I recall the first time I thought I was going to die. I was probably seven or eight and my family was driving in a big blue Astro van down a snowy interstate. My sisters and I were bundled in the back when the van hit a patch of ice and began sliding one way, then violently another, as my father jerked the wheel and let loose a torrent of fragmented obscenities. I threw my Ghostbusters sleeping bag over my head and wailed like a tormented banshee—I’m not sure why that was my chosen way of entering death, but we are who we are, and that moment revealed me to be a pretty big coward. After a tremendous battle, my father somehow righted the ship, and we cruised on as if driving away from Death himself.
We weren’t, though, and I found this out over the years through a handful of “near-death” encounters, some more serious than others. And I’m not being hyperbolic, either. We all have these encounters, don’t we? A car accident narrowly avoided or miraculously walked away from, a tumor caught early, a Heimlich maneuvered, and all these glimpses of ‘what-might-have-been’ and ‘what-could-have-been’ are actually foreshadowing of ‘what-will-be’, and hence they reveal so much.
Sure, this seems a dire topic, but it isn’t—we’ll die, all of us, but how we view it, especially when we catch these eye-to-eye stare-downs with it, reveals, in essence, what we truly believe about life and whether we are living consistently with that deeper sense of worldview.
And it happened again to me a few days ago—death came trudging up proudly sneering into my soul. It happened at 28,000 feet, me thinking I was finished. How many poor souls have had that fleeting sense of foreboding finality up among the clouds? Numerous flights have had me whisper promises to NEVER FLY AGAIN if this blasted air coffin touches safely down. Perhaps, you’ve been there too.
On this occasion, I did myself no favors. My pre-flight reading was Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers . . . Chapter 7 . . . the one about plane crashes. I read most of it just before boarding, and finished it just as the plane took flight. It was about this same time that I noticed the row I had selected for my wife and me to sit in—row 13. Add to this the concern and prayers for those involved in the Malaysian Flight tragedy, and I had a fatalistic mindset at the onset.
These factors meant little until the turbulence started. We rumbled through the killiyounimbus clouds, and the Captain—presumably drunk or asleep, or both—sounded the FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS AND PREPARE TO DIE chime. My wife gripped my hand tightly. Then came the ominous announcement from the cockpit: “Flight attendants, please take your seats.” In the middle of drink service too! Oh boy, that can’t be good.
“Are we going to be okay?” my wife looked to me for reassurance.
She had come to the wrong place.
“I’m not sure, honey. I’m just not too sure.”
If I had a Ghostbusters sleeping bag, I may have put it over my head at that moment and commenced with the wailing.
But then I remembered something I had noticed during boarding—there had been an off-duty captain on this flight. He was probably flying home after a day in the skies, and he had sat in the row behind us—he obviously knew to avoid the number 13—over across the aisle. I looked to him to see how a real man panics, yet there he sat totally unmoved by the shaking plane. His pilot wings were affixed to his navy blue shirt just over his heart, and that little plane held steady. He had readers on and was paging through a magazine, calm and serene as the cold blue sky out the window.
“Look at him,” I told my wife with a head nod. “He’s not worried.”
And as simple as it was, I wasn’t worried any more either.
I’m not sure what this proves, and perhaps it has strayed beyond near-death experience (whether real or perceived) into something else entirely. But I do know that the reaction of one who had been through all this before was a pretty good place to rest my own reaction. The turbulence shook us both, him and me, but it only moved one of us to fear, to doubt, to worry, to wild fantasy in which I plunged into the icy waters with a malfunctioning little yellow life jacket.
In that moment, I felt peace, though, when I looked on at a pilot who had become a passenger. He had the same tray table as me, and like my own, his knees hit the seat in front of him. He felt the same turbulence and had the same view. He, an expert in flight and aviation and all things planes, had become a passenger.
And that little image made me know the plane was all right, but it also made me okay if it wasn’t. I wouldn’t wail and grasp wildly for my final breaths; I didn’t need to. My worldview said that death had lost its bite for me, and it was proven by one who came and became a passenger in this same world as me. He rode along and dealt with all the same bumps as me, and many worse than me. He even crashed in the end, but proved the end was just the foundation of the beginning for the rest of us. And, no matter what turbulence breaks through the clouds of my life, peace comes not when I cower and wail and worry, but when I fix my eyes on him.
It is a simple image, and it is one I hope to cling tightly to the next time I think the planes of my life are crashing into the sea.