My scary airplane story


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Sky symphony' photo (c) 2007, Kevin Dooley - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Fine. I’m ready to tell it. But only because it’s Halloween and you people keep pestering me to spill it…and because maybe this will count as therapy. 

***

“They have a flight manifest that includes everyone’s seat number,” said the middle-aged lady next to me. “That’s how they identify the bodies.” 

In her lap was a red, heart-shaped pillow that had postoperative instructions for heart patients printed on its side. She squeezed it each time the airplane lurched or shook, which was about every 5 seconds. 

This body here is in 18C; must be Mrs. So-and-So,” she went on, imitating the voice of an imaginary, far-too-cavalier search and rescue officer. “That’s how they do it, if there’s anything left, of course.” 

Lightening flickered outside the window and the sensation of falling returned yet again.  Someone behind me whimpered in fear and I could feel my blood pressure rising. 

“That most recent crash in San Fran wasn’t so bad, though,” my seatmate went on. (Think Melissa McCarthy’s character in “Bridesmaids.”) “Just a few fatalities if I’m not mistaken.” 

I wanted to rip that pillow out of her hands. 

It’s all about your seatmate, isn’t it? 

When you fly nearly every week you know exactly what to wish for: A compact, recently-bathed person who smiles as you take your seat, listens to music or sleeps as you fly, and makes pleasant small talk as you land. 

You also know exactly what you don’t want: the evangelist, the dude who won’t stop barking instructions over his cellphone even after the cabin door has been closed, the lady who for some reason processes fear by chatting casually about death. 

But I had no one to blame. This was Southwest, School Bus of the Sky. I’d picked my own seatmate. 

Pretty much everyone on the plane had been gripping their armrests for last 45 minutes.  We were in the final hour of a 3 ½ hour, late-night flight from Phoenix to Louisville, Kentucky and had begun our descent….or so we guessed. The flight attendants and pilot had been silent for at least an hour. 

“You know, statistically, you’re more likely to die in a  hippopotamus-related incident than a plane crash,” I told the lady, citing some internet resource to which my mind was clinging at this desperate hour.  

“Seems like the odds would change depending on your proximity to the plane or the hippo,” she replied. 

Which is exactly what Dan had said. Damn it. 

I never used to be afraid of flying.  I never used to be afraid of anything, come to think of it. But something happened about the time I turned 30 and now thoughts of tragedy, death, and destruction occupy my thoughts. I’m afraid of cancer, of airplane crashes, of terrorism, of tornadoes, of tsunamis, of choking, of that weird mole, of losing Dan, of losing my parents, of losing my sister, of war, of flesh-eating bacteria, of living smack dab in the middle of THREE nuclear power plants (thanks a lot, TVA), of there not being a God, of ceasing to exist, of having kids which will mean having even MORE people to worry about, about everything. I didn’t used to be this way. And I wonder what changed. 

My faith? 

My physiology?

My experience? 

My TV viewing? 

Outside a storm raged. Louisville received nearly 6 inches of rain that Saturday and multiple thunderstorms.  (Later, a lady who flew in hours earlier with Delta told me her pilot said theirs were the last flight allowed in.) I’d just finished speaking at a the Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention in San Diego and was on my way to speak at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Louisville the next morning. 

I decided to try talking to the guy across the aisle who had been using the plane’s spotty Wifi to watch a football game on his iPad, which meant we were kindred spirits.  He was a graying businessman with a calming presence who for some reason made me feel more secure, perhaps because I’m a horrible feminist who needs men to feel safe, or perhaps because anyone’s better than a recovering heart patient who has made peace with her own death. 

“Do you fly often?” I asked, trying to keep my voice from shaking. 

“Every week,” he said. “Louisville is home.” 

“Is it always this….bumpy?” 

He laughed. “Definitely not. But about every six to eight weeks I have a flight like this that makes me reconsider my line of work. Too much flying.” 

In my head, I started composing an email to my agent explaining why I had to cancel every appearance on my calendar. 

“The good news is, we always make it home,” Mr. Businessman added, sensing my anxiety. “You have to remember this is just another day at the office for this pilot.” 

We chatted for a while and I found myself relaxing. When we hit another patch of heavy turbulence I focused on taking deep breaths. Mr. Businessman rested his elbows on his knees and concentrated on the floor.  I can say with some confidence that everyone on the plane was either scared or medicated. 

Rain streamed across our windows as the plane descended. Finally, a few orange lights blinked from beneath the clouds and within seconds, we could see the runway. 

“Thank you Jesus,” I breathed. 

But Mr. Businessman looked concerned. 

Sure enough, seconds before we should have landed, the plane suddenly pulled back up into the sky. 

“I think we were coming in a little high,” Mr. Businessman said. “The UPS building wasn’t in the right place.” 

“You mean we’re going back up?!” I demanded. 

“Looks like it.” 

This is when I began quoting from the book of Job and cursing my speaking agent for getting me into this mess. It’s also when I realized that the lady next to me had fallen asleep, the heart shaped pillow lying loosely in her lap. 

Maybe once you've faced death, you learn to accept it. 

After about 5 minutes of flying to God-knows-where, the pilot finally started talking to us in that weird, overly-casual tone pilots always take when announcing a flight ETA or informing passengers of their impending death.  

“Uh…. ladies and gentlemen….from the flight deck….uh…. your captain here.” 

Long pause. 

“As you can see…uh….we haven’t landed. We’ve got some heavy rain here in Louisville and…ugh…. wouldn’t you know it? My windshield wipers broke.” 

I’d only known Mr. Businessman for 30 minutes but I could tell he wasn’t buying it.  

So we circled around and tried it again, and sure enough I lived to tell the tale. When the wheels hit the runway, everyone applauded and it occurred to me in that moment that maybe human beings just weren’t meant to fly; maybe we’re pushing the limits of what God designed us to do; maybe it’s not a good idea to live in such a way that not falling from the sky to your death is an occasion for celebration. 

When I got to the hotel I couldn’t sleep. It’s amazing, really, how your body continues to pump adrenaline even when you’re safe. 

I read an article once that said when a human gets stressed, her hypothalamus sends a message to her adrenal glands and triggers the same response her very distant ancestors would have experienced upon getting chased by a tiger.  The article said that even if we’re just running behind on a deadline or confronting someone at work, our bodies still think we’re getting chased by a tiger.  

It may have been a bunch of bunk, but it sounded true to me. Some days, for no good reason, my body thinks it's getting chased by a tiger.  

I suppose I should end this story with a reference to 1 John 4 about how perfect love casts out fear. But I think maybe that’s a reference to how love keeps us from fearing one another or fearing God’s judgment,  not about how love keeps us from fearing death by fiery plane crash. In fact, sometimes it seems like the more l love, the more awful and dreadful it is to face the inevitability that everyone I care for will experience pain and suffering in their lives. Everyone I love will die. And I will die too. No exceptions. 

And, frankly, God has yet to prove definitively, and to my complete satisfaction, that the afterlife thing is taken care of. 

I wonder why this didn’t bother me before, why the message is just now getting sent to my adrenal glands. 

It’s nice to know that Anne Lamott hates flying too. She likes to tell the story of how once, before an international flight, she asked her church for prayers to keep her safe from hijacking, and engine malfunction, and snakes, and her pastor Veronica said, "Once you get on the plane, it's a little late for beggy prayers. That's when it's time for trust, and surrender."

Perhaps the lady next to me had been reading Anne Lamott. Perhaps surviving heart surgery had taught her to let go. Perhaps that’s why she released her grip on that pillow and just surrendered to the flight and nodded off to sleep. Perhaps she knew that ultimately, love demands surrender. 

…Or perhaps she was just really heavily medicated. 

I should have asked her for some drugs.  

***

(See also: “Why I Don’t Witness to People on Airplanes”

***

Okay, I know everyone’s got one. What’s your crazy flying story? Ever sat next to someone strange? (I’m going to share Dan’s crazy seatmate story in the comments…because it’s WEIRD!)

Also, what do you find yourself fearing these days? Do you find you grow more fearful as you get older? Why is that? 

And finally, what are your thoughts on Xanax? 

 

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