In Los Angeles many, if not most people refer to “back east” when referring to the east coast. Even people who were born and reared in L.A. have adopted this nomenclature as if we are, in some way, from back east. As we’re all from Africa at some point this does hold an amount of truth, though I doubt Scandinavians refer to going home as “dropping south”. I was on Alaska Airlines flight 6 flying back east to visit my parents for my father’s 65th birthday, see my sick grandmother in hospital, see my sister and her new boyfriend, and most importantly see my wife after two weeks of her in residency at grad school. An hour after we took off the pilot came over the intercom and announced that the vibration we felt upon takeoff appeared to be the rubber coming off our front tire and they were going to figure out their next steps. It occurred to me that I may not survive the flight.
The flight attendants came through the cabin and asked if any passengers were police officers, military personnel, firefighters, or paramedics. At the front of the plane the cockpit door was open and a group of Serious Men were conferring with the pilot. The flight attendants were calm, asking the emergency row people – for real this time – if they could perform the duties necessary in an emergency landing scenario. I was seated one row ahead of the two emergency exits, an empty seat next to me, and a fifteen year old girl who began silently weeping at the window seat. The pilot came on the intercom again to inform us that he would be turning the plane around and heading back to LAX to fly by the tower so they could visually inspect our plane with binoculars. I realized our plane must not be a movie set with an area below the plane an action hero could squeeze into to inspect our landing gear (and locate the terrorist’s bomb). I guess a Boeing 737 doesn’t have a walk-around belly. I could hear people turning on their cellphones, sending text messages, and making calls. Though I had seen the Mythbusters episode debunking cellphone interference with plane controls and communication systems I knew that when a cellphone is placed next to my car stereo or computer speakers there is a persistent dit-ditta-dit-ditta-dit pulse my phone emits and I felt this wouldn’t be pleasant for the pilot to hear when discussing emergency procedures. However, I turned on the iPhone for the use of its note pad feature. I think of myself as a writer so perhaps I ought to jot down some last words, should our flight have, as they say in hospitals, a negative outcome.
I present to you the most boring, unremarkable last words unlikely to find its way into Bartlett’s:
The pilot has announced our front tire has lost its rubber and that doesn’t seem like a good thing.
Should this iPhone survive whatever happens pleaseset my wife Sofia know that I love her above all others. She knows why. All I have is hers.
I love my parents, Stuart and Helen, and am grateful to them for their love, support, and for trying to be the best parents they know how.
I love my sister and hope she finds lasting and sustained happiness.
I am honored for my friends and those who have supported me through the years. There are too many to name ere inte time, but I am very lucky to have attracted them an I hope I have made a positive impact on their lives.
I will admit being scared. I do not like my fate being out of my hands. I cannot find comfort in the unknown and right now in this moment, alone, I do not know what to do with my thoughts. Others are being given instructions, jobs, things on which to focus. The focus on the mundane actions of life saving necessity.
I wish there was more. I wish I had more time for everything. I’ve had a good life, but perhaps missing the sense of completion of whatever it is I’m building towards. Everything I’ve done seems like it fits into a narrative, an escalating path, but towards what?
The pilot came over the intercom again and said, “ladies and gentlemen, I know you want to contact your loved ones on the ground but cellphones do interfere with our communication equipment and we need that right now. So please turn them off.”
Which meant there it stood – typos, predictable sentimentality, still lost without meaning and searching for a narrative in which to understand my life. That I could not summarize my life into plucky bon mots seems like a good thing. My gratitude can’t be squeezed into a hasty paragraph; there are simply too many people that have made an impact on me to rattle them off by name or by achievement. (I’m still happy that it was not the ground that made the final impact upon my person.)
I have no secrets from my wife – no last minute revelations or hidden safe combinations. She has the password to my computer and in this digital age that’s they key to my kingdom. My friends know I love them, as do my family.
Human beings are storytelling creatures – we seek a narrative to understand our world. Evolutionarily speaking it makes sense to use oral tradition to pass on valuable, seemingly random information. Religion makes sense in this context because it provides a framework of myth to pass on values, ritual, and culture. If you roll back time far enough certain archaic behavior makes sense – Jews who keep kosher are following a commandment that is part of a structured myth. The rules of a kosher household make survival sense if you lived in the desert 4,000 years ago: animals must be killed with a single cut to the throat and bled out fully, don’t eat meat cooked in the milk of its mother (or mix any dairy with meat), don’t eat the cockroaches of the ocean or bottom feeding fish, etc. These are survival rules that are too lengthy to memorize as random facts so they were placed into a larger narrative of god, kings, and heroes. These probably originated as stories that became codified when written down by the few literate people of the time. Every culture or civilization that has survived the millennia has some version of an oral or written mythic history that contains a manual for survival of the species and their values. These myths and laws were selected and edited by the literate class who had their own agenda to preserve a status quo.
The writer is god!
Look at the New Testament’s opening salvo:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
Talk about the relationship between a writer and their editor!
We all leave behind a body, some of us leave behind a body of work. The cumulative mass of our lives, not just in material goods but in the ripples our lives create within others. Our behavior acts as a model for others and some of us try and document this behavior in a way that can be referenced or examined after our death. Even if that death makes no sense in the overall narrative of our lives, or if our lives are cut short before the climax. Not every story fits neatly into an act structure or has a likeable hero. Sometimes a life is more like an experimental narrative that breaks all the rules of convention and finds its purpose in being contrarian. The question I love to ask writers is, “what has your writing taught you about yourself that you weren’t aware of?” Every writer, every artist, has an overarching gestalt that they may not even be aware of. The French New Wave of cinema called this the auteur theory. The intentional themes are not as interesting as the unintentional ones. The question I ask is a trick – the question should be redirected at the audience for the benefit of the writer. The idea that human beings are made in god’s image is a decent metaphor. If there is a god, and there isn’t, you only have to look around at your fellow human beings to understand it. God would be beautiful, petulant, compassionate, brutal, patient, venal, brilliant, lazy, depressed, wrathful, loving, and every other human emotion we can experience expressed in an astronomical number of narratives.
It’s an old writing exercise to attempt to write your own last words. But I don’t think we can do that until we believe we’re really going to die. The words didn’t come as easily as I wanted in the moment on the plane because all I desired was one last moment with the woman I love and the people I cared deeply about. The feelings transcended words, they had no narrative structure.
It was desire to live.