February 27, 2010
Who would you most like to sit next to on a long plane ride, dead or alive? A Short Story
The last book I read before I died was, The five people you meet in heaven, by Mitch Albom. I could really relate to the amusement park maintenance guy. I did not feel like I had accomplished anything in my life and did not value what I had done.
Now it was my time to go, and I guessed that I would soon find out from the five people I would meet in heaven, the meaning of my life. Unlike Eddie in the book, my death wasn't a horrific accident while saving a little girl. My death was quite ordinary for a middle-aged man, fallen out of shape and out of energy. It's a familiar story to many people these days. And with high cholesterol and blood pressure it didn't surprise me that I died of a heart attack while lying on the couch reading this little book.
The pain was incredible. But even so, I've been through incredible pain before and had developed a coping mechanism and acceptance of pain. Like when I had a hernia, that was painful, and I could not walk. But I managed and pulled through. This time I guess I did not pull through the pain. But then again, it's not the pain that killed me was it? I'll blame my death on the lack of exercise and poor eating habits over the years.
This is where my journey begins. I'm not going to talk about the people I left behind, and how my death affected them, because that's like looking at a train wreck, and standing there stunned. I'm still speechless, because I feel sorry for those that have to deal with grief and loss, while still living. They have this kind of a dull aching feeling that makes a person question the meaning of their own existence. I would say that I'm still alive though, because I certainly still feel alive.
Anyway, I don't really remember watching my death from the ceiling or witnessing my own funeral like we've all seen in the movies. I just remember being somewhere else. After I died I found myself standing in the airport waiting to board a plane. I seemed to be late. Evidently the other passengers were already on board, because I was standing there alone waiting for my turn.
I did not have any bags to check. When flying I always travel lightly anyway, knowing that whatever I absolutely need at the other end, I could get there. Metaphorically speaking, even though I have a lot of stuff in my life, I don't think I would be devastated by losing it all in a fire. I'm more upset that my poor wife is burdened with disposing of all of the books in my library and the bicycles I rode and my motorcycle, and art supplies. I hope she just hires the used-book store to come and make her an offer on the whole lot of books. She's definitely not going to read my copy of the Qur'an or the Kabbalah or even the dozens of science-fiction fantasy books I have read.
"John, John," the voice interrupted my thoughts. "It's your time to board," she said.
"Ok," I said, feeling kind of silly for wanting to ask where this plane was headed. I am not one to shy away from adventure anyway, and love the process of discovery, so I guess it didn't really matter if I knew for sure. Besides, I was dead, so I could guess where it was going, although I questioned the mode of transportation. I stepped confidently forward and walked down the tunnel to board the plane. I was curious if the five people I'd meet in heaven would be on this plane. It seemed logical to me. I was also curious who they would be.
The first person I met was the Captain. The captain was definitely an angel. There was a radiation of love and energy coming out of him, engulfing me as I came close. I was not worried about the safety of this plane. Once, I was flying back from California on a work-related trip and was reading the novel Airframe by Michael Crichton. That was a bad choice. I was worried about my safety on that trip! But now I knew beyond all imagination and fear, that this flight was in good hands and that the plane must be held together with more than a few rivets.
By the number on my boarding pass, I would be somewhere in the middle of the plane. There were dozens of people already seated, some I recognized and some I did not. The plane was nearly full! I did not expect this; Probably because the last thing impressed on my mind was the number five. I walked down the aisle, nodding and smiling at the people making themselves comfortable, settling in with pillows and blankets as if going on a long flight from the Middle East to the Midwest.
In one of the seats I saw my grandma. She looked just like I remember her and I wanted to stop and give her a big hug and talk to her. But I felt compelled to go find my seat before the plane took off. She smiled and nodded at me, "Go ahead Johnny, we'll have plenty of time to catch up." Her voice instantly brought back a flood of memories.
And right behind her there was my Aunt Jan, grinning at me. "Hey freckles! Welcome aboard!" I laughed. I haven't heard that nickname in a long time!
Boarding this plane was a very surreal experience. It's a very strange thing to be seeing these people again and conversing with them. I pinched myself and felt the slight twinge of pain. No, I am definitely still aware of myself here, and have not disappeared into nothingness.
Walking past all of these people that I knew and loved throughout my life, made me wonder who I'd actually be sitting next to. My seat was just ahead.
I looked at my boarding pass and the number above the seat. It was an aisle seat. I prefer window seats when I fly because I love to watch the plane take off and seeing the tiny specs of our civilization far below. But evidently I was not here to witness what I was leaving behind. I was here to talk to some important people in my life. With all of these people on the plane, it was going to be a very long flight, I thought.
I looked at my boarding pass and the number above the seat to make sure again that I was in the right place. The number was right. Sitting in the seat next to mine was a Native American man with a wizened, darkly tanned face. He was dressed in full regalia, with feathers sticking straight up from his head and bells wrapped about his knees. They made a slight jingling noise as he shifted in his seat to face me. He just looked at me until I was seated. I sat sat down, intimidated by his deep stare. I glanced out the window and saw the darkening skies and the rain beginning to fall. The wind was blowing a piece of paper across the ground, whipping it up and down.
"Have courage," he said to me in a low, soft voice. "Your grandfathers have all gathered together to have a council. They have called you here to teach you."
"Thank you," was all I could think of to say. He was obviously the oldest and wisest looking person on this plane. His deep penetrating and knowing eyes were pools of wisdom beyond my years of experience. His was the power of the world that I did not understand.
"All of the gifts of earth you drew strength from. Now from the same great spirit you will find another strength."
As I sat contemplating that, the fasten-your-seat-belts light flashed on and the chime interrupted us.
"Please fasten your seat belts," came the voice. "We are preparing for take off."
We both fell silent as we buckled up and waited for our safety briefing. Somehow in my mind I knew the wise man sitting next to me. His words echoed over time to me from a different century, telling me of the division of people, it's food and the earth. Without speaking he showed me how the lust for possession and wealth had swarmed over the planet and severed the chords of human and earth connection. I was powerless to stop it. I was watching as people lost their partnership with the earth and each other. It was a very depressing series of scenes that brought tears to my eyes.
"Have courage," he told me. "for you have the power of the cleansing wind." He pointed out the window.
Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota Sioux visionary, holy man and healer who's words I greatly respected in life, shared the silence with me as the plane took off, pressing us back into our seats. It gave me a definite feeling of moving on, with no return. Although we had never met in real life, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the opportunity to sit next to him on this flight. I trembled in spite of his comforting words. Maybe I trembled with respect, or with fear that I would not measure up to those words.
Soon the plane leveled off and the fasten-your-seat-belt light turned off again. He nodded to me with a warm smile and motioned me to get up and find another seat. I had so many questions for Black Elk and wanted to sit and talk with him much longer. But he looked around the plane at all the people and motioned again without speaking. I did as he wished and got up, looking around.
The only empty seat I could see was back about five or six rows. I started to walk, but the plane was now buckling under the turbulence. At first I could not see anyone in the seat next to the empty one. The plane lurched again and I fell, stumbling toward my new seat. The fasten-your-seat-belt light came on with a ding and in the distance I heard the voice announcing the turbulence.
"Tell me something I don't know," I muttered as I grabbed the seat arm before hitting the floor with a thud.
I crawled into my seat and buckled up. Sitting next to me was a diminutive, exceedingly old-looking woman with wrinkles as deep as the ridges. She was praying and thumbing the long string of beads in her hands. There was radiant glow of warmth and comfort all around her and I felt it deep in my bones. I could not interrupt her prayers so I sat patiently waiting. But somehow I did not mind. I liked her intensity of concentration and calmness during this turbulence. It seemed like nothing would bother her.
Then, just as I was thinking that, she laughed and patted my hand.
"John. You have done some important work. See these beads in my hand? These are the people who's lives you have touched. Each one of these, a person you gave dignity to. Each one of these people you helped to stand, even when you stumbled and fell!"
"Mother Teresa?" I asked sheepishly.
"Yes, dear child. Now pay attention."
Mother Teresa began to tell me passionately about my responsibilities. Our responsibilities as human beings.
"Including you, every person on this planet is responsible for the welfare of your brothers and sisters, all men and women on this planet. That has always been God's message to you. And you know, because you have experienced in these," she paused, thumbing the beads that represented those whose lives I have touched.
"That there are two kinds of poverty. The poverty of material, which is easy to cure. And the poverty of spirit, which is not so easy to cure. The problem is being able to see the difference. Open your eyes and see."
These words rang in my ears like a command. I sat back and closed my eyes visualizing the people she was talking about. Each one paraded before my eyes. I remembered.
"Now, go back and see these others." She was thumbing a long line of beads in her right hand. Her warmth radiated through me again and I felt her compassion and understanding.
She patted me on the hand and repeated, "Go. There will be another flight. You were just on standby." Then she laughed again.
I laughed too. She really had a good sense of humor. I was going to thank her, but when I began to speak again, she was praying the beads in her right hand, one after another. I heard her call their names one by one. Some I had met and some I had not. I sat in silence listening as attentively as I could.
The loud speaker came alive again and startled me out of my thoughts.
"Please return your seats to the upright position and fasten your seat belts. We will be landing shortly."
I braced myself and popped my ears as I felt the rapid descent. After we landed, there was a slow taxi to the terminal so I sat there, half listening to Mother Teresa, still listing off names in prayer, one bead at a time. Another part of me was anticipating the other part of this journey. What was to happen to me once I got off this plane? Where did we land? What about all of these other people on the plane? I did not get a chance to talk to any of them.
Slowly my eyes opened and the pain subsided. I don't know what happened, but I was not feeling the same. My whole body was trembling and I was disoriented. I heard the captain's voice in my mind.
"Thank you for flying with us. Come again."
Then I remembered the flight and the two people I sat next to. My mind and body were filled with love and a strength I have not felt in a long time. Their words remained in my heart. I have the power and the responsibility to make a difference. I am alive.