Friday I got on a plane bound for Florida, for the third time in sixish months. It was the last time for some long time, I imagine, as my family had gathered to say our final goodbyes to my Aunt Marcia.
I had the usual anxiety about leaving town. The knotted worry in my stomach over leaving Lucy for an extended period, the sweaty dread of boarding an airplane. It made for an emotional week.
All business getting out of bed at 5 a.m. and going over a mental checklist, I jumped in the shower before anyone was awake. I had a lump in my throat as I put my cheerful five year-old on the bus and watched her drive away. Allen and I had been telling her I was going on a trip, (where’s mom going, Lucy? That’s right! Up!) so she was prepared, but I never am. Another pang upon kissing the top of Eden’s sleeping head, and Allen’s lips and then pulling away in the grown-up car with no child seat.
Whatever dread I do feel about flying disappears when I reach the airport. I just sort of dissociate and live outside of myself until takeoff (commence prayers, same liturgy every time, over and over) and then it’s the countdown until the cocktail cart rolls my way.
There were storms between Texas and Atlanta and I’d prepared myself as much as possible for the likelihood of turbulence, but we had a very smooth flight and so I breathed a sigh of relief. Too soon. The easy jaunt from Atlanta to Sarasota turned out to be anything but. Very bumpy. Flying at an odd altitude. Middle seat. Surrounded by clouds, no horizon to gauge height or direction. No f-ing cocktail cart. Taken by surprise during the usually easy leg of the trip, I spent the hour and a half with my head on my knees, trying to tune out every changing sound and fighting vestibular panic impulses.
After a less-than-smooth landing and a long wait at baggage claim, I picked up the keys to my rental car and stepped out into the thick Florida afternoon. Over to the hotel, grabbed a cool glass of wine, and sat down at the desk in my blessedly refrigerated hotel room to alert everyone there of my arrival, and everyone home of my safe journey. After 12 hours of going, I still wasn’t done.
My cousin Matt bought his first house last winter. His wife Shereen was very excited to have everyone over to show off her hard work. Our family descended on them all at once; my mom and dad, my Aunt Melanie and Uncle Mac, and cousins Bo and Jake. Shereen is Syrian, and takes hospitality VERY seriously, and we walked in to find both a lovely house, and beautiful appetizers, wine and homemade baklava. It was a nice reunion. Everyone caught up a bit, shared travel tales, did the house tour, had a beverage and then went their separate ways.
Matt and his son Adam went to finish wardrobe requirements for the memorial service. My mom had been ill, and was lacking her usual stamina, so she and my dad retired to their hotel. I hadn’t eaten since 6 am, so I went with my aunt, uncle and cousins to get supper. Despite our geographic differences, we are all foodies of a similar sort, so we ended up at a nice restaurant called Bijou and had a lovely meal that was by no means hurried. Replete, we finally parted around 10 pm and I wanted nothing so much as to make the hotel bed my bitch. After peeling my boots off and enjoying the air on my toes, I rinsed the travel off in the shower and crawled into bed.
What should have been an epic night’s sleep was restless and broken. When I finally settled into the sweet realm of complete unconsciousness, my alarm went off. So I got up. Snoozing would have made it harder. I pulled on long pajama bottoms and went downstairs in search of coffee.
I was reading a poem in the service. I chose it because my Aunt Marcia was what I’d call a “citizen of the Universe”. She was looking forward to exploring it in another consciousness someday. My Aunt Melanie had arranged the service, and had said something about me speaking a bit as well, and I hadn’t come prepared to do that. I knew she and my dad were both speaking and I didn’t think I could really hold it together if I spoke as well. So I pondered what I might say while I was showering and making myself up.
Dress, pearls, high heels. Navigation, church, family.
The chapel in the First United Methodist Church of Sarasota was really serene and the stained glass was plentiful and beautiful. My Aunt, Uncle and cousins were there first, I arrived, then my parents, my uncle’s brother, my second cousin Lyn, and some friends of Marcia’s. My dad looked tired. He’d pulled an all-nighter writing his eulogy, and he was worried that he would have a hard time maintaining his composure as a result of his exhaustion.
Last to arrive was my cousin Matt with Shereen and Adam in tow. He came bearing a large brown box. After hellos and hugs with everyone, we took our seats and Reverend McLelland began the service.
There was a pedestal in front of our pew. Upon it sat an enameled urn. Flowery cloisonne. It dawned on me that in the brown box had been the urn, and in the urn was what remained of my aunt’s earthly body. Up to that point, though I knew she was gone, my aunt’s physical self lived in my memory; lying in her bed, just having gone to rest, me holding her hand, saying goodbye to catch my plane, and us telling each other we loved each other. “So much,” she said to me, as I laid my hand on her hair, promised to call her the next day, and shut the door, unable to look back. I didn’t want to see the urn.
My dad broke up several times during his remarks. He made us all laugh, and cry, and he was truly his minister father’s son in his engaging and emotional delivery. My father has a great gift as an orator. It was more emotion than I’ve ever seen my father display. More than when he was drunk during my childhood and would plead with me to go to college. More than when he lost his mom and dad. More than when I moved out or got married. And my Aunt’s passing and his reflection on that event was the most humble I have ever seen him. My dad has always been the smartest guy in the room. He was regretting learning lessons late from my beautiful Aunt Marcia. It was a lot to take. And so gorgeous.
My Aunt Melanie spoke and her remarks were also beautiful. After the hymns were sung and the prayers were prayed and the tears were wiped and the hugs and handshakes were finished, we spilled out of the church into the relentless sunshine and humidity, and made our way to lunch on Lido Key.
Normally after a daytime glass of wine and a heavy Cuban lunch I’d lie down for a nap, and I had every intention of doing so. But I needed to write and get the angst of the week leading up to the trip and the service out of my body. I stripped down to my underwear, poured a second glass of wine and started this post.
Matt and Shereen wanted me to come over. Shereen’s friend Judy was bringing the hookah, and they wanted me to come hang out. I scrubbed my face, changed into jeans, and drove over. Cousin Lyn was there, and everyone was on the back porch, smoking hookah and dancing to something in Arabic. It was a nice way to restart a sad day with some social energy. Lyn started her drive on to her next destination, as she had some traveling to do, and the rest of us loaded up into the car and drove back to Lido Key for some night life.
We ended up at a place called the Daiquiri Deck. There was a wall behind the bar of at least 10 different daiquiri dispensers. TVs blaring, music pumping, young people everywhere. I felt like I was 20 years old. My Aunt Melanie, Uncle Mac and cousins Bo and Jake were there. I had every intention of staying out partying with my cousins, but after a hummus plate and a glass of wine, I was done in. I asked Matt to take me home. Because actually, I am not 20.
Shereen drove us back to the house and we sat on the porch for a bit longer, just visiting. When I got into the car to head back to my hotel, I was sad. Matt was my first best friend in the world. I hadn’t spent quality time with him in years. I didn’t know when I would again. So it was a poignant parting.
Even though I was tired, my mind was still busy. Allen had sent me a video of him and Justin and Lucy going bananas at our front door during what appeared to be a loud and violent hail storm. Afterward, I couldn’t reach anyone in my family, so I fretted and stayed up. I called my friend Melissa, who had sent me a photo of herself in the dark without power, wearing a ski hat because she was cold. In Texas in April. I knew she’d be up. I finally exhausted myself after an hour of conversation, showered, and fell into bed. This time, I slept deeply and without dreaming.
The following morning I had to drag myself out of bed. I had the kind of hangover that comes not from drinking too much, but feeling too much for too long. In a fog, I showered and dressed and threw all of my things in my suitcase, then checked out and turned in my rental car. I was very early to my gate at the airport. People were talking about the weather. Allen sent me a video of a tree that had been struck by lightning and fallen on our house.
I pulled up the radar on my phone. There was an ugly storm between Florida and Georgia, where I had a layover at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The same fast-moving system that had felled a tree at my home and covered our yard in hail. I felt my belly clench, and dug a bottle of pills out of my purse. I hate pills. I hate flying more. I bit one in half. When my group was called to board, I overheard the woman behind the counter telling the guy taking tickets that there was a tornado warning in Atlanta. I felt like I was walking the plank.
Our ascent was painless and only mildly anxiety-inducing. I stroked my St. Christopher medal, feeling the relief on the back of the charm, bumpy then smooth. The cocktail cart came just in time, and I topped off half an Ativan with a bloody Mary. Forty-five minutes into the flight, I was pretty sure I had solved the problem of my fear of flying. Not so.
Just as I was feeling comfortable and mellow, the captain addressed the cabin. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to turn on the fasten seat belt sign and ask that the flight attendants discontinue the beverage service. There’s a pretty good thunderstorm in between us and Atlanta and we anticipate encountering some rough air. We’re going to do our best to go around it, and we should have you on the ground in Atlanta on time, but it’s going to get a little bumpy for a few minutes, so please put your tray tables up and stay in your seats until we reach some smoother air.”
The flight attendants hustled to get the carts back to the rear of the plane. The cabin quieted down as we started to experience a few bumps and rough patches. I could hear snippets of whispered conversations. We were all hunkered down, just hanging tight until we reached the smoother air we’d been promised. Suddenly, there was an enormous, sharp crash and the plane shook. I saw a bright flash on the wing of the plane. We’d been struck by lightning.
I started to shake. I waited, paralyzed with fear, for a sound or an announcement or something indicating that we were damaged, but nothing came. There were no more whispered conversations. Everyone was silent. Everyone was gripping their seats. Eyes darted back and forth, searching for comfort in the faces of strangers. The man sitting next to me looked at me and said, “There is no point in feeling afraid. If it is our time, there is nothing we can do about it.” I sort of hated him.
It wasn’t our time. We landed roughly on slick tarmac in Atlanta. No one cheered. Somberly, we exited the plane. As I was nearing the door, the captains came out of the cockpit and confirmed to a shaking flight attendant that they had seen the lightning strike the plane on radar. She said she felt it hit the door behind her, so maybe the flash I saw on the wing had been a reflection. I continued on to my connecting gate, and sat shaking in my seat for the next hour. I could think of nothing I wanted to do less than get back on an airplane.
The other half of the pill. A glass of white wine. A comparatively easy trip from Atlanta to Austin. I was home and the sun was shining. As if nothing had happened, no terror, no grief, no 48 hours of emotional wrenching, I stopped at the grocery store and went home and cooked supper for my family.
Life is like that. Sometimes it grabs you by the balls and wrings you out and then deposits you right back where you were before. That is some confusing shit. I’d like to say I got some closure, and some much needed extended family time, but honestly, I don’t know yet. Sometimes, life goes so fast that you don’t know what you’ve got because there isn’t time to turn it over and look at it. It’s just a lightning crash and then a sunny day. Emotional whiplash. You just have to decide you’ll inspect it later.
JUST where that star above
Shines with a cold, dispassionate smile —
If in the flesh I’d travel there,
How many, many a mile!
If this, my soul, should be
Unprisoned from its earthly bond,
Time could not count its markless flight
Beyond that star, beyond!
–From Lyrics of life and love / by William Stanley Braithwaite [electronic text]
Braithwaite, William Stanley, 1878-1962.
Courtesy of the University of Michigan Humanities Text Initiative