Saturday, January 17, 2009

And in the Hour of Death

I can't seem to stop wondering about how I would have reacted if I were part of the water-landing of the US Airways flight last week. When 9/11 occurred, I spent, like many people I'm sure, a great deal of time imagining what my state of mind would be in an unthinkable situation like that aboard the planes. Not just, "would I panic?" or "would I have the wherewithal to calm others?" but, in the minute before hitting the ground, water, building, what would go on in my mind? Similarly, but more frivolously, I have wondered, if I were a victim of a serial killer who tied me to a conveyor belt that fed into a wood grinder, as the belt approached the blade, what would I, what could I be thinking? It's hard to conceive that I would be able to "think about" anything--seems like the run of thoughts would speed up, become frantic. Maybe not, though. Maybe, just before death, thought slows to an excrutiating speed for the dying person, like the experience of time moving into a black hole? (Time? Light? I don't remember what seems to go slowly into black holes.) Or, in a different direction, do some people--would I?--have hopes of a last-minute miracle? If the end indeed is death, how tragic that at just at the final moment, one might be falsely preoccupied or distracted with ideas of commutation. I don't know why, but it seems like a sad waste. Yet, when I fly and the ride gets bumpy, I say Hail Marys. I am not and never have been Catholic, and only a teensy-weensy part of me thinks or hopes that maybe, maybe, maybe there's some spiritual force (not "Mary," surely) heeding the general inclination of my chanting (i.e., if there is going to be pain--physical, mental, moral, spiritual--in my future, please don't let it last for eternity. [I realize this puts me somewhere near the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy and have long been shamefully aware of my own spiritual deficits.]). However, I memorized the Hail Mary for the purpose of airplane turbulence, and I find it comforting, in part, because it prevents me from thinking. I like the idea of purposefully abstaining from thought better than cravenly turning, in the face of death, to Spiderman, to the hope he will suddenly appear to bear the plane away to safety. In 1994, in a hundred-year old fruit cellar on New Jersey St. in Lawrence, KS, I huddled alone in the pitch black on a raised concrete platform surrounded by 2 inches of water as a series of small tornadoes touched down nearby. I recited the alphabet backwards, over and over. That was before my adoption of the Hail-Mary, and I was concertedly refusing to pray. I was not hoping that Alphabet Man would rescue me but trying not to suffer uselessly by panicking, in that case, mainly about having been caught at the center of two rings of hell: one, comprising the slugs that lived in the fruit cellar; and the other, the tornadoes bouncing around in the green air outside. I can't tell if there is more or less of dignity in trying to redirect the mind by giving it busywork. I don't know if that is less craven than redirecting the mind by seeking the assistance of a higher power. I don't know what I would think about death, and I find generally that my mind bends like water around its hard surfaces.

1 comment:

miconian said...

When people find out I'm from Kansas, they often ask if I've been in a tornado, and I'm embarrassed to say no. So I felt envy as I read your anecdote about the cellar.