Hearts Over Cleveland
It was while sifting through a box of old love letters that I heard the Cessna buzzing overhead. I looked up and there it was, scrawled in white smoke and towering 5,000ft. above the places, we used to hold hands and talk about our favorite shows instead of watching. Some said it was a message of peace. Others said the pilot must've been drunk; there were some who said it was a cheating spouse trying to win a jilted lover back, but I never really believed any of those reasons. I'd like to think the pilot just woke up that morning, finished his coffee, and decided, against the backdrop of the rising sun erasing the night sky, to give the gift of love, pure and simple.
To draw a heart over Cleveland.
News Channel 5 caught up with the pilot a few days later, a middle-aged man from Beachwood named Bill Sutherland who used to fly commercial jetliners for Continental before they merged with United a few years back. He was laid off in the shuffle and now flew small cargo on contract out of Burke Lakefront Airport. Kurt Lance, the lead investigative reporter for News Channel 5, asked Sutherland point blank why he did it. But the pilot just smiled and said, "Doin’ what I can," and, with a wink for the camera, left it at that.
Northeast Ohio is one of those places where you take every ounce of hope you can get. The weather is variable, the sky is gray, and the people are skittish. Practically everyone you know is trying to make it out, make it big, jet set, and fly. Ask no questions. Never look back. They'll tell you they hate this place. They'll tell you it smells like sulfur and piss, that there aren't any good places to eat, that the city was better when Big Industry was around, and always make a point to bring up that one time the Cuyahoga River caught fire in the late 1960s. Its citizens live and die with its sports teams and cherish every sunny day like it might be their last. Given the right kind of lens, there's more hope than meets the eye in Cleveland, and I think that's why that pilot drew that heart in the sky: to remind us of the hope possible every single day.
They'd never say it to your face, but if given the opportunity, deep down, Clevelanders would stay forever.
The local TV stations continued to cover the story over the next couple of weeks. It was the NBC affiliate that broke the news Sutherland's mother and father had died in a car crash when he was ten in 1976. A few days later, the CBS station discovered the pilot's wife had died of pancreatic cancer three months before and that they had no children together. Within a matter of a month, the entire city was head over heels for this renegade romantic skywriter, who, despite all of this terrible adversity he'd experienced, was still going to bat for love.
I called him on a Thursday, just shortly after dinner. The voice coming out of the earpiece sounded groggy but I instantly recognized his tones from the news reports.
"Hello?" he said, clearing his throat a couple of times.
"Yeah, hi. My name is Jessica. How's it going?"
I instantly pulled the phone away from my face.
How's it going? Was I stupid?
But he surprised me by saying, "Fine, thanks. And you?"
"I'm alright," I said, but my voice must've wavered just enough for him to tell that was about as far from the truth as you could get. He immediately asked me what was wrong, and that's when I burst into tears.
I know it sounds crazy, but an hour later, Bill Sutherland and I were sitting across from each other at a coffee shop in Ohio City, staring into our drinks as if they were going to speak for us and casually avoiding eye contact. Bill tried to talk first but balked.
"You know," he said frankly, and then stopped and took a sip of his steaming latte instead, dropping his gaze to the graffitied table.
I fingered the sleeve on my drink and then lamely followed up.
"No, what is it?"
"Ah, nothing," he said dismissively. "It's just…"
And then he paused, and I thought I could see the same wavering expression I had felt over the phone wring his face in two.
That's when Bill Sutherland began to cry.
"She was everything I had in the world," he mumbled once he composed himself a bit. His eyes were red and his cheeks stained with tears. He dragged the undersides of his thumbs beneath his eyes to wipe them away and blew his nose in his napkin. It made a loud honking noise that made us both smile.
"I'm sorry," he said, but I stopped him before he could continue and told him there was no need.
"We all know what you've been through, even though I'm sure that must be weird." I thought that the last line was going to be funny but it only made me feel guilty.
Bill smiled politely enough and then continued.
"It spread to her lymph nodes. They say once that happens it's lights out, and, let me tell you, they're not kidding. By the time the doctors found it it was everywhere: in her lungs, in her brain, they even found cancer on the backs of her eyes. It does that through the blood. Can you imagine? Your own body becoming its own worst enemy like that?"
He paused to clear his throat and made a move as if to take a drink, but I don't honestly think any of the liquid touched his lips. He was staring off into space and set his latte down listlessly.
"At first, they said she had "a slim chance," which later turned into "a narrow chance" and ultimately "no chance." Nine months is what they gave us originally. Frieda, only made it three."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Mr. Sutherland," I said, unable to think of anything else to say.
"It's alright," he countered, flashing an unexpected smile. "It's not your fault. These things happen. Life gives us things and it takes things away. Everything ends on a long enough timeline."
I nodded, unsure if I should respond, but Bill kept talking.
"Ya know, I actually resented myself for the longest time for never giving her any children. Early on, it was about the money and my career. Both of us, really. We weren't in the right place to have kids. Pretty ironic that after all that work I ended up getting laid off anyway. The way of the world, I suppose."
He laughed. I didn't and picked at the glue holding my drink sleeve together with a little more.
"But by the time we finally did decide to have kids, we found out she had a cyst the size of a silver dollar paying rent in her pancreas. The doctors could remove the growth; it was benign anyway, at the time, but on their way out they scratched the lining of her uterus and made it impossible for her to bear children. Lawyers told us we should sue, called us day and night offering this figure and that figure. But, ya know what's funny?"
I had absolutely no idea and sat silently.
Mr. Sutherland laughed piously, "I never once felt a grudge against that doctor. Can't miss what you've never had, ya know? Frieda and I still had each other, and we agreed that if kids weren't in the cards then they just weren't in the cards."
"Luke used to tell me things like that," I said with my head down. I had on shorts and suddenly they felt a bit too high on my thighs. I tried covering them with my hands, but that helped very little.
"He used to say things would happen the way they'd happen and to not get too caught up in the present moment. I never understood what that meant until he was gone…"
Then a sharp emotion, like a high, hard wave, crashed into me.
"I still don't even think I understand what it means. And if I do, I take it for granted."
My shoulders slumped down in my chair as I hid my face with my hands to cover the torrent of tears streaming from my eyes. I sighed and accidentally wailed. I tell you, I nearly ran out of the coffee shop right then and there, but Mr. Sutherland, age lines worn into his face the way nice leather creases over time, he reached across the table and grabbed up both of my hands in his. He pulled them back down to the table and gave each a firm squeeze.
"I heard about Luke," he said solemnly, sizing up a quote about London and France etched into the tabletop that went about as you'd expect. "The story in the paper from a couple of years ago, I remember reading that and thinking what a miracle he was."
"Wasn't a miracle enough," I grumbled, tearing my hands from his and folding them across my chest. I was mad at him for saying that. That's all anyone ever said about Luke. But the only thing I could think was that Luke was a deserter. He'd given up, left me. Told me he was tired of fighting.
"Luke was a selfish prick," I blurted out, but my cheeks immediately flushed red.
Mr. Sutherland had this fatherly look on his face, the kind dad's give their daughters when they're waiting for them to finish throwing whatever tantrums they're in the middle of. It was disarming in a way and reminded me of my own father.
Wherever he was.
"You should be proud of him," Mr. Sutherland countered. "Not many people get the opportunity to run state, with or without a degenerative lung disease. Your boy was a miracle," he insisted and poked an old, bony finger down on the table to back up his point. "He may not have lived as long as you would have liked him too, but I'd be willing to bet Luke lived about as full a life as the next guy in his short twenty-seven years. And with courage, might I add."
I couldn't help but feel shame. Mr. Sutherland was right.
"Does it still hurt?" I asked without thinking. "Your wife passing?"
"Not nearly as much as my parents, but it still hurts, sure."
His eyes were threatening to storm over again.
"But that's not the point."
I coughed and sniffed my nose.
"What's the point then?
"The point is,” he countered, drawing a long breath, “that we're still here. That we're still able to feel all the joy and love the world must offer, even if we think we don't."
"Is that why you drew a heart over the city back in April?"
He smiled a soft, feather-light smile, one I could see start way down in his chest that rose like bubbles in a soda bottle.
"It was my wife's birthday," he said. "I had been feeling lonely and miserable. One of the cargo shipments I was supposed to take got canceled. Medical equipment from Puerto Rico. Would've been a pretty penny, too. The boss said some fickle bureaucrats in the corporate offices didn't set the paperwork up for one of the tariffs in time, so the order was never going through. That gave me a week with nothing to do except sit around and think about my dead wife and all the ways I missed her. I don't know about you, but that's one hell of a way to spend a week."
A woman in her early thirties, not so different from me, with long, blonde hair and wearing big, buggy sunglasses started giving the barista behind the counter the business.
"Can't you do anything, right?" she yelled at the blue-haired teenager, loud enough for everyone in the coffee shop to hear. "I mean, how hard is it to remember to put almond milk in a latte instead of cow's milk. I'm standing right here! It's not like it's your job or anything."
The woman turned and leaned her back against the counter, I'm assuming in defiance, as the barista corrected the mistake. She turned toward me and shot me a look that said, "Can you believe some people?"
It got me thinking about the way I'd acted toward mom after Luke had died. I'd made everyone's lives so miserable. I used to rag on her so hard for not making dinner the exact way I wanted it. I'd go out of my way just to do the opposite of what she'd tell me. She'd reach her breaking point, get mad, and start throwing things, which would make me even more upset. Thinking about it, I supposed we can all be cruel sometimes, even if we don't mean to.
"The heart was just a way for me to cope, something to do, ya know?" Mr. Sutherland continued, seemingly out of nowhere. "I can't tell you how many times I wanted to gas up the Cessna, crank the engine, and put as much distance between me and this city as humanly possible. Everything reminded me of Frieda. I couldn't walk down the block to catch some fresh air without seeing traces of her ghost in stupid stuff like store windows or stop signs. She used to drive this Honda hatchback, and I swear, for the first six months she was gone, every single one I saw on the road was hers, even if it wasn't the same color, and even with it sitting in the driveway. I had to get rid of the car after a while. It was suffocating me. You know what I mean? It was almost like living in a nightmare, and, for a while, it was easier than facing the truth."
I turned to look for the woman at the counter again, but she was gone and had already left. From where I was sitting I could see the blue-haired barista in the back being consoled by one of her coworkers.
"It happens to lots of people on their first day," I heard the co-worker say.
Realizing I had been staring off into the kitchen, I snapped back to Mr. Sutherland.
"The truth?" I asked. "That you were in pain?" I was trying my best not to cry again as visions of my mother chasing me around the house with remotes, keys, picture frames, anything she could get her hands on to throw at me stung their way into my mind's eye.
"The truth that no one knows how they're going to handle a situation until they're in the middle of it, even if they have fair warning," he said, shifting slightly in his chair. "That we're not always going to handle it the way we hoped we would. That we might, in fact, be failing."
I looked out the window, to our right, as a couple walking a frisky Chihuahua down the street grabbed each other's hands. One of the men leaned his head on the other's shoulder as they turned the corner down Lorain Ave. How many times had Luke and I walked city streets hand-in-hand like that? Too many to recollect. Too many to want to recollect. Even entertaining the idea was like leaning over a lion pit and poking the king of the jungle with a giant tasty meat stick.
"Frieda was everything I'd ever wanted in a partner, and at fifty she died too young. Not as young as Luke did, but you get the picture. Young enough to make you wonder how she would have spent the rest of her life, ya know; how many good moments there could have been in the years to come."
"I think about that every day," I said to Mr. Sutherland, and began to cry so hard it caught me off guard. "It wasn't fair. It isn't fair!" I stammered between sobs. "Do you have any idea what I have to do to just be alive every day? To keep my own mucus from suffocating me?"
I didn't even wait for his response. I just screamed, "Nothing!" and sobbed even harder.
A college-aged kid sitting at the table behind us looked up and I caught his reflection in the window. He looked concerned and probably meant well, but I quickly turned my eyes and leaned down toward the table so he couldn't see me.
Eat shit, is what I thought, and then hated myself for thinking it, drawing a huge sigh to pull myself back together.
"Luke had to worry about that kind of stuff every single day. Vibrating vests, inhalers, pills. People with Cystic Fibrosis automatically have diabetes, too. That meant insulin shots; he even had epilepsy."
Mr. Sutherland's eyes pleaded with me to stop, but he didn’t try to.
"And yet none of that held him back. You're right, Mr. Sutherland. He was a miracle. But I sure as hell wasn't. Most of us aren't. We're like that bitch at the counter too troubled over her latte to be nice to the barista after making a simple, trivial mistake. We'd rather peel back the skin on the world than be inconvenienced for two seconds. You know what I learned from Luke?"
Mr. Sutherland shook his head.
"That most of us don't even really know what inconvenience is. We're too busy arguing over the mundane to see the big picture. Inconvenience is not being able to travel without lugging around some gaudy $15,000 apparatus that turns a $50,000 medicine into a pulverized mist, you either breathe in twice a day, every day or die a slow, excruciatingly painful death. Luke saw the big picture; he had to, and I'd be willing to bet your wife saw it, too."
"Frieda was always a very carefree spirit," he said with a bit of a chuckle and a sip of his drink. It must've burnt his tongue because he recoiled and spat it back out.
"My drink's on fire," he said, blowing over the liquid to cool it down. In between blows, he said, "Like molten lava," and chuckled to himself again.
"What, not gonna blame anybody?" I asked, looking him dead in the eye, not caring how spiteful I sounded. "Not going to sue this place like everybody else?"
But Mr. Sutherland just waved my comments off. If it wasn't the barbed tone of my voice it was my pathetic, slouched posture in my chair. He could tell I was hurt. Instead, he asked, "So, Ms. Cross, why did you reach out to me? Surely it wasn't to cry hysterically in front of a total stranger for an hour." He must've thought that would make me laugh, but it only made me feel worse. I honestly hadn't even been thinking about that aspect of our little visit.
"I dunno," I said, looking back out the window again. "You just seemed like a good person in all your interviews. I heard about your wife and, man, this sounded a lot better a couple of days ago, but I guess I just wanted to tell you I'm sorry to your face like you might need to hear it or something."
And then Mr. Sutherland did something I really didn't expect.
He stood up and left.
But before he went, he came around to my side of the table, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, "You wanna know the real reason I drew that heart?"
He was standing over me, so I had to look up and saw that his eyes were watering again, but his face was stern, serious, grave even.
"Before my wife died, I tried to commit suicide. I blamed myself for everything and swallowed half a bottle of aspirin, a fifth of jack, and any hopes of waking up the next day. Well, I did. Thanks to my wife, who found me passed out in the driver seat of our Honda in the garage and her quick-thinking to call 911, the doctors could put Humpty dumpty back together again. Pumped my stomach and everything. I later found out the airline never originally had plans to fire me, but when they found out I tried to give myself the prescription, they added me to their list of expenditures and cut me like a sack of potatoes. Said I was a liability. Serves me right, I suppose. I was acting like one. I mean, there I was, this perfectly healthy 48-year-old man, great job, loving family, with still so much potential, so much room to grow, and the one person who stood by my side through it all was slated to die in three months' time."
"The morning I decided to draw the heart I had first decided I was actually going to kill myself. I'd thought about it for months; how I was going to do it. I was going to take off from the lakefront airport, give one final sweep of the city, and nosedive the Cessna into Lake Erie. Middle fingers to the sky and everything. In my head, it looked poetically romantic, like the samurai of the early Japanese dynasties. But when I got up there, in the plane, all I could think about was all people just like Frieda. People who had to rely on radioactive poisons as their best bets for survival; whose only options were to lose all their hair and watch as their bodies waste away to nothing but fragile outlines of who they used to be. I thought about all those people down there, and finally, for the first time ever, thought about what they might need, how bad they've got it, and what, if anything, I could do to help. And then I realized that it didn't matter what I did. These people, the Luke's and Frieda's of the world, they're already doomed. Sure, it's sad, but getting mad isn't going to help anybody. The best thing for any of us to do is to help ourselves, to carry on the legacies of the people we have loved and to be open and ready to love the people we have yet to meet."
"I thought about this city too, and how many times I'd tried to leave it; how much I used to trick myself into thinking having job where I travel all the time was going to cure this part of me that had somehow gone horribly, horribly wrong, as if people have certain trajectories and I'd fallen right out of mine. But, like I said, I already had everything. The traveling just made me lonely. What I never had was myself. Nothing was ever good enough, paled in comparison to the way the world was when Frieda was in it."
"All of those painful memories I saw walking around town? Those were on me. There's plenty of good everywhere if you look hard enough, and especially if you take the time. I stopped loving myself and, in turn, stopped loving everything else around me. It was my fault I wanted to kill myself, and it was on me to see that that never happened.
"So, I drew a heart, because I realized no one was going to make the world the way I needed it be but me."
And with that, he smiled down at me, entire face teetering on the edge of an emotion I couldn't quite pinpoint; a cross between sadness and clarity, if they could marry and reproduce. Then he gathered himself and said he was probably going to get another coffee for the road and if I'd like anything else.
I said, "No, this coffee is awful."
Chad W. Lutz was born in 1986 in Akron, Ohio, and raised in the neighboring suburb of Stow. Lately they’ve been seen gallivanting across the United States; running barefoot on the beaches of North Carolina, hiking rim-to-rim at the Grand Canyon, running out of water on the way down Pike’s Peak, and clocking sub-2:40:00 marathons like a boss. Professionally, Chad revamps people’s resumes as a freelancer in the digital job-o-spheres. They currently attend Mills College in Oakland California, earning their MFA in Creative Writing.