6 Feet Under at 30,000 Feet High
There is something funny about being on airplanes, being in such close vicinity with people that were strangers only moments before and who after the duration of the flight will become strangers again. During the time period spent in the air, people become more than strangers and less than acquaintances–all collectively praying together that your plane does not crash. The close proximity leads to conversations with people you would have otherwise never met. My recent flight to Italy reminded me of an experience I had flying a few years back.
Waiting for domestic flight within the U.S. I noticed a tall, middle-aged man wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, baseball cap and cowboy boots, swaggering across the waiting area to the check-in desk. Despite his cowboy clothing, there was something about his persona, the way he walked and held himself, which made me think he was not from the Midwest. When we boarded the plane, I chuckled when he ended up being the person sitting next to me.
This man who looked like a cowboy struck up a conversation, asking me if I was going home or on a visit. When I returned the question, he said he was going to his childhood home (I was right he was not from the Midwest but on a layover coming from out West), bringing his mom home for the last time. I glanced at him inquisitively, what he said only slowly dawning on me.
“I’m bringing mom home for the last time,” he repeated. “She’s down below. Or maybe not. The undertakers don’t tell you what plane they put them on.”
I didn’t know how to respond to such a proclamation and barely managed to squeak out an “I’m sorry for your loss,” while taking in the reality that a body was very likely six feet underneath me. I knew that bodies were frequently transported in planes; I had witnessed such events in TV shows and movie. But this was the first time I was in a situation that brought to my attention the fact that there could be dead bodies in the plane I was on.
The man continued talking about his mother’s illness and her death. How his daughters had not made it in time to say goodbye. All the while I could not stop thinking about the fact that his dead mother might be underneath me at that very moment, or another body could be. Maybe there were even multiple bodies. I found myself trying to calculate all the previous times I had flown and all the bodies that may have been on my flights.
The cowboy wanted someone to talk to, to tell about his dead mother. I didn’t want to continue hearing stories about his mother’s last words, about how she had already had her whole funeral arranged before she died. I tried to listen politely for a while, nodding and inserting some appropriate “that sounds hard.” When I had enough, I tried to go back to my book, but the tall man kept talking, not getting the hint. The cowboy seemed like he would have spent the rest of the flight talking about his mother. As rude as it was, I eventually turned my on iPod, since reading my book was not giving him the intended signal that I was ready to be done listening to him talk about dead bodies underneath me on the plane. I used the music to try and drown out my thoughts about what might be below me.