How does it feel? Everybody wants to know. How does it feel?
When I saw the photograph of the 9-year-old Dutch boy, Ruben van Assouw, who was the sole survivor of a horrific airplane crash in Libya last week that killed his mother, father and brother and 100 others, it felt familiar. He looked a lot like I did after surviving an airplane crash as a boy — the same black-and-blue eyes, belying our calm, matter-of-fact expressions. I was 11 when a Cessna carrying my father, his girlfriend, the pilot and me crashed into an 8,600-foot peak during a blizzard. In the end, I was the only survivor and had to make my way down a steep, icy mountain to safety, a nine-hour ordeal.
“I am fine … I just want to go home,” Ruben told the media.
I get that. I couldn’t wait to go home and play with the kids on my block. I just wanted things to be normal again — or as normal as possible. I didn’t understand, or couldn’t bear to understand, why people were taking my picture and asking me so many questions, or why they cared so much.
“What else was I supposed to do?” I’d felt like asking the various reporters stuffing microphones in my face. “Not try to get down? And no, I don’t know why I survived the impact of the crash and my father did not.” I did know why I’d been able to navigate that merciless mountain. My father had spent years teaching me to stay calm under pressure — “cool in the pocket” as they say in football and surfing — and I understood ice, snow and mountainous terrain from skiing the backcountry with him. Ruben won’t have any concrete explanation for his survival to lean on.
I went right back to school and tried to wheedle my way back into my old life by playing with friends. I ignored or made light of inquiries about the crash. Each and every day, I spent most of my time and energy protecting myself from facing what I’d been through. I played it down in every way I could.
But it started to wear on me. And this is something Ruben will have to deal with. He’ll have to do something with the pain and the grief. Luckily, I got back into surfing, the sport my father taught me to love. That gave me a lot of joy and confidence, and, ultimately, connected me back to my father, making the loss of him less bleak. Gradually there evolved a silver lining: Surfing, riding waves, this skill he’d taught me, this gift, was keeping him alive in some way, allowing him to continue to be there for me.
I was also lucky to have a godmother who supplied unconditional love and gave me license to grieve. I hope Ruben’s aunt and uncle will play this role for him. Even though I kept my turmoil private and projected an air of “I’m fine; what’s the big deal?”, I wasn’t really fine. It was my godmother’s quiet but steadfast acknowledgment of my pain that created a safe space for me to cope and remain stronger than the ever looming, potentially crushing, sorrow.
I anticipate that Ruben will be encouraged to process the grief and pain with a therapist. In my time, it was not as embraced as it is today, and I believe I could have greatly benefited from psychotherapy. Not until I was 29 years old did I finally seek counseling, and it really helped me heal, because surfing could only take me so far.
Ruben is special. Not even 10, he has endured two of the most monumental experiences a person can ever go through: the loss of a parent and a close look at death, his own mortality. I hope he is given the time and guidance to navigate this road to healing. In the bat of an eye he’s been forced to grow up, a young boy facing the journey of a far older man.
Norman Ollestad’s book, “Crazy for the Storm,” tells his story of surviving the 1979 plane crash in which his father died.