| This is the 278th story of Our Life Logs |
I was born on a cloudy day in Columbus, Ohio in November of 1956, the sixth of seven kids in my big Italian family. Growing up, there was always a lot of noise, a lot of love, and sometimes a little confusion since there we so many of us under one roof. My dad made enough money to support us and although we never had a lot, we did have enough. My parents would always tell us to be good and honor God and our country, and so I grew up wanting to do the right things for the right reasons.
When I finished high school in 1974, I went to Ohio State University and joined the Air Force ROTC in the spirit of doing right for my country. I enjoyed every minute of college and ROTC. After graduating as a Civil Engineer 2nd Lieutenant, I was stationed in California to help the Air Force in Logistical Readiness.
Still, I had a bigger dream. I wanted to become a pilot. I kept this a secret from everyone because I thought people would find it impractical with no tangible road to get there. But I did dream of flying so high that I could touch the sky. I had a feeling that once I got to the sky, the clouds would open their arms and blue would enfold me in a miraculous, life-changing embrace. But life moved on, and while I still wasn’t flying or licensed as a pilot in California, I did meet the love of my life.
Renee was a tiny, dark-haired, blue-eyed officer who was working in Combat Systems. She was full of life, joy, intelligence and had a sassy, dry humor. She turned me down eight times before she agreed to go on a date with me. We only dated three months before I knew I wanted her to be my wife. I wanted a big family like I’d grown up with, and when I pictured the mother to all my children, it was Renee, clear as day.
But life and duty interfered. Within six months after we married in 1986, we were both stationed to opposite ends of the country. It was hard to be away from her, but we made the best of it. Every reunion—no matter where we met up or how long we had together—we told everyone we were on our honeymoon because, in our eyes, we were!
After four years apart, we were both assigned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where my personal mission became getting my wife pregnant. As luck and love would have it, we didn’t have to wait too long. On May 10, 1990, Renee gave birth to our black-haired baby boy Luke. We were overjoyed to have him in our lives. Every time he whimpered, I’d scoop him up and rock him in my arms. While he slept, I would just stare at his fingers and toes and marvel that we were capable, with God’s help, of producing such a perfect little boy.
During our pregnancy, Renee and I were fully aware of the disturbances happening in Kuwait and the Middle East. It was no surprise that in 1990, just six months after Luke’s birth, we were both ordered to serve in Operation Desert Storm. I was to go to Kuwait to work with Americans and our allied troops on combat logistical readiness and my wife was to be stationed in Iraq.
I don’t know if it is manly for an Air Force Officer to cry, but I really didn’t care one way or the other. I cried when my wife left two weeks before to help in Iraq, and I cried when I had to leave my small baby in his crib who was sleeping like an angel. They were both my world, but they were also the reason I was ready to fight for my country, no matter the orders or where I had to go. Ultimately, I wanted to keep them safe.
My mission in Kuwait was almost complete when I was called into my Commanding Officer’s headquarters. I assumed it was to go over my discharge paperwork to cycle home, but instead, I had been called to his office to be informed that my son was dead. In the military, death is expected, but not off the battlefield, not my son. Why my son?
Luke had been fine when my mother-in-law put him to bed, but when she came to check on him in the morning, he was cold to the touch.
I didn’t speak for weeks. I had some kind of shell-shock reaction, numbed by the news. I don’t remember the flight coming home or Luke’s funeral. But I remember Renee. It was Renee that held me when I couldn’t stop crying, and it was Renee that held my hand when I couldn’t speak. No matter what I needed, somehow Renee would sense it and be there. And no matter what Renee needed, somehow, I would sense it and be there for her. There is no word to describe such a strong wife and husband connection, but there should be.
Renee and I were never the same. I watched most of Renee’s sassiness and joy fade away, and she watched my strength and resolve recoil. I didn’t even know if I had any reserves left inside me. We were quieter. Softer with each other. But we still loved immensely, and in 1992 we found out that Renee was pregnant again. We were a mixture of terrified and thrilled. Hearing this good news after two years of grieving brought a spark back to my life.
I felt motivated to do something about my airplane dream again. Why? I can’t say. I just knew it was a missing piece. I knew that it was a piece of my past that I needed to reclaim. I went off by myself at night, rented a hanger, and started buying parts for a glider airplane that I could put together and eventually fly. I needed it now to make it through this pregnancy and birth. I started attending flying lessons three days a week and working on the plane. I told Renee about my plans, and she told to do whatever I needed to cope.
On January 8, 1993, Renee gave birth to another perfect baby boy with curly blonde hair who smiled the very second we saw him. We named him Mark, and we knew joy once again. I don’t remember who fretted more or checked on Mark the most, but I do know we drove our pediatrician to the brink of retiring. To say we were overzealous and careful would be an understatement, but we all survived, and so did Mark.
While one dream came true with the birth of Mark, another dream died. Renee’s obstetrician told us that Renee would never have any more children and that Mark would be our one and only child. We absorbed the hit and silently pushed the dream of a large, boisterous family into the never-will-be world and moved on. We were grateful that we had Mark. He filled our hearts with love and joy.
I continued to build my glider plane and take pilot lessons. When Mark was four years old, I became a licensed pilot and had finally built the glider plane. I lovingly named it Luke and was ready to fly it. When I said fly, I really meant soar. I wanted to soar so high, so quietly, that I might touch the sky or hear the voices of angels. I might even be able to feel Luke there.
I soared the sky to feel his presence and sometimes I would get so close I could almost touch him, but then it would fade away and I would quietly land my plane only to tell myself I would try again next week. Yes, next week I would get it right.
For the next fifteen years, my wife and I quietly and proudly raised Mark, and eventually moved to Houston, Texas where we both worked as teachers in different schools. I built two more glider planes; each one was named Luke. There was Luke 1, Luke 2, Luke 3, etc. and that’s the way it would always be.
Life continued, as it does, each morning eventually fading to another evening, that sunk into another quiet moment before sleep. I was sure to take Renee into my arms and reflect on our lives together. Back when Luke died, I used to think that if I would have been home and holding him in the safety of my arms, he would have never died. That’s probably not true, but I can’t change how I feel.
On a hot August day in 2018, I decided to take up Luke 3 and touch the sky. As I climbed higher and higher, I realized I was hearing something. I strained my ears and tilted my head, and it was then that I felt Luke. I smelled him. Twenty-nine years later I can still remember his smell. I knew he was in the plane with me and more than that, I heard angels singing around us and the presence of eternity.
No one may believe this and sometimes when I think back, I am not entirely sure myself. But at that moment, Luke was with me for the first time in almost thirty years. The angels I heard singing were the very ones I knew had carried him off to their world from mine the night he died.
I have never feared death. Soldiers may fear dying but usually not death itself. Because most of us understand sacrifices are made, lives are lost, and brothers and sisters die in combat and events when one is in conflict. But now I know, I have nothing to fear when I die even if it is in our double hammock in the backyard reading a book. Because I have touched the sky and know angels reside there with Luke and all the other family and friends I have loved and lost.
This is the story of Scott Hettinger
Scott resides in Houston, Texas with his wife. As a young adult, Scott dreamed of becoming a pilot and soaring the sky but didn’t know how to get there. It wasn’t until the death of his six-month-old son Luke and the birth of his son Mark after the death that he found the strength to pursue the dream to cope with loss and the pressure of raising another boy. Since then, Scott has built multiple planes named after Luke, and when he’s in the sky, he swears he can feel his deceased son’s presence. Scott loves to participate in faith-based marriage retreats which he says makes him an even better husband. Both Scott and Renee are volunteer members of one of the Natural Disaster Red Cross Emergency Response Teams. Scott also loves swinging in the double hammock he built for him and Renee to sit in while they read, have book discussions, and plan future family trips. He and Renee love to travel. Both carry Luke’s small baby book and some of his personal items so no matter where they go or how long they stay, Luke is with them in spirit and knows he has never been forgotten and is loved very much.
This story first touched our hearts on February 25, 2019.