30,000 feet in the air. Cruising altitude. I’m sitting in the middle seat of the last row. I’m half asleep. I smell smoke. Can’t be. It only happens in movies. I must be dreaming of the BBQ restaurants I just left in Memphis, Tennessee, on a business trip.
I wake up. I’m not dreaming. I see smoke.
For a few seconds I try to tell myself it’s condensation from the air conditioning vents. But the stories I tell myself are no match for reality. There is a fire on my plane! No control. I’m in fate’s hands and there’s nothing I can do to slip away from its tenacious grip.
The fire is below. I can’t see flames, but smoke is pouring into the cabin. The bathroom smoke alarms are screeching, piercing my ears. The smoke is suffocating. I have to put my shirt over my mouth and nose to breathe easier.
The flight attendants are crying. They run their drink carts to the back. One woman gets on the mic, voice trembling, tells everyone to take their seats. Then the captain gets on the mic, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are aware there is a fire below the cabin. We are making an emergency landing at Tampa Airport. We are starting our descent now.”
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A minute later, he gets back on the mic, “Ladies and gentlemen, put your legs together and your hands on the seat in front of you,” followed by the three words you never want to hear when you’re on a plane:
“BRACE. FOR. IMPACT.”
We make our descent, a duck dive from 30,000 to 10,000 feet in five minutes. There wasn’t much turbulence, but I assure you, any turbulence is terrifying when there’s a fire on your plane.
The longest, scariest and strangest 20 minutes of my life. Whoever said there is a “calm before the end,” lied. I was scared. I did not want to die.
The smoke alarms in the back of the plane shut off for a few minutes. I notice an erie silence and the grim, serious faces of all the passengers. It’s as if we were all witnessing our funeral before we die. A funeral 20,000 feet in the air.
Instincts to survive arise within me first. I check my surroundings. Where are the exits? Are we flying over land or water? How can I protect my head during a crash landing? After instinct it was just emotions and thoughts spinning out of control.
I thought of my family. My mom, my sister, my grandparents. I felt bad for them, thinking of the pain they’d feel finding out I died in a plane crash. I thought of my late father; would I meet him again in the great mystery of after-life?
I thought of all the things I haven’t done. All the things I still wanted to do. I asked myself if I had lived a good life, a worthy life.
But most of all I was scared. I couldn’t come to terms with death. When you’re healthy and in your 20’s death is nothing more than some far away thought. Sometimes it can even feel like an illusion altogether.
On that plane, there was no illusion. I was thrust into it — and I was not ready.
I tried to think positive thoughts. I could only think negative ones. I tried to accept what is. I couldn’t accept it. I tried to be present. I could only think of the future, a future without me in it.
I tried to visualize being somewhere else. All I could see were my sweaty, shaking hands. All I could feel was my heart pounding against my chest like a jackhammer against stubborn pavement.
I prayed. I hoped. I begged. I asked God for another chance. I asked the Universe for another chance. I asked life to help me. Nothing worked. The fear still flowed freely within me like a raging river. Yet, we continued to descend. My confidence grew slightly with each passing minute.
But landing was still uncertain — what if the landing gear was on fire?
As we approached the runway, I thought of my family. To myself, I said I love them. Then I said, “Come on Captain, land this son-of-a-bitch. You got this. Come on!”
Rubber to pavement. We landed. Perfectly. Smoothly. Absolute joy. Cheers, tears, hugs and high-fives were shared with everyone in the cabin.
It was a moment in real life. A moment of life magnified by the proximity to death. Then I realized, every moment is real life. And it’s happening right now.
Not tomorrow, worrying about the future. Not yesterday, reliving the past. Right now. The time is now. I try to remember that as much as I can. I admit, I forget sometimes.
Then, I remember again. My “now” will not last forever. I don’t have control of when it will end, but I do have control of the moments, the “now” given to me.
For that, I’m grateful.
I remember my “now” almost ended when I was just 26 years old.
Originally published by Joe Metcalfe