I’ve started and stopped this blog post ten times. A few times because I didn’t know if what I wanted to say would make sense to anyone but me. But mostly because I was worried about hurting other people’s feelings.
In the end, I decided to post it. This is my blog. It’s about my experiences. And truthfully, my feelings have been hurt a few times in the past week by well-meaning people who have made assumptions about what I needed to hear based on a 70-word post I put on social media. I don’t fault anyone for that — I am certain I am guilty of doing it to others. But in this case, I feel it’s important to share my side of the story.
Let me back up.
Recently, I flew home from a combined work and personal trip to the midwest. Once back in the safety of my house, I posted this on Facebook:
(That’s actually not a photo from the scary flight — it’s the flight before. The setting sun cast a gorgeous glow across a thick blanket of clouds, and it was beautiful.)
I always try to sit a row or two behind the wing. As silly as this sounds, it comforts me to watch the wing stay attached to the airplane. A superstitious part of me thinks that my vigilant eyes may actually help the wing stay attached. When I admit this to people, I joke that I assume there is another neurotic person on the other side of the plane watching that wing because I can’t possibly watch them both at once.
I’ve had two scary experiences on airplanes, which is pretty OK, considering that I’ve been on hundreds and hundreds of flights, thanks to a passion for adventure and a job that requires travel.
In 1998, I was traveling to London, and our plane hit an air pocket. The plane dropped, a flight attendant hit her head on the ceiling, and I don’t think I took a full breath for the remainder of the trip… though a mini bottle of wine from the beverage cart did help a little.
The second scary experience was the one that prompted the Facebook post. I was on a regional jet home from Detroit — a flight that generally takes 50-ish minutes. At an hour and ten minutes, passengers began whispering. It was a stormy evening, and the plane was also bouncing like mad, adding to the stress.
A few minutes later, I could see streetlights through the heavy blanket of clouds. We were close to the ground. Then all of a sudden, we were not. The plane rose abruptly, still bouncing. Five minutes later, we did it again. We were clearly aborting landings.
The whispering passengers got a little louder. I could feel my heart in my throat. In the absence of information, the brain fills in the blanks, and my brain was screaming, “something is wrong!”
After one more failed landing, the pilot came over the system and made his announcement. Next to me, a woman waited for him to finish, and then leaned over and said, “So what if this doesn’t work?”
“I know,” I replied. “I’d like to know there’s a Plan B.”
Of course I knew there was a Plan B. And probably a Plan C, D, E, and F. My head — and my flying experience — knew that the likelihood of our flight ending badly was low. But in moments like that, the head and the nervous system don’t always agree. In this case, the nervous system won. It began trying to convince my brain that this might be it for me.
Inside the airplane, it was incredibly quiet except for the roaring sounds of the engine. Even a crying baby became silent. People were holding hands and clutching armrests.
I looked out the window and confirmed the wing was still attached.
Before all this started, I had been watching a movie on my phone. I now looked at the glowing screen. I thought about the worst case scenario — a fatal crash — and wondered if my phone would survive. It seemed somewhat likely. It’s in a fancy LifeProof case, after all.
I opened up a blank email, typed Scott’s address into the To: line, and began typing.
I’m a do-er. I’m hardwired to act first, reflect later. It’s always the way I have been. This can get me into trouble, but it also can be comforting in times of stress. If I’m doing something, my mind is occupied.
So I composed a goodbye note. Just in case.
Even in that moment, I felt silly. So silly that I deleted Scott’s name from the To: line so it wouldn’t accidentally send and freak him out.
But I didn’t delete the note. I saved it as a draft. Because you just don’t know.
That’s the nervous system playing tricks. I knew it, but I couldn’t stop it.
In the week since this happened, people have wanted to reassure me that I was never in danger. I’ve had landing and emergency protocols explained to me in excruciating detail. All based on that 70-word Facebook post.
It’s no one’s intent to make me feel stupid for believing I might be in danger. Quite the opposite, in fact. The conversations have all come from a place of deep love and compassion.
But here’s the thing: you can offer me a PhD in airplanes and that’s not going to do a lick of good. I don’t need reassurance now. I’m on the ground. I’m alive. I obviously know it all ended just fine.
Imagine you have a friend who is in a car and is T-boned in an intersection. Maybe she manages to walk away from the accident with just a few scratches. She tells you the story, and says her life flashed before her eyes in those few horrific moments. And you respond, “Don’t be silly. The hot-stamped steel in your car is around 1,500 megapascals, and it’s designed to dissipate and redirect crash forces. You were never in any danger!”
Nothing anyone says now will erase what I felt on that airplane then.
But I have a bigger — and perhaps more surprising — point. This is what wasn’t on Facebook.
Real or imaginary, I had a near death experience. And I am grateful.
That’s right. I am grateful.
Because I have never had a moment like that where I have felt more peace with my life. I have never experienced that level of clarity about what matters and what does not. All of the B.S. dropped away. I thought about Scott. I thought about my parents, my brother and sister-in-law. I thought about my Grandma B, my in-laws, my extended family, and a few of my closest friends.
There were a good 15 minutes in which I felt true fear. That’s a long time. But I didn’t sit there, taking stock in life or making lists of things I am grateful for. The conversation in my head was not “Oh I love Scott… and gosh, I have good parents… and what else? Oh, Steve and Elizabeth.. they are great too… hmmmm… oh, I love the cats and would miss them terribly.”
It wasn’t like that at all. It was a tsunami of beautiful memories and emotions. I felt it all at once — all the love, all the gratitude, all the happiness.
It was amazing.
Perhaps most shocking to me are the things that never even crossed my mind. It didn’t occur to me that I have a job, much less what it is. I didn’t think about how embarrassing it would be for my loved ones to go through my belongings and find out how much crap I keep. I didn’t think about bills, my car, American politics, stupid people who have wronged me or any of the other things that cause stress on a daily basis.
I also did not think about some of the great things that, if I had time and a clear mind, I might identify as “My Life’s Best Moments.” I didn’t think about honors I have received, adventures I have experienced, or places I have traveled. I didn’t think about our beloved church house, quiet evening paddles on calm waters, or the beautiful places we have lived.
I thought about people. A handful of them. Everything else just fell away like oil running off a teflon pan.
Can you understand what a gift that is?
I felt no regrets. None. Not a single nanosecond was spent thinking “If only I had…”
Consider that I know now that if I die tomorrow, I die knowing — really knowing — that I lived a happy life. I don’t know if I could have said that with 100% confidence two weeks ago.
One of Scott’s favorite authors, Tim Kreider, wrote an essay about his experience being stabbed in the throat and nearly dying. I re-read it this week.
“I wish I could recommend the experience of not being killed to everyone,” he says. Nothing sums my feelings up better than that.
He goes on to talk about how, once the threat has passed, so does the clarity:
“Maybe people who have lived with the reality of their own mortality for months or years are permanently changed by it, but getting stabbed was more like getting struck by lightning, over almost as soon as it happened, and the illumination didn’t last. You can’t feel crazily grateful to be alive your whole life any more than you can stay passionately in love forever — or grieve forever, for that matter. Time makes us all betray ourselves and get back to the busywork of living.”
This week I got back to the busywork of living. I felt aggravation at work, got angry at someone who cut me off in a parking lot, and did a lot of stuff that doesn’t really matter in the long run.
I’ll get back on airplanes. I would have gotten back on an airplane the next day if I had needed to. My wanderlust outweighs my anxiety, and I am extremely grateful for that.
As long as there is a wing to watch, and people who love me, I am OK.