At the streetcar stop I sat in the dust, breathing fumes as cars idled at the stoplight. I could have owned one of those cars, I thought, instead of sitting here on the curb, feet in the gutter. I could have bought an SUV instead of doing what I'm doing. I could be normal.
Instead, when my 17-year marriage ended, I took a streetcar to the Toronto City Centre Airport for a trial flying lesson. On the way back I stopped at the bank and applied for a line of credit. It was the first of hundreds of streetcar rides to the little ferry terminal at the island airport.
I was a self-employed single mother with no car, no reliable childcare, no family this side of the Atlantic and mounting lawyers' bills. On all counts it was not a sensible life choice. "Can't you do yoga?" asked a vegan friend who considered Toronto Island an artists' colony, not a landing strip.
My father, a physicist who spent his weekends designing, flying and crashing remote-controlled model gliders, was more attuned to the decision. "Life is not a rehearsal," he said over the phone from Oxford, England, where he was fighting cancer.
Flying was absolutely thrilling; a fierce engagement with my new country. Values became hideously distorted to satisfy the new addiction. During the week I comparison-shopped to save pennies on baked beans; on the weekend thousands of dollars bled through the flight school.
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On the other hand, old, everyday distortions dropped away like creases in a shower curtain. As I circled the tiny airport at the edge of Lake Ontario, the huge city winked and glowed at me. Down there millions of souls faced their own stories, their own wrong decisions for the right reasons. Minor risks in the boardroom - where failure is not fatal - paled in comparison to taking off from a runway with a lake at the end of it.
Utterly self-indulgent, yet so defiantly sane. As my life realigned itself, step by painful earthbound step, the line of credit lengthened as every other weekend I would climb into the single-engine Cessna and the new reality would blot out the old. With yoga, you experience pain; when you're learning to fly, you're trying not to die.
In my working life, creativity was everything. In aviation, creativity is bad. Discipline, rote learning and rules, rules and more rules are how you stay alive. My brain relaxed into the new structure, found a new stride. As I juggled childcare, called in favours, rose at 5 a.m. and staggered down to ground school night after night to learn compass deviation, call signs and cloud formations, my fellow students gradually dropped out. I became the only woman, the only person over 40, the only (selfish) mother. Certificates accumulated, damp with our lifeblood.
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However, the most important learning came with no certificate. I realized that when you come out of a dive at 150 knots, your head telescopes into your neck. I found that miso soup is great for nausea. I learned that foxes run across runways without regard for rules, and that U.S. pilots use the aeronautical frequencies to discuss the price of lumber.
Yikes! I discovered that Niagara Falls looks like a dollhouse toilet endlessly flushing, and that your last sight on Earth could be the lethal beauty of an ice storm over St. Catharines, each frozen spicule lit up gloriously by the afternoon sun off the port wing. Most significantly, I found out that, when faced with death, I get polite: "Er, could you please take the controls now?"
I was prepared for the risk of death and weathered the criticism of others; however, worries about dying turned out to be a straw man. In the end, it was my father's mortality, not mine, that defined the experience. The fact that we were both racing the clock never left my mind, impeding my learning while, at the same time, spurring it on.
The proud father and adventurer relished every phone call, every letter. In my memory each flying landmark is entangled in his own heartbreaking journey. A daring flight over Bill Gates's house as his lung infection set in. My first solo long-distance flight as his kidneys started to fail. Precautionary landings nailed as he lost the use of his legs.
I gradually realized that I would never get to take him up - there just wasn't enough time. I pretended he was my passenger on a solo flight to Muskoka. "Look Dad - it's so beautiful." And it was. How I wished he could see it - Southern Ontario, like a thousand landing strips in earth tones until tame farmland lost the battle to water and trees and Muskoka unfolded beneath my wings, each cottage a pinch of distilled forest.
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Returning to base, there were my landmarks - the winking elegance of the CN Tower and the dusky brown soup above Toronto glowing in the dying sun.
My father died four days before my flight test.
After the funeral, flying seemed pointless, an expensive chore. I was tempted to walk away but instead I climbed back on that streetcar. Three months later I became a fully licensed private pilot.
I should have been ecstatic but instead I felt an overwhelming grief that I couldn't call my father and tell him that I'd made it. I still wasn't really sure that it was worth it. Sitting in the dust of the streetcar stop, I conferred with him: "SUV or pilot's licence?" He didn't reply. But seven years on, his grandson signed up for aerospace engineering at Carleton University.
Helen Leask lives in Toronto.