Sammy was a teenager when he took his first plane trip, but he’d been talking about it long before. Talking about it in his own Sammy way, that is. Deaf and with Down syndrome, my brother communicated with my parents and me using sign language for the things that were all-important to him—mostly food, like his favorite hamburgers and fries, but also paper and scissors and airplanes.
My brother and I grew up in Los Angeles, and our parents often drove us out to the airport to watch the planes take off. Sammy would put his first finger and pinky out straight and make flying motions with his hand for as long as we would stay. When I got my first job, which involved a great deal of travel, the whole family would come to the airport and see me off.
After one business trip, Sammy wouldn’t leave me alone. “Airplane,” he signed while I tried to unpack. “I had a wonderful flight, Sammy,” I said, sliding my foot into my slipper. My toes hit something, and I reached inside my slipper to see what it was—a magazine cutout of an airplane! That night we found planes under our dinner plates. Sammy piloted his hand over the serving bowls of mashed potatoes and peas, then poked his thumbs at his chest. “Understand?” he asked, using one of the few words he could say flawlessly. Sammy wanted to fly.
My parents and I discussed it. I wanted to make Sammy happy. But what if he got frightened in the air? How would I reassure him? Sammy couldn’t grasp abstract concepts. We could teach him about love by hugging him, but gravity was beyond his reach. I might as well have tried to explain what heaven was.
Then I heard about a 25-minute flight from L.A. to San Diego. I figured I could distract him for as long, and if the trip was a disaster, we could return another way. Mom encouraged me. “My instincts say Sammy’s up to it,” she said. “And you can visit the San Diego Zoo.”
I bought two tickets and tried to prepare Sammy for our big adventure. Mom and Dad drove us to the airport and watched us board the plane, Sammy with his backpack full of snacks. God, I asked as we settled into our seats, let this trip be a good memory for Sammy.
He sat stiff in his seat during takeoff, a bit surprised by the sudden vibration. I distracted him once we got airborne, not sure how he’d take to the feathery whiteness outside. When the flight attendant brought Coke and peanuts, Sammy could hardly contain his excitement, and 25 minutes went by without incident—except that Sammy asked “the lady” three more times for extra nuts.
In San Diego, at the zoo, Sammy named all the animals. I couldn’t tear him away from the sweet white lambs at the petting zoo. He patted the thick curly fleece on their backs and closed his eyes while one gave him a lick. Sammy balled his hand and crossed his arms over his heart. “I know, Sammy,” I said. “You love the lambs, don’t you?”
He talked nonstop about the animals until our plane took off for home. Sammy seemed braver on the return flight, pressing his face against the window once we were up in the sky. “Clouds,” he signed, making C-shaped hands face each other and moving them slowly to the right. Then he tilted his head and tucked his hands under his cheek. “Yes, Sammy,” I said. “The clouds are soft as a pillow. It’s very peaceful up here, isn’t it. Dreamy and peaceful.” The sun was shining bright and the puffy white clouds were backlit with golden halos. Can you get any closer to heaven than this? I wondered. Sammy patted my arm, and we looked out the window together. Our trip couldn’t have been more perfect.
Back in L.A. by late afternoon, Sammy told our parents about the lady with peanuts and the fluffy clouds. Then he put his fingers in a V and made a clipping motion up his forearm, for “lamb.”
“I loved the lambs most,” he signed, balling his hand and crossing his arms over his chest.
That plane ride seemed to satisfy Sammy’s curiosity and forever linked lambs and the clear blue sky in his mind. Over the next few years he continued to cut out airplanes, and he learned to draw them. When our mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1997, Sammy spent long hours on the floor with his paper next to where she lay on the sofa, drawing airplanes and cutting them out, his offerings to Mom. It was a hard year, with Mom in and out of the hospital, and it broke my heart that I couldn’t explain to Sammy that these were her last days. Eventually Mom went into the hospital. She died in November 1998, an airplane under her pillow from the last time Sammy had seen her.
Dad and I decided not to take Sammy to Mom’s funeral. Seeing her body in a coffin would frighten him, and we’d never be able to assure him that she was safe in heaven with God. But we were at a loss for words when Sammy asked when she was coming home. He had a picture of Mom he carried with him in his wallet always. He’d pull it out and stare at it, not understanding why another day had passed and we hadn’t visited her in the hospital.
One day, while we were out running errands, Sammy waved and blew a kiss as we passed the hospital. Dear God, how do I make Sammy understand?
At home Sammy got busy cutting out his paper airplanes, and I sneaked into the living room to sort through old photographs. Oh, Mom, I thought, Dad and I haven’t handled this well with Sammy. I couldn’t imagine how we were going to make things right.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned from the picture album. Sammy looked at me the way I look at him when I want his undivided attention.
“What is it, Sammy?” I sat down with him and asked.
He pulled out his wallet and flipped it open to the picture of Mom. “Airplane,” Sammy signed. “Airplane to the sky.”
What do I say now? Did Sammy think Mom had gone off and abandoned him? “Oh, Sammy,” I started, tears filling my eyes. But Sammy wasn’t upset. Or sad. He was calm, peaceful even. He patted my arm, as if he knew something I didn’t. Something for certain. Something I needed to know too.
“Mom is with the lambs,” he explained, “in the sky.” My brother waited for me to take it in. “Understand?” he asked.
“Yes, Sammy.” And I did. God had given Sammy the perfect picture of heaven.