A Pilot's Halo

Updated on October 21, 2017
Tessa Buchin profile image

When presented with a thought to follow, I enjoy all aspects of the creative writing process.

This story is a tribute to my father who passed away from cancer. He is my teacher. Here I blend waking life, the dreams I've had of him, and escapes from reality. Much of this encompasses my work in the medical field, experiencing morbidity and mortality while I was facing it within my own family. Though a troubling time, I found peace in the dreams. My dad always dreamed of flying.


I adduct and abduct the shepherd’s rear limb. Scalpel, cautery, lavage, suction. The cautery fires, quick to smoke and slow to cut through fat. The leg spasms in my hand. We inject lidocaine, delicately blocking the sciatic nerve. The femoral artery pulses, we hemoclip and ligate. The leg, through my latex gloves, drops below body temperature. We trigger the nitrogen gas and fire up the sagittal saw, cutting the bright white of the femur bone in half. Living soft bone bits and blood splatter on my mask and glasses, I close my eyes. The leg detaches into my hand.

“You can place it on the receiving blanket,” directs the surgeon, snapping her gloves. “Don’t say I never gave you anything,” she laughs.

May I scrub out? I scrub out. I calmly walk to the restroom. Keeping my surgical mask on, I rip off my gown, sit on the toilet, and lose my bowels.

I am awake.

It’s summer in the Eastern Sierras. I am camping outside of Bridgeport, hidden along the river. No cell service. It’s been days since I paid quarters for a quick shower. I’ve been watching the moonset and the moonrise, breathing relief at the silence but for the rippling of the river. I peel off my clothes. The high altitude spotlights my nudity as I slide across the rocks into the freezing snow melt. My body rigid at first, then I tell it to relax. I tip my hair into the water. It flows with the grass and moss. A hummingbird dips its beak to drink beside me, I can hear its wings. I feel invisible…

I am dreaming.

It’s morning. The sun attempts a breakthrough but is held off by haze. I drive southbound, carrying out working orders. I have a six-week-old tabby kitten, eyes still blue but just turning. Deworming, anti-diarrheals, supplementary feeding, subcutaneous fluids, probiotics, pheromones, no remedy. His littermate was found dead this morning, “expired.” He meows, meowing, meowing. I touch his paw through the crate and pull into the hospital lot. Am I doing the right thing?

I tell the technician, matter-of-factly, what we are here for. The bloated belly, the failure to thrive, the veterinarian knows. The door is closed and we work secretly. We take a silent breath and hold back sadness.

“Come back in a better body next time,” she breaths, injecting into the medial saphenous vein. My heart stops as I watch his.

I am awake.

I’m sneezing, gazing across an open field, a wind sock blows. I board the puttering plane. There is a man with red hair on my back, we have just met. I agree to trust him with my life. We go up, up, then a door opens to roaring wind. Bodies disappear. In his ear, I request spontaneity in our descent. He agrees and we clamber to the edge, wind ripping everything.

“Push your pelvis forward and arch your back when you feel me let go,” he yells.

We let go and invert once, twice, three times, my voice vanishing. A chord releases a drag, then spinning, horizontally to the earth, letting go. With a jolt, a parachute deploys, and I float. Concave patterns of civilization and echoes of air particles pinging against space. Feels like falling in love…

I am dreaming.


A 2-year-old border collie awkwardly waits in the treatment area. I admire the twinkle in her eye, her attentiveness to human expression, her calmness despite the chaos scooting around her. The neurology team comes and goes, gathering evidence. I am rushing to and from operating rooms, three surgeons are cutting, no time to stop. I speak to the collie in passing, panting tongue out, she bounces her ears and smiles at me. She received a Tensilon test. Her diagnosis, myasthenia gravis. The owners elect to forgo treatment. She will be PTS, put to sleep, within the next hour.

“Feed her anything you want,” directs our lead, “chocolate.” I hear both strength and defeat in her voice.

It is holiday season and baked goods abound. I surround a chocolate cupcake with foodstuffs on an ornamented silver platter. I present it to the collie, her eyes bulge. She eats, and eats, and eats. More.

“It is your day,” I whisper, and kiss her on her forehead.

I am awake.

I stand overlooking the cliffs off of Highway 1. The sun is out and the coastline is gnarly, sparkling, and rocky. Brisk air surrounds my neck and my dad gazes beside me.

“I want to show you heaven,” he says.

He takes my hand and we walk down wooden steps, down towards the cove. Rock walls separate us from the roadway and white foam contrasts the sapphire blue, the beige of the sand, and the white of the foam in the surf.

“Sometimes I just long to sit by the ocean,” he confides.

I stand in silence, feeling his spirit, the freedom of his days on the water, in the water.

“The ocean is home.” He stands beyond my periphery. Just out of reach.

I am dreaming.

The room smells like urine, feces, and fear. We have seventeen spay and neuter surgeries today, one doctor, two anesthetists, and six hours to get them done. The cats hate the dogs, the dogs want to eat the cats, and anal glands are ranking high. We pre-medicate with hydromorphone. Several patients that are supposed to be fasted regurgitate their meals. I scoop the regurge out before they try to eat it again. We turn on the oxygen compressors. Psshhhhh, puhhhhhhh. Psshhhhh, puhhhhhhh. The sound interrupts my psyche, but I push on. That’ll be my melody for the day.

I am awake.

The bedroom windows are open. Our favorite nurse, Honey, stands bedside. The nightstand is decorated with scratch paper scribbles, a gnome, crystals, a tongue wetting wand, and piles of pills. My mom is beside me, my sister. We are watching him. His pulse flutters in the small of his throat. Thready, rapid. I know what this means. The oxygen compressors sound.

“Hi Dad.”

He opens his eyes for the first time in days, piercing the ceiling, my mom, my sister. He sees me. His eyes, they are so sapphire blue. He gazes in me and through me. I strum the chords of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” His request. So befitting for a physicist fascinated by photons. I am too shy to sing, but in the privacy of his bedside, I sing to him.

I am dreaming.

It is April in Santa Barbara. My baby nephew is at the beach for the first time where my parents fell in love. The whole family is here. I walk down to the water, bits of tar press into my feet. My dad grew up surfing here. I hold my nephew’s kiddy bucket on my surfboard. I grip it with my teeth and paddle out, the surf is mellow today. The water is biting but I manage to stay dry, digging my arms into the deeper blue. Finally, the voices on the shore are hushed and people are but small specks. I wave back at them. I hear the familiar slap of the water against my board. I tip the bucket, bit by bit, granules of ash, trickling down. A cloud of white drifts away from me with the slight wind and current. It blends with the reflections of the clouds in the sky.

“You are home,” I whisper.

I am awake.


Rainbows appear in my house. Over my house. In my car. In the sky. In the kitchen. In my room. In your room. In their room. I see them everywhere. Sometimes double rainbows, sometimes the rainbow’s end. I had a premonition of a green valley. In that valley against the hillside hovered a full circle rainbow, completed in the sky. I felt that peace all around me. I wondered, just like you Dad, how might those photons behave?

The room feels weightless, and the windows are open. The nurse is crying and my mother gasps. My sister falls to the floor. Ren, the chaplain, stands at his feet and gives a speech of the state of the natural world, the mysteries, his physicist brain, the key he holds to the answers of the universe. Rain treads softly outside. If I looked now, I could see a rainbow.

I am dreaming.

I am in a biplane suspended over the ocean off the coast of the California Pacific. I feel my stomach drop. The long prop drowns out our exclamations. A familiar set of wispy hair commands the pilot’s seat. My mother beside it, my sister beside me. We brace ourselves. My grin blends with screams of delight. My mom and sister sit silently to the wink of my dad’s daring eye. The nose of the plane points to space as he calculates for a falling leaf. A pilot’s halo but not a cloud in the sky.


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    © 2017 Tessa Buchin


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