Last night, I was sitting at a bar drinking gin, talking to a couple of strangers about death. Somehow we had gotten onto the subject of plane crashes and I said I had recently talked to someone who had been in one and had to open the emergency exit door and he had said that he wasn’t scared during the fall, only after. And this guy at the bar said that he had been on a plane that got struck by lightning that then fell 10,000 feet and that he too didn’t feel scared during the drop. In fact, he felt an eerie sense of calm, and only panicked once it was over and they had leveled off.
He said it was odd, but that no one talked about it. The pilots, the flight attendants, even the passengers. No one said a word. But that as the plane was going down, people started screaming, and just as many of them lit up cigarettes. Imagine, you think you are plummeting to your death, and your first impulse is to smoke.
And then he told us another story. He was flying back from a custody hearing. His marriage had fallen apart, the judge had just given custody of his kids to his ex-wife and he felt like his entire life that he had spent so long building had crumbled and he was left with nothing. Sitting on that plane, it hit him that he had nothing to live for, and he decided to kill himself.
Only then, then. The plane hit horrible turbulence. And in only seconds, his entire outlook changed. Faced with the sudden real possibility of death, he thought only one thing: that he didn’t want to die. Maybe he would find love again. Maybe he could build a new life. No matter what happened, he wanted to live.
Later, I performed a dramatic reading of one of my favorite poems (To His Coy Mistress) to yet another set of strangers (“but at my back I always hear, time’s winged chariot hurrying near…”).
Later still, I went with some friends to see an exhibit of preserved dead bodies. One of them (a body, not one of my friends) was holding a tennis racket, stretching up towards an invisible tennis ball. I said to one of the docents, “I bet he never even played tennis when he was alive.”
This all seems like I was facing my death fears, but really I was cheating. It all seemed theoretical. I was discussing things academically, but not really considering that I, one day, would be nothing but one of those dried pieces of muscle and tissue.
I don’t think today is the day I’ll ponder that reality either.