuff than those others. He gave her daughter a sweet smile and tapped on the Plexiglas as if to gain Grace's attention.
"Hi there, sweetie," he said from his position on the floor. "I'll try for a real smooth ride for you. You just hang in there and we'll have you fixed up in no time."
Next he carefully checked the bracket, then tightened the strap that anchored the Isolette to the floor of the plane. When he stood, his deep green eyes were calm and steady. The expression seemed to promise that he was in control and he knew everything would be all right. She refused to believe anything else. Sarah would bring her child home one day. She just wasn't sure where home would be.
"I'm Kip Webster, your pilot today," he told the nurses and shook hands with each of them. "Do any of you have questions or concerns?"
Sarah had plenty but stayed silent. So did the nurses.
"Okay then, it looks like we're all set. Buckle up, ladies. Mrs. Bates, are you going to take the copilot seat?"
Sarah nodded. She'd sit where she'd be more comfortable but she had no intention of voicing any of the million questions she had about the flight or the plane. This man was part of a chain of people who had volunteered to try to save her child's life. She'd endure anything to make that happen. And that included sitting quietly in the cockpit of a tiny fly speck of a plane even if she had to hold her breath all the way to Philadelphia. She certainly didn't want to bother anyone with her fears.
Moments later she slid into the seat next to Kip and followed his instructions. Once buckled up, he handed her a pair of aviator sunglasses. "These are my extras," he said smiling again. "I noticed you squinting outside. The glare will only get worse once we're up. You'll have a monster headache halfway to Philly without them."
"Thanks. Are you a good pilot?" she asked and could have kicked herself. That had sounded so rude and was a pretty stupid question at that. What did she expect him to say? "No. I crash once a week!"
Kip Webster laughed. "I'm told I am. I've always managed to keep my planes in the air till it was time to land. And everyone's always landed in the same general condition they boarded in. That help?"
She grimaced. "Not really," she replied truthfully and felt a blush stain her cheeks.
She noticed his grin was a little crooked but kind. "Don't be embarrassed. Most people are skittish in small crafts the first time."
"But this isn't my first time. A lot of my flights have been in smaller planes. My parents are missionaries. I spent a good deal of my early life flying into makeshift airstrips in practically every back corner of the world."
She held the armrest in a white-knuckled grip as he flipped a bunch of switches and the plane's propellers started to spin. He patted her hand. "Well, there you go. You're in for a treat today then. This field and the one on the other end are both smooth as glass. Just sit back and try to relax. I'm not going to let anything happen to you or Grace. You're both safe with me."
His smile was once again reassuring. So reassuring she had a hard time looking away. And for the first time since her principal and two National Guard officers knocked on her classroom door to give her the bad news about Scott, Sarah didn't feel alone. It was ridiculous but Kip Webster made her feel safeprotected even.
About ten minutes into the flight, Kip turned toward her. "Mrs. Bates, they told us Grace's daddy was killed in Iraq. You must feel terribly alone right now. But have faith. Dr. Prentice is the best. I fly kids to see him all the time. And I fly them home again when they're stronger and healthier. I wanted to express the condolences of everyone at Agape Air and Angel Flight East for your loss. My partner and I would be honored if you'd let us pick up your hotel tab while you're in the city."