I’m fortunate to be the father of two magnificent kids (Courtney and Daniel) who make me proud everyday. Being a part of their lives on so many levels is all I could ever have dreamed of or asked for. This is a story about one of them.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said a softly feminine voice, tinged with a quiver of emotion. “We have a very special passenger aboard this evening. Her name is Courtney. She’s seven-and-a-half months old and the flight attendants on this flight have all become very attached to her. She’s a sweet and beautiful baby.”
Geri and I looked at each other, surprised to hear those words float so casually from the overhead speakers. The plane grew eerily still, its passengers attentive. The silence finally jarred by the mechanical sounds of the landing gear dropping into place.
It is this father’s prerogative to agree that Courtney was sweet and beautiful. Her radiant blue eyes sparkled beneath a smooth brow; her head was topped by long wisps of fine strawberry-blonde hair. She had a milky white complexion. Her smile seemed incessant.
Dressed in a new, frilly pink dress, Courtney sat cradled in the infant seat between us. That seat—yellowed, its padding worn and misshapen—had been her confines since she was born. She napped and slept in it, sitting up, its adjustable wire stand fixed to its most upright position. It looked odd when set up in the white, lace-covered wickerwork bassinet; the contrast between modernity and a more gracious past was startling.
We hated that worn seat. In some inexplicable way, it had been complicit in Courtney’s illness. She was not allowed to lie prone. We never got to tuck her in, other than to crudely manipulate blankets in and around the plastic straps that held her in a contraption that seemed medieval.
Outside, the twinkling lights of Boston grew closer, brighter. Its still-distant skyline was vague and undistinguished in cast shadows. Courtney was kicking her legs, her arms waving like a symphony conductor’s during a quiet passage. Her eyes darted about in that familiar yellowed glow, that semi-darkness of a night flight.
Boston, then as now, was a city rife with renowned medical facilities and a reputation as a place where miracles were served up as just so much routine. It offered promise, and we had come to collect.
Nearly eight months of extraordinary memories flooded my mind. Constant panic from sleepless nights and endless hospital corridors, emergency actions, and daily trips to nearly twenty specialists searching for what was wrong with Courtney. Nearly eight months of medical terror and uncertainty filled our lives.
Courtney, her two pediatricians announced along the way, was failing to thrive. At nearly eight months, she had gained less than three pounds since birth. It had been less than a month since her two pediatric cardiologists had discovered that she had multiple VSDs (ventricular septal defects).
“Courtney is coming to Boston from Los Angeles for open-heart surgery on Wednesday morning,” the plaintive voice continued. “And we thought that since there about 250 of us aboard the craft this evening—if we all sent out our good thoughts and prayers for her, we can pull her through this together.”
Geri and I never cried at the same time. It was a rule. One could cry; the other, offer comfort. It worked. But at that moment, we broke our rule, averting our eyes from each other to not see the tears. I remember staring numbly at the five tanks of oxygen under our row of five seats—grim reminders that at any moment, our baby could suddenly stop breathing. It had happened before.
A small part of our lives flashed before our eyes. We had met a lot of people during our journey—strangers with nothing more in common than sick children of their own with whom we bonded. Our friends and family offered hope and support. There were lit candles and prayer chains in churches and temples we had never visited. We knew people whose faith had been awakened by our pain, and others who, out of frustration and uncertainty, had abandoned theirs. Still others had opened their hearts and rolled up their sleeves to host a star-studded benefit at the Hollywood Palladium to help defray our medical expenses.
Dizzy Gillespie gave us the use of his suite at the old Copley Square Hotel. A local bookie familiar to the jazz world chauffeured us around in his ’67 Impala.
The doctors had been writing Courtney’s baffling medical history and we were fearful and anxious about the next chapter, which was to be written by one of only two pediatric cardiac surgeons in the U.S. who had any experience with the procedure. The odds were not good. Charlie, our bookie-chauffeur, would not have taken the bet.
We wondered if we might be returning to a home left cold and empty by the absence of a young life we were so eager to nurture. All the kindness and concern offered couldn’t balance with my thoughts of our daughter being stripped of a chance at life—running on the beach or eating too many hot dogs at the ballpark; flying kites or cuddling with a puppy; the scraped knees and hurt feelings, the cries of “higher” as I pushed her on the playground swing. Those are the slow-building memories that develop an adult perspective and provide for the enjoyment of success and the toleration of failure and disappointment. We wanted desperately for a chance of her growing up.
We were dazed, lost in our thoughts. But we could feel the warmth of a planeload of strangers that built faith not in something unknown and mysterious, but in the empathy of others, the humanity.
There was no rush to disembark American flight #11 that cold November evening.
Passengers who, ordinarily, would have hurried to meet awaiting family and friends, circled back from their seats to come meet Courtney and extend their good wishes.
Later, at the airport’s luggage carousel, a woman, perhaps too fragile or afraid to meet Courtney offered Geri the rosary beads she had received from Pope John Paul II during a papal audience she had had the previous summer.
On Wednesday, the switchboard at Boston’s Children’s Hospital was flooded with telephone calls from people wondering how “Courtney, from flight #11” was doing. Willing to put their very faith on an uncertain line, they wanted to know that their prayers and good thoughts had worked.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
Boston Baked Scrod
Scrod is young cod, so this can be made with codfish. Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston is where I first had this dish and I loved it. The next night I had it at Antoine’s. My take is to use crumbled fried onions rather than bread crumbs.
2 Tbs. butter or margarine
1 clove garlic
1 small can of Durkee’s crispy fried onions, ground
4, 4-6 ounce pieces of scrod or cod fillet
2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley
Heat oven to 450°. In a skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add garlic; cook until golden. Add ground onions and cook, stirring frequently, until lightly toasted. Remove skillet from heat.
In a buttered baking dish, arrange fillets in a single layer; sprinkle with lemon juice and salt. Press ground onions onto the fillets. Bake until fish is just opaque throughout, 10 to 15 minutes.
Sprinkle fish with parsley and serve with lemon wedges. Boiled potatoes with butter and fresh parsley are an excellent accompaniment, as is a rice pilaf.