Maddie Kertay I love youI always wondered what would go through my mind if I was in a plane that was going to crash land. Earlier today I found out, and it really wasn’t what I expected. Go figure.

It started out as an uneventful trip just like a thousand other flights I’ve taken. I used the sensation of being pressed into the seat on takeoff to drift off to a brief nap, as is my habit. I was vaguely aware of a sound, a thump, as the nose lifted skyward, but my brain screened it out with the automatic numbing of senses that habit makes possible. There is comfort in habit, comfort in the familiar, comfort in routine. I napped.

I woke around a half-hour later, got my coffee and pulled out the laptop. All as I’ve done a thousand times. I was mildly annoyed that there was no wireless connection.

I’d barely gotten the file pulled up to work on my slides for tomorrow’s lecture when the first non-routine event penetrated. It was a simple double-chime I know that, on this airline, means that the pilot is calling the flight attendant to the intercom. I noted it – this is a sound that ordinarily only happens near takeoff and landing – and then went back to the screen.

There was something different about the flight attendant when she turned and walked back into the cabin. I’m not sure what part of my subconscious noted the change in demeanor, the second break in routine, but it was something in my peripheral vision. She didn’t look right. She had an urgency about her, and when I glanced up there was a tension in her face.

I went back to work, thinking something like, “huh.”

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Perhaps two minutes later I heard the captain. Routine, I thought. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.” Safe to ignore.

“I need your attention. I need you to stop looking at your readers and take the earbuds out of your ears, and pay attention.”Definitely not routine.

Now I was paying attention. It seemed that the thumping sound on takeoff was quite loud up there in the cockpit, and they thought it might have been the nose tire blowing out on takeoff. They weren’t sure, but after talking with the ground they decided to treat it as a blown tire, which is a serious problem on landing. We were going to go straight into our destination airport at Detroit, and we were going to make an emergency landing. We were to follow the flight attendant’s instructions without question. They didn’t know if we would have to do a full evacuation on landing, but if the landing gear collapsed they would have trouble controlling the plane, and we should be ready for that, and ready to quickly and calmly leave the plane to safety.

“If you can,” were the unspoken words now on everyone’s mind.

The next few minutes were something of a blur. Instructions from the flight attendant, about putting everything away. About putting pens or glasses or anything loose in a lower pocket. About leaving everything if we had to evacuate. About how to assume the crash position, and about how when she told us to put our heads down we were to do so and keep them down until she told us to unbuckle our belts. About how to leave the plane by the nearest exit if we heard the words “get out, out now,” and leave everything behind. There were special instructions for me and for the other person across from me in the bulkhead row – we had duties to help her get people out, check for danger if we had to open the door because she couldn’t, about how to direct people out, about how to take her with us if she couldn’t move on her own. She had us repeat the instructions at each step, and it was amazing how hard it was to hold onto even one sentence, even though I would have said I was calm.

And then we waited.

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During the wait is when you think. I felt pretty calm, pretty confident. I felt pretty sure we were going to be ok. But I didn’t know. Briefly I thought about how I would do the lecture the next day if I didn’t have my laptop, but almost immediately I realized how dumb that was.

You know what I thought about? I thought that I was really glad that Maddie and I had taken the time the night before, despite being tired and knowing I’d be up early for a flight, to take our evening bath. That we’d put in the time and energy to be passionate together, to express our connection and our desire in that way.

Because now I didn’t know if I’d have another chance.

I thought suddenly that I didn’t have any paper, and I couldn’t type her a message or an email, and I couldn’t get up again to get my bag where I kept the paper. I needed, desperately, to make sure that she knew I was thinking of her, of the kids, of our life. I grabbed an airsickness bag, and I wrote on it with my fountain pen, “Maddie Kertay, I love you.” The paper was slick and the fountain pen smeared but it was all I had, the only thread. I folded it, carefully, and put it in my pocket. I was pretty sure I’d be ok, but just in case, I’d want them to find the note and give it to her. So she’d know. More than anything, she had to know.

And it turns out, that is what I thought about. That is all I thought about until it was time.

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“Heads down, stay down! Heads down, stay down! Heads down, stay down!”

The flight attendant yelled it over and over. And over. She was hoarse but she called it out. It was irritating, but it was like a mantra too, calming.

In the back a baby was crying, and I remembered the flight attendant giving instructions for how to hold an infant in the crash position. I focused now on something new: if this went badly, somehow I would make sure that mom and her baby got out safely. I had no control over it, I knew, but somehow I was going to make sure of two things – that mom and her baby were going to be ok, and Maddie would get her note.

And it turns out, that is what I thought about. That is all I thought about until it was time.

In the end, we hit the tarmac, the nose rotated, and as soon as the front wheel touched we knew it was ok. The firetrucks weren’t needed, we didn’t have to do anything special, we didn’t have to worry about how to get everyone out. People laughed. We applauded the crew. We were relieved beyond belief.

And we knew what we’d think about if we were ever in a plane that might crash.

Dr Les Kertay, Awakened Moments

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