By Carina Ost
My teenage self loved cake so much that, in the middle of 8th grade, when the opportunity arose to teach a Core class on any skill, Christina, my friend and neighbor, and I chose cake decorating. We had no experience beyond the one from a can applied with a rubber spatula, but that world of pastry tips and bags seemed so glamorous.
On this particular day, the last day of the first month of the new millennium, January 31st, 2000, my mom stayed home from work. She kept saying that she just felt off. After school, Christina and I worked on our cake project that was to be presented the following day. I was used to having the house to myself but now my mom was there and so were a handful of her friends, so we retreated to my room to work. Lying on the carpeted floor, we glued pictures of cake with printed out instructions onto a giant tri-fold poster board with fragrant markers spelling out Cake Decorating on top in pink bubble letters.
My mom knocked on my bedroom door and interrupted our creative flow.
“That was Tall Jean on the phone.”
Grandma had a close friend that shared her name. She was Small Jean and her friend was Tall Jean.
“She didn’t want to worry me, but there has been a plane crash. It was going from Mexico to San Francisco and was an Alaska Airlines flight.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” I responded.
She made the connection for me. “Grandma was vacationing in Mexico.” Just a few weeks earlier was my grandma’s 73rd birthday and my uncle Bob and his family announced they were taking my grandma and her partner, Charlie, on a trip to Mexico.
I rolled my eyes and assured her.
“But it can’t be the same flight.”
My mom left and now I was feeling uncomfortable. I exited my room, pretending to go to the bathroom, but instead peered into the rest of the house. It was now full with my mom’s friends hogging the kitchen. They were cooking and attempting to calm her as the evening news showed helicopters circling the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Port Hueneme where pieces of a plane floated.
I quickly returned to the sanctuary of my room. Strong feelings of worry began to bubble inside, but had no release. I told Christina that we should go to her house to finish our project and we left with our poster. I stayed for about fifteen minutes, the whole time feeling as though I was hovering somewhere above reality, before I realized that I needed to go home.
I headed straight to my mom, who was sitting on the floor in front of the live footage on the television. As I sat down on the floor with her, everyone else became invisible and my floating feeling became grounded in reality, at least for the moment. She had called the number scrawled on the bottom of the screen. They weren’t able to confirm the passengers at this time.
She was on hold and my grandpa was on the other line. My mom clicked over to him. I could hear him; he never knew how to hold the phone correctly and would just yell.
“I just talked to the airline.”
“All of the names are confirmed.”
“They were all on the flight.”
That was all he said.
My mom said nothing but was furious at this confused old man and the words he just said. So was I.
A moment after she silently hung up with my grandpa, the airline called and confirmed that all of our family was aboard. This time it was real.
I had seen Titanic in the theaters more than any of my friends, a total of eight times. I knew that holding onto pieces of a plane was easier than icebergs. These helicopters circling would just swoop down and rescue them.
I felt a raw glob of emotion just starting to take form. More people arrived but no one knew what to do, outsiders were smushing me in in to group hugs with tears dripping on my cheeks, and I didn’t know if they were my own. My feelings were engulfing me and trying to breathe required drowning out the voices and people sucking up my air.
I did what teenagers do. I shut my bedroom door and I hid. I must’ve fallen asleep and when I awoke it was to an animalistic scream. I ran into the living room where my mom was again on the floor with the only light coming from the television screen. A picture of my uncle, the firefighter from South San Francisco, flashed on the screen. The crash of the evening rushed back to me in a feverous flight from my head to my toes. It wasn’t a dream.
Someone arranged for us to go to Southern California so we could be near the crash site. It was ironic to be on a plane only hours later, although, something about that hour flight seemed right. I liked being up in the air, where our thoughts were hiding and where our deceased family could be floating?
I remember the day where the rescuers moved from “search and rescue” to “search and discovery.” I didn’t know that it meant that there were no survivors. I clung to images of my uncle Bob, the firefighter, the mountain climber, the paraglider and the daredevil. Surely, he’d be the one to survive and save the rest of the family. If they weren’t holding on to some piece of wreckage, then surely they were on some island waiting to be discovered.
On the day when their fate was sealed, the rest of our small family arrived, from second cousins to people I have never met from New York and Chicago. Family and friends were again all around us, hovering like the helicopters above the waves of grief.
There were so many memorial services. We went to a military base where soldiers saluted us. At another service, freeways in Los Angeles shut down for us and police escorted our bus while news choppers filmed us. Organizers released 88 doves to symbolize the number of people who died. Another service let out 88 butterflies in unison. My family got to release five and the one in the envelope I opened held on just a little longer before it spread its wings and flew.
Rainbows appeared every time our family visited the beach. So did stories from locals about all how dolphins came and surrounded the wreckage. And how according to the natives, Port Hueneme means a “resting place.” Coast Guards flew above the crash site in helicopters and dropped hundreds of roses. Balloons with messages written upon them flew high above until they were no longer visible.
It was more than I could handle to be a part of something so beautiful, so tragic, so cosmic and so surreal that it still feels as though it didn’t happen to me.
I didn’t go to school for the entire month of February. When I finally returned, all I wanted was to share this cake decorating presentation to my class.
Christina and I were sort of prepared; we had our poster board, the pastry bags and cake decorations. Except that when we took the rubber spatula to the cake to spread the first bits of frosting, the cake started to break. The class laughed and I laughed for probably the first time in a month. Every time we tried to fix it with frosting, it got messier. When I attempted to add little dots or writing, the cake fell into pieces.
It was an example of how not to decorate a cake. I could do nothing but chuckle, though. After a plane fell from the sky and broke into pieces, I spent four weeks seeing my family completely devastated and yet somehow still functioning through the magic icing of togetherness. I witnessed my mother deliver a powerful eulogy titled “Shattered but still whole.”
This was just cake crumbling. Cake got me to open up to laughter after great loss. It made me remember that everything has layers. Gloppy, messy, rich and indulgent layers that make up the sweet sadness that still stays with me today.
At this time, 17 years after the crash, it is still just as sweet as it is sad. I will spend this death anniversary indulging in cake and tears. Lighting and blowing out a candle for the passing of time, the power of family and friends, and that thin layer between life and death.
Carina Ost is a food and memoir writer in Miami Beach who has been published in SF Weekly, Miami New Times, Forbes and Ravishly.