Flying into the Ring

by | Dec 13, 2017 | Venus & Mars Go Sailing | 13 comments

In my last post, I reflected on moments in nature that felt transcendent to me. I listed many of them, but one, though very much in my mind and heart, I did not, could not, write about. Until now. It’s been a long time coming.

Decades ago, for not-quite three years, I was married to a man who, among his many talents, was a pilot. He owned a much-loved ’53 Cessna 180 and in it we flew to our small weekend getaway, to see his mother in Arizona several times each year from our home in east-central Texas, to geology field trips, down to the Gulf coast where we plane-camped and he fished, and to the New Mexico mountains on the occasional ski weekend.

One late summer day in 1997, flying east, back home from Arizona, while just south of the Guadalupe Mountains of west Texas, in the distance we saw two thunderstorms building. I assumed we would divert around them. But, no, he said, we’d hold our course and scoot right between them. As we approached the darkening storms, the sun and the rain converged in such a way that rainbows formed – one arching above and one swooping below – from the thunderheads on either side. Flying into the heart of the perfect circle made by those rainbows was a deeply transcendent moment in nature.

I have no picture. But in my mind, I hold the picture of those moments – flying into the ring – moments that have come to define my time with the brilliant and adventurous man who was my husband. I can see his blue eyes sparkling, his mischievous smile as turbulence began to jounce us along. And despite the fact that my hands, sweaty with fear, gripped the edge of my seat, and I fought waves of airsickness, I will never forget the gift of flying into that ring, both that particular moment and every moment, even the painful ones, of our marriage.

You might think that I’ve come to idealize this man that I adored, and it’s tempting to do so. But I believe I honor him, and our love, much more by remembering the whole of him. He wasn’t perfect, and in fact, he struggled mightily, particularly with alcoholism. Though he wasn’t in denial of that struggle, privately, he never revealed it publicly. And I feel sure, if he was here now, he would be less than pleased that I’m writing these words and putting them out in the world, perhaps for his friends and colleagues to see. But being with him made me more courageous than I was before, and it’s important to say these words, because alcoholic was not the only person he was. He was an engineering geologist who had worked all over the world, a leader in his profession, a mentor to many young geologists, a professor at Texas A&M University, an avid student of science and history, a lover of music, a photographer, a sailor, a pilot, a son, a father, a grandfather, a friend – and my husband.

Though, in years, he was quite a bit older, in spirit, he moved through, and over, the world with a youthful wonder, curiosity, and boldness that changed the way I have moved through the world myself ever since.

NormanJust a few short months after flying home that day, he perished on a November night, beside his plane, in the Texas hill country. He flew that night, despite the potential for icing conditions, because his students were waiting for him for a weekend field trip. They could have waited. But he did not. I doubt he even considered it.

And so began the most difficult journey of my life – a month-long search for him, and then a years-long passage through grief.

Now, decades past, I hold the joy of being with him closer than the pain of his loss. I look at the sky this clear New Mexico morning, see the startling blue of his eyes, and feel him with me. I know, in my cells, that love does not die, though the beloved does. And I am most grateful for flying into the ring.


On this day, twenty years ago, Norman Ross Tilford’s body and his plane, were found by a hunter deep in the Texas hill country.

To the family, friends, colleagues, and Civil Air Patrol pilots who searched for him with me – you will always have my heartfelt thanks. 

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  1. Garry Maurath

    Very wonderful!

  2. Angie Bussell

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. judi Pringle

    Beautiful Deb!

  4. Sara Eisenberg

    What a courageous post and magnificent tribute to your relationship. As writers I think we have moments where we are capable of sensing something like that ring – sometimes we miss them. Sometimes we turn away. Sometimes we turn and fly directly into life. Thank you for this piece.

  5. Gary

    Beautiful story Deb. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Julia Turney

    A beautiful piece (or peace) of writing ❤️ I wouldn’t have guessed it has been 20 years.

  7. Scott Burns

    Powerful essay! Also, a special date in history – I remember the story so well. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Irene

    I echo Sara’s comments. Yes, thanks for sharing this time in your life. Hugs….Irene

  9. Jane

    You have posted a beautiful tribute to the whole man that was Norm. Painfully arrived at, may your words and thoughts bring peace to you, and to many of your readers. Thank you.

  10. Tami

    I love reading your writings. He made your light shine bright. You are an amazing lady.

  11. Jennifer Bauer

    I am inspired by you and learn so much about life because you are willing to share your experiences. I feel grateful to have these opportunities and am excited about how you can use your writing to inspire and teach others too! In this post, you have found a way to capture years of personal growth into a few well stated paragraphs. Thank you for sharing it all.

  12. Ed Miller, PG007

    Just read Flying Into The Ring. Well done! My last experience with Norm was a ride in his plane that included my wife and daughter. As both a sailor and pilot as well as an engineering geologist, It was always really easy to enjoy Norm’s company.
    Whenever I spent time with Norm, I came away inspired.
    Thank you Deb for the trip down memory lane.

  13. G. Stirewalt

    Deb … I have read this Story-From-The-Heart over and over many times since you sent it out. It is so personally moving to me that even now I hardly know what to say about all that I feel it eloquently and powerfully expresses. Having known Norm, I can see all you described about him as you and he flew into the storm ring. I was so deeply touched by this very personal eulogy to Norm, who was an exceptional engineering geologist among many other facets, and the courage it took, I know after much healing time, for you to write these words. Blessings on You for opening your heart and inner feelings for all of us who care about you. Thank you for all of the gifts you share in your writings.


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Geologists study the earth and the processes that shape it. Writers study the human heart and the processes that shape it. The GeologistWriter builds a bridge between the two. Come across it with me!

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