A little before the Thanksgiving holiday, I was taking a flight back to the US to help a sister of mine as she was about to have a toe amputated. I would only be there shortly, but would be needed. Then I would also need to attend a wedding in Salt Lake. The timing had worked out so well to be able to help in both places. I was excited to be able to go.

My sister's story is one I should mention in more detail later (she wants me to share this), but please note that if one of your toes has a strange bruise under the toenail that slowly expands and doesn't go away for months, if may not be a bruise. Seven doctors over a 5-year period told her it was nothing to worry about, including a dermatologist who ridiculed her for thinking it might be cancer or something serious. Fortunately, she finally met a melanoma expert who was horrified to see all the classic signs of sublungual melanoma, the deadly cancer that killed Bob Marley. He waited too long before recognizing that it was something serious. For my sister, fortunately, it appears that the melanoma was caught in time and had not spread beyond the toe. Amputation of just a toe is a painful loss, but she has much to be grateful for.

I experienced a surge in gratitude a few hours before reaching my sister, and I owe this gratitude in large part to Delta Airlines. I was on Delta flight 582 from Shanghai to Detroit, excited to be moving and even more excited to have been given an open bulkhead row seat with spacious legroom thanks to a kind flight attendant after I realized that the extra legroom I paid for wasn't quite enough for my long legs. As the rapidly moving plane was just beginning to lift up from the runway, suddenly the brakes went into action.

It was a dramatic stop. My book on an open seat next to me was thrown to the floor. It was incredible to see how quickly we could go from take-off speed to a full stop with the impressive action of powerful brakes acting on each of 18 wheels along with other changes made by a remarkably expert crew. They executed a challenging operation perfectly, rapidly bringing the plane to a halt with amazing stability. I learned later that 4 people have to operate various instruments to make this happen. The technical effect was remarkable.

What had just happened was actually much more dramatic than just the exciting deceleration. It was disaster averted. See "Disaster Averted at Shanghai Airport Thanks to Fast-Acting Pilot." We would learn that as our plane was about to go airborne, another plane from Japan Airlines improperly crossed our path on the runway. To avoid a possible collision, our pilots hit the brakes. Their fast and expert reaction may have saved the lives of all of us on the Delta plane and those on the Japan Airlines flight was well.

Now emergency personnel need to check brake temperature to see if we were OK to try again. After an hour or so, we were told that the flight had to cancelled. Later I would hear that a tire had burst and that there may have been brake damage. We would have to go back to the airport, and it would take another hour to get clearance for the plane to move. Once inside the airport, we would find that we would have to exit through customs, a process that would take about 30 minutes, and then would have to start all over again to get a ticket and come back in through customs and security. Each delay reduced the chance of catching another flight. 

However, as I faced all these delays that would normally irritate the daylights out of me, I just smiled and felt a wonderful sense of gratitude to even be alive. Living with delays and frustrations suddenly seemed like such a great option compared to being a charred corpse on the runway, not to mention the horrific thought of my precious Chinese science fiction book smouldering and my Macintosh computer smashed beyond repair. 

I called Delta on my cell phone while waiting to get through customs to exit the airport, and was told that the next flight they could get me on would be the following day, too late to help my sister before her surgery or to drive her to the hospital. I wasn't frustrated, but had to keep trying, so I explained the medical situation I was needed for and asked if there was any other way. Mercifully, after a long hold, the agent received approval to move me to United Airlines. There was a flight leaving in about 90 minutes. And it was going directly to Chicago, where I needed to go, not to Detroit followed by a connecting flight. I had just enough time to catch the United Flight. In spite of all the delays, I ended up arriving in Chicago 30 minutes earlier than I would have with my original less expensive flights, and I didn't have to pay anything for the change. That 30 minutes ended up making an importance difference in my efforts to help my sister and her son that evening (time to buy some much needed food on the way). And in any case, wow, I was alive!

It's been a month since that event, and yet the effect has lingered, cropping up in surprising ways. Things at my work are difficult at the moment, and yet I find myself continually grateful and especially grateful for the people around me. Their weaknesses have grown smaller and their skills and contributions have expanded in my mind. I just did performance reviews for my little team and it was very hard to be critical and I found myself getting perhaps overly effusive in praise. Good for them! 

My love of science has recently led me to continuously reflect on the miracles of this world. My digestive system, the ability to hear, vision, the blood clotting mechanism, the incredible sci-fi-like transformer agent called the spliceosome in our cells that cuts and pasts chunks of DNA to create new and useful proteins far in excess of the number of proteins one would expect us to have, the structure of fruits, the bark of trees, the sun itself -- all these things cause me to marvel and rejoice more than ever as I contemplate the miracles and design of our mortal world. How is it even possible? I have so much to rejoice over, in spite of some reasons for sorrow and concern at the same time.

I hope I can keep this sense of gratitude. I know I've had near misses many times in my life, but somehow this event really triggered a new awareness of just how precious our time in mortality is, even though this is a rough time of trial and not our intended final destination. But it's great to be here and to have a chance to get some more things done in whatever time I have left. It's a precious adventure!

Thanks, Delta, and thanks primarily, of course, to the Lord for the many miracles and kindnesses we have been given, including the basic gift of life itself, however difficult it may be at times.
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