My brother-in-law, who flies planes for a living, tells me that no one can die in the sky.
“But people die everywhere,” I protest. “That’s the thing that amazes me most about death—how versatile it is.”
Matt wears his pilot’s uniform, brown and drab, with a glint of gold at the epaulets and a name badge with his airline’s logo below. Off-duty now, he opens a bottle of beer, but rests it on the counter as he explains: “Passengers don’t die in flight because there are no coroners on the aircraft. No one can be officially pronounced dead until the flight is on the ground and a coroner pronounces him dead.”
“But that’s different than a judge or a preacher pronouncing you wed,” I say. “Death doesn’t require a ceremony. People must die on planes, even in the full upright position, even with seatbelts fastened!”
“Not officially,” Matt replies, taking a sip, knowing how his calm demeanor rankles me.
“But actually,” I insist, “it’s not like we turn suddenly immortal at 30,000 feet.”
This argument has begun to resemble the falling tree in the forest. Trees fall—surely they fall—whether or not there is a lumberjack standing by to pronounce them felled, or picnickers seated on checkered cloths noting the time and place of their topple.
“Besides,” I say, “what if someone dies in flight, and there is a coroner on board, just by chance—a coincidental coroner?”
Matt laughs at me, at my refusal to let this, like so many other matters, go. “Still out of jurisdiction,” he says, shaking his head. “Still not dead.”
Two months after my father dies, I board a plane for the first time. Usually, I would have flown at least once in that time span—work often keeps me aloft—but I canceled everything to be at home with my mother in the aftermath.
It all seems the same, habitual: the wee-hours drive to the dark Economy parking lot, the efficient roller bag hauled out of the car, the brisk walk to the terminal, eschewing the shuttle van that circles like a hawk. The wait in the security line, shuffling forward in the TSA pre-check line, my smugness of preferred status hidden by the blear of little sleep. The cheerful good morning to the officer who scans my boarding pass, gives me the yellow card that says I’m safe, not a threat, can go right through.
It’s only when I’ve gotten my coffee, filled my water bottle, and settled into my accustomed seat in the waiting area that I feel it: something’s not quite right. The last two months have been a blur of funeral arrangements, banking snafus, bills and more bills, social security appointments, lawyers, and the gentle handling of my mother who does not yet understand the depth and mystery of her loss. My own grief has been tucked away to the sidelines, behind the barriers, a small voice waving a flag at the parade: look at me! So far, I have not really glanced in that direction—medicated as I’ve been, the citalopram and clonazepam creating a mesh to hold everything at bay.
When my flight is called, my hands begin to sweat, my heart pounds. I merge into the boarding line, lift my collar against the cold as I stride to the plane that waits on the tarmac. It looks so small, too small, to hold all these people. We’ll somehow willingly pack together in this steel tube, shoulder to shoulder, and I’ll be alone in the midst of strangers, my breath breathing theirs, the invisible hairs of my upper arm bristling against someone else’s flesh.
As the plane taxis, gains speed, I close my eyes, grip the armrest, feel the tears welling, the catch in my throat at liftoff. I’m seeing it all so clearly, on a running loop, those last few minutes at hospice house—still not dead, still not dead—then that final, shuddering intake of breath, a gasp so powerful it hauled me along—my mouth so close to his mouth—dragged me into my father’s dying body, attached there, hooked, so did he go alone wherever he was going? and then the pronouncement: he’s gone.
In the 2005 film Flightplan, Kyle Pratt is a recently widowed woman flying with her small child from Berlin to New York City. The coffin bearing her husband’s body is stowed with other cargo beneath the plane. As they travel to America to bury him, the child mysteriously disappears.
“It’s supposed to be quite a thriller,” I say. “All the action takes place on the plane.”
In response, my partner flashes me one of her knowing smiles. “And of course it doesn’t hurt that Jodie Foster’s playing the lead.”
All right, I admit it. I’m watching for Foster, for the hard line of her jaw that holds sadness in it already, but sadness keen and bright as a blade. She fights back against her grief, even when her body isn’t moving. We don’t feel sorry when we look at her. No pity allowed. And what was Jodie, I had long mused, but a sharper version of my own name—still simple like Julie, but not as easy—a punched-up, de-frilled, and un-flustered form.
Kyle falls asleep on the long flight and wakes to find her only daughter missing. The flight attendants report they never saw the girl, that the seat beside her was always unoccupied. The daughter’s boarding pass, the daughter’s backpack—gone. The viewer finds herself wondering, What would I do? My face can cut through nothing—not even red tape, nothing. A call to Berlin confirms the girl died along with her father. There is talk of a death certificate, of confusion, hallucinations. By now, Kyle has begun to doubt herself, to question if perhaps her grief has won. By now, I have begun to twist my hands into strange hooks, tipping forward in my chair as if clarity will come more quickly this way.
But then she sees a small heart traced on the glass. Her daughter drew that heart on the window before she curled into sleep. Kyle remembers, and so do we. This is a woman who will not bury the living with the dead, who will not be subdued into sorrow. Her jaw set firmly again, she presses the call button. She rattles the overhead bins. She refuses to return to her seat even when the captain illuminates the sign.
This is the story: When I was a newborn, my mother flew alone with me and my 2 ½-year-old brother to California. I pictured it this way: my mother holding her infant daughter in her lap, giving her son the window seat so he could fog the window and make finger patterns during the long flight. It took about 7 hours in those days, the heavy plane chugging through various weathers on its way to the opposite coast.
I imagined my mother alone with her children while my father took care of things on the ground, supervising the big move. Perhaps she thought about the life she was leaving behind: her family, the Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up, the trees she’d seen flourish in the city air. The island of Manhattan. The subway cars. The window displays at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. She held her daughter in her arms, a baby so good she rarely cried, simply turned her head and began sucking on her shoulder when she needed a bottle. The daughter absorbed all her attention, so she couldn’t be too sad at what she left behind and might not be too nervous about what lay ahead.
But naturally I have it all wrong. That story is apocryphal, full of exaggerations and embellishment. Of course my father sat right beside my mother all along; he would never let her fly alone with two children. And I must have been much older than a newborn, as my mother recounts me eating overcooked vegetables off the food tray: string bean after string bean gummed in my mouth, keeping me occupied for hours. Even now, I love canned string beans, French cut, and will eat them with my hands when no one is looking.
Still, no matter how hard I try, I can’t bring my father physically into the picture, cannot feel his warm body next to ours, can’t remember him leaning shoulder-to-shoulder with my mother as he read the paper, or tried to watch the movie on the tiny screen bolted high up in the center aisle. He probably ate the peanuts in their tiny bag, ordered ginger ale for my mother, took his turn bouncing my brother on his lap or walked him through the plane, smiling at the other passengers. I know he held my mother’s hand in his—their hands one strong knot protecting the good baby. He squeezed her hand at take-off to assure her we’d all be safe no matter what we might encounter mid-air, whatever the future might bring.
I was old enough to remember my first flight, but just barely. The summer I turned six my parents took me to Disneyland—our only vacation for which a car would not suffice. This was 1985, and we flew Delta from Sea-Tac International to LAX. I recall, or think I recall, my fascination with the Delta “widget”: a red triangle broken apart, a thin wedge of light like a midriff showing. It reminded me of a puzzle or a game I had played before.
Because there were pictures, which my mother dutifully placed in our great green binder of an album, souvenirs she pressed into a scrapbook (ticket stubs from Magic Mountain, a wristband from a fireworks show), I remember the trip more vividly than the flight. We kept evidence that it really happened, that we were really happy—evidence that we could show our friends.
Like how my father taught me to jump into the deep end of the hotel pool, which was shaped to resemble Mickey Mouse ears; how he was there in his red trunks treading water, waiting to catch me if I needed him to, though soon I could swim all by myself to the wall. Like getting hiccups on the spinning teacup ride and feeling a keen delight at the way these words echoed each other—hiccup and teacup. I kept repeating them. They were “sister-words,” I said. Like the last day when the thermostat at the San Diego Zoo reached 116, and we were sick from the heat, all of us, wilted and nauseous on the tram. It was the first time my tan skin flared red and refused to cool down, even when my mother soaked me in the tub and added ice cubes from a mysterious machine in the hall.
When I try to call to mind the airplane now, I can see it, but as if through a dense mosquito net. The tickets are thick like cardboard in my father’s hand, not the flimsy, onion-skinned paper of now. My mother mentions something about how pretty the stewardesses are, with their smooth navy skirts and high-heeled shoes, some with long fingernails painted Delta red. She tells me, “They have to keep their figures, or they won’t be able to fly.” I sense a hidden warning in it, something I’m meant to file away for future use.
On board, there are two seats on each side of the aisle, which means my mother sits beside me, my father beside a stranger. This arrangement persists in everyday life and cannot be challenged. I belong first to my mother, the way most children do. Still, I lean forward and try to flag my father’s attention. Always friendly in his salesman’s way, he has already struck up a conversation with his neighbor. That logo again: peering at me from the seat-back, the menu, the nametag on the pretty woman’s lapel. Perhaps I recognized my own family in it, three of us parsed into two.
“If only I had a sister,” I call to my father across the body of my mother, her tray table, her hot tea, her Redbook magazine. He nods. He has heard this suggestion before. “She could make us—” but which word did I reach for then—balanced? perfect? square?
“‘Flight’ has been, since the 13th century, used to mean ‘a group of things or beings flying through the air together,’ whether birds, airplanes or angels (‘Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest…,’ Shakespeare, 1602)”—The Word Detective
In flight, as a verb, as in fleeing, as in going away, feet barely touching the ground. Or in-flight, as an adjective: in-flight entertainment, in-flight meal, in-flight announcement. Or Flight as a noun, a possession: your flight, my flight, when does your flight get in? Or a sampling of wines in small cups, from light to dark, from young to old, grouped together for comparison, for nuance, for identification.
A friend tells me: my daughter asked me to massage her back, to see if the wings had started to grow.
I wanted to be a stewardess so badly. For the hat. For the sash. For the badge on the left breast sprouting wings. I wanted to live in flight.
I wonder if my brothers sometimes forgot they had a sister. For decades, I was the one who went away. We never called each other, couldn’t imagine chatting on the phone. There may have been a sister-sized hole inside them.
I’m on planes so often my body sometimes forgets itself. I’m in two places at once. The stewards walk the aisle, up and down, with their heavy carts, commanding watch your elbows, watch your knees!
When we hit some turbulence—as we often do in the puddle jump from Bellingham to Seattle—the seat belt sign glows steady. The captain’s voice assures us: just a rough patch here, folks. Please keep your seat belts fastened until we reach the ground.
In the Judaic tradition, when a person dies, you’re commanded to immediately open a window to allow the soul to depart. We do not picture it clambering over the windowsill. No, it flies.
I used to live on the West Coast; now I live on the East. This means I am always confused about the location of the sea, the movement of the sun. I used to wish for siblings, pray for them, even though they never came. This means I earned my lonely designation only child. I used to see my parents daily, later on weekends and holiday trips home—eventually, not at all. This means I am always bracing for the never again.
In school, we learned early on about the fight-or-flight response, and I knew I wasn’t born to be a fighter. Despite the big red boxing gloves and punching bag I pined for, despite every plucky heroine who learned to stand her ground, I looked around in search of bright green exit signs. I studied maps, transit schedules, blueprints—plotted my escapes like revenge.
After school, we read our horoscopes from a magazine our Christian church condemned. My friend said, “Oh, look, Virgo is an earth sign! This says you know how to stay put, how to grow where planted, how to wait for the thing you want most.”
She was a Libra, the sign I thought I should be, and I had a bad case of astrological envy: Airy people are smart thinkers and handle abstract reasoning well. So what—she was going places, and I wasn’t? Wings, not strings! I’d rather be a seraph than a marionette any day. April merely tossed her hair and sighed: Why don’t you just say “angel” and “puppet” like normal people do? At the very least, I wanted a catapult to launch me into the wild blue.
My father, who worked twenty years as an industrial engineer for Boeing: “Before you board a plane, ask if it’s an Airbus. If they say yes, don’t get on and demand a refund.”
“But what if I’m already on the plane?”
“What in God’s name are you doing on a plane that Boeing didn’t build?”
It was almost a joke, and yet it wasn’t.
Later, I married a Gemini. She isn’t flighty, like her sign forecasts. In fact, she doesn’t care to fly at all. Now when work takes me away from home, I sing softly as I dress in the dark: So kiss me and smile for me, Tell me that you’ll wait for me, Hold me like you’ll never let me go.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re leaving on a jet plane…” She falls back to sleep like it has all been a dream.
Today I watch a grainy video of John Denver singing that song two years before I was born. He wears small glasses that reflect the light and smiles at the audience as he remarks, “I like to fly a whole lot…The only aspect of flying that I don’t like is when you have to leave somebody you care for a great deal.”
Ditto, John Denver, ditto. How I wish I didn’t know that in twenty years, your small plane is going to crash off the California coast, that in twenty-five, my small family is going to crash over the way my heart is wired. That I’m going to leave them on a jet plane, not knowing when I’ll be back again, or if. That forever after, the nearest exit will always be behind me.
I’m a Pisces, forever lost in water. I’m no good on earth, and I panic in the sky. My element commands me to flow, to liquefy, to dissolve. My mother, on the other hand, is a Virgo. She is solidly set on the earth, believes there’s a reason, a “why” for everything that happens. I tell her there is no “why,” only what is. In her worst moments she throws things, knocks her head against the table, cries help me! She wants a way out, but unfortunately there’s no emergency exit for this kind of pain.
In a few months I’ll fly with my mother to New York to visit her sister, who is 86 years old. We’ll see cousins and children of cousins. None of them were able to make it for my father’s funeral, scheduled as Jewish law decrees: within two days of death. I don’t know how we’ll bring my father to the party. We’ll eat a lot of food, and I hope my mother and my aunt will reminisce about their husbands: my uncle gone for years, my father gone, by that time, just six months.
But before that, we’ll need to land at LaGuardia, find our rental car, maneuver through New York traffic to my aunt’s house on Meadow Lane. And before that, we’ll need to fly above the continent, the roar of the jet engines creating a cocoon in our ears, blotting everything out. Before that we’ll need to board the plane: me holding my mother’s arm as she carefully steps down the aisle. I’ll give her the window seat, so she can look out at the clouds. I’ll listen carefully to the safety lecture, noting with renewed interest the instruction to put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others.
But before all that we’ll be in the waiting area, my mother swinging her feet like a child. Before that we’ll drive to the Vancouver airport, showing our passports, crossing the border from one country to the next. And before that—we’ll be buying the tickets online, choosing our seats. Just two seats. We’ll turn to one another, her hazel eyes mirroring mine. She’ll be afraid to fly without my father, the first time ever traveling without him. I’ll think about the pilots, how they always look so handsome in their uniforms, so buttoned up and in control. What’s the worst that can happen? I might say. No one ever dies in the sky.
Brenda Miller is the author of 5 collections of creative nonfiction, most recently An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016). She co-authored Tell It Slant: Writing, Refining, And Publishing Creative Nonfiction, and The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University and Associate Faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her collaborative work with Julie Marie Wade has also appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, Kenyon Review, and Rappahannock Review.
Julie Marie Wade is the author of four collections of prose and poetry, most recently Catechism:A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016) and SIX: Poems (Red Hen Press), selected by C.D. Wright as the winner of the AROHO/ To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Julie teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus. She is married to Angie Griffin and lives on Hollywood Beach.