Several weeks ago I experienced something that has taken me until now to figure out…to talk about.
Returning from an event in Hartford, CT, I was on board an airplane that experienced depressurization. What does that mean exactly?
First…the mechanics. Airplanes are pressurized to accommodate the humans on board. At extreme altitudes, earth’s air pressure is much lower. This means that oxygen molecules are further apart. Each breath in, brings in less oxygen than is necessary to function. If air pressure remains low for any period of time, humans will pass out. Airplanes are pressurized so that when the airplane is at high altitudes, the folks on board continue to breath normally and feel no ill effects from the diluted oxygenated air that is outside the plane.
When a plane becomes depressurized, it is not a good thing for the passengers, but really not a good thing for the pilots. The pilots are, after all, responsible for guiding the airplane. Should they become unconscious…well…the outcome is obvious, I think.
We had just reached a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet, when my ears began to pop…rapidly and uncomfortably. Like small jackhammers or repeated pop guns…not like the tell tale one or two pops you experience on board a plane as it rises or lowers, but a repeated kind of pop, pop, pop. I reached my hand up to “adjust” my ear when the oxygen masks fell from the ceiling.
Quietly…they descended. As if in slow motion and with little urgency they just dropped. Not like the dramatic scenes I had seen in countless scary movies when the plane is tilting to and fro and people begin screaming…they just dropped, with a kind of gentle clicking sound. I think if they had been able to talk they might have quietly said, “Oh, here I am.”
I looked to the passenger next to me and we did as had been instructed on all those videos that I had never really paid attention to…reached up and placed them on our faces. She looked at me…her eyes wide above the plastic mask and said, with little fear or panic…”Are we crashing?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
And then the plane began to descend dramatically. The nose dropped and the plane shook as it headed “south.” The metal rattled and the items in the overhead shifted with the angle now taken as the plane rapidly headed down. The flight attendants came on for one brief minute and instructed everyone to be sure to put their oxygen mask on.
Now if this sounds awful and scary and you are wondering why I would possibly be sharing any of this with you…well…hang on…because it actually gets kinda beautiful.
I had been using the internet on my cell phone to check messages and so, as the plane rattled and shook I very calmly group Imessaged my kids. “The plane is experiencing mechanical difficulties. I don’t know what’s happening, but I do know that I love you both with all of my heart.”
The reality, folks, without being overly dramatic, was…I thought I was falling to my death.
Now grim as this may sound, let me tell you. After I had settled the “love message” to my kids and been sure to communicate that to them…I settled in for my end. For several minutes, (truth be told, it could have been three or ten…time lost all meaning) I surrendered to the fact that in moments I would be dead.
And unlike the movies where people are crying, screaming and holding on to one another, there was a peace like none I had ever experienced. I’m not kidding. Like NONE I had ever experienced. I was present in a way that I had never known really. And to try to give this experience words, simply is impossible. Just know that when I was facing, what I perceived as my only moments left before death, I knew peace, surrender and contentment in a way like I had never known. It was magical, mysterious and beautiful. There were no tears. No regrets. Just complete and utter surrender…to It. Peace. Breath. Presence.
At 9,000 meters, the pilot let us know that we were going to make an emergency landing in Charlotte. We could now take our masks off and he briefly explained what had happened and that in fact, the plane had done exactly the right thing in descending dramatically as it had done. We had to get below 10,000 meters so we could breath….so HE could breathe. And as odd as this might sound…for one very brief second, I felt sorrow. Weird, right?
Assimilating this experience back into my life has taken a while. That night I went to dinner with a friend. We talked about the trip…little about the incident. But in hindsight, I remember nothing about our conversation. I was stumbling through our meal, in a weird kind of suspended state of shock.
For some time after the incident, I had a hard time focusing. Scattered doesn’t come close to what I was experiencing day in and day out. I was having a difficult time deciphering what really matters. I mean, after all, as the plane is going down (my perception of course) all I’ve got is the moment I’m in. That’s it.
That’s all. This moment.
For a couple of months after the incident, I was dealing with an intense amount of anger and depression. All the things I’ve ever fought over, argued over, had to have and had to accomplish, simply lost their power…because as I was swirling to my end…I realized I couldn’t take any of that with me. All I’ve got is this…whatever this is.
But now…here I am…in a new place. I am experiencing this new, joyful and faithful kind of surrender to the swirling chaos of this beautiful thing called life. Whether on an airplane or living until I’m 90, I am swirling to my death. This is not to sound pessimistic, morbid or dramatic. It’s simply the truth. We are all falling or rising to our eventual end. I think now that I’ve seen it, come to peace with it and understand that there is really nothing to fear (even the process of it) has made each day something to behold…each minute actually. This is it. This is all I’ve got. All the things that mattered have simply moved into grayscale, the background, the backseat.
And so…I think I will bring love to each moment and be at peace with what each moment brings to me…because that’s all I’ve got. It’s really pretty simple.