The intercom crackles in the cabin of the grounded Airbus A320. I know it's an Airbus A320 because there is an argument going on between two teenagers in the row in front of me about the "gear" we are flying on. "Dude, this is straight Boeing. It's like a 747 or something," ping-ponged back with, "No way, my uncle works for Lockheed Martin and he says all United Airways planes are—" A flight attendant catches the conversation and lets them know they are both wrong; "It's an Airbus A320"…whatever that means.
I'm not sure I want a pilot to have a play-it-by-ear approach to manned flight. The intercom crackles again, and the captain speaks: "Um…." This is followed by 30 seconds of radio silence, and then, "Well there seems to be something wrong with the fuel pump and uh, well, we are waiting for a technician to come out here and take a look at it…if he get's out here quickly, um, it should only take about ten minutes then, uh, taking into account time for paperwork…and…uh, we should be wheels up before you know it. We will give you updates as they come in and um, well hopefully we will be in Chicago before you know it."
As I sit sardined in economy class, on the tarmac at Philadelphia International Airport, a couple of critiques come to mind. First off, if I were the captain of an airplane, and the morale of the passengers hinged on my disposition, I might run through the script a couple times before going live on the intercom. The "um's" and "uh's" are not very reassuring coming from a gentlemen who's about to launch 300 people into the stratosphere at 600mph. I'm not sure I want a pilot, dealing with a broken fuel pump, to have a play-it-by-ear approach to manned flight.
Second, the technician is only going to need ten minutes? It takes half an hour to change the oil in my car. I don't want my mumbling captain rushing this guy along while he's replacing a vital component for flight. "Um okay, I told them 10 minutes so, uh, paperwork, uh, 9 minutes until I need to talk again…so uh, I'm too nervous to tell them 15 minutes and uh…I think that's good enough, you don't need those uh, bolts." Fuck that, you take as long as you need. 20 minutes, hell, make it an hour—spoil yourself. Whatever it takes to keep this puppy from making a connecting flight in a shopping mall parking lot in Youngstown, Ohio.
600mph comes with a few caveats.I unbuckle my seatbelt and cup my hands around my face and peer out the window. I see a wing and a seemingly never-ending expanse of pavement and blinking lights that fade into the darkness. I think I was hoping to see a smoking jet engine hanging from the wing by some cables, seesawing back and forth. "I figured it out, Captain! Your engine is broke." At least then I would feel useful. But since all I see is a wing, I accept the fact that I am an idiot and have no control over these events.
My tarmac adventure in Philadelphia marks the end of a shit week in The Keystone State. I wasn't back for business or pleasure but something else all together.
Funerals do not generally affect me, at least not in the traditional sense. Funerals often times consist of me staring at my feet playing my own version of Simon. I'll lift my toes in one shoe, then the opposing foot, then maybe left foot, right foot, right foot. I repeat my pattern adding one more motion to the end each time. I will play this game for 15 minutes a shot before resigning myself to the fact that I probably misrepresented the pattern 14 and a half minutes ago. This game accomplishes a few primary functions: I'm entertained, and I'm staring at my feet looking frustrated, so I look visibly shaken, which is supposed to be the default emotional disposition at these types of events.
We, as people, are nothing without our connection to one another. It defines us. It makes us alive. Let me be clear, this does not mean I do not mourn the departed, because I do, generally a few weeks prior to or after the funeral. My "mourning" is usually triggered by some benign event that serves as a catalyst for 20 minutes of inconsolable sobbing. These catalysts might be, but are not limited to, realizing I am out of dryer sheets for the wash, emotional FedEx commercials, or finding an empty ice cube tray in the freezer and remembering I'm the one who put the empty ice cube tray back in the freezer.
This funeral is different. This is a funeral for a friend. A friend married to another friend. They met when we were kids and now she is gone and he is still here.
I sit in the church staring at my feet. Left foot. Right foot. Left. Right. Right. Then, I notice there is another set of feet next to me in the pew and another to follow that. All these feet—all these people. I look up from my feet and listen to the departed's father and husband speak—people I have known my whole life—and I realize, for the first time that day, that I'm sitting in this spot because there is someone who isn't here anymore and because of that we've all come together.
Then, I realize we, as people, are nothing without our connection to one another. It defines us. It makes us alive. Money, status, career, cars, portfolios, you can stack those as high as you want around yourself but they're all meaningless when confronted with the inevitable fact that our existence is finite, we are temporary. Every one of us shares something that we rarely talk about: being alive is frightening and the only thing we have to mitigate this fear is each other. We are literally all we have.
I realize this and how frightening, emancipating, sad, wonderful, and beautiful our existence is and I see a husband, father, mother, sister, friends, family, understanding this same truth and I start to cry—that good hard kind of cry that you have when you are a kid. Then, panic strikes—I can't stop crying. I realize that this is substantially more profound than most FedEx commercials, which generally make me sob uncontrollably for 20 minutes. I do some quick math: life altering epiphany + funeral = I am not going to stop crying until I pass out from exhaustion or dehydration. I cry throughout the service, doing my best to muffle the sobs with my suit jacket. I cry harder because I realize I am not going to be able to stop crying.
Then, someone sitting next to me in the pew puts their arm around me and says, "It's okay." With a little breath holding and pinching of the leg, I slowly break my sob because what he said was right; it would be okay, eventually. That, and I realize if it doesn't end now, it would quickly escalate into a run-out-of-church-sobbing situation because I only have two tissues when I really need a beach towel—and I do not not plan on being that guy.
"Uh, looks like the problem has been resolved. And…um…we are just waiting for FAA approval here and uh, we should be wheels up here in uh, no time at all." Inspired words from an oratorical master.
The plane lifts off and after a minute, banks sideways around the city, making visible the glowing Philadelphia skyline. It looks cleaner from up here. People built that city. Individually, they were all scared, delicate, and temporary. Together they made transit systems and skyscrapers, all built to perpetuate the idea of connection. To me this is God.
The plane breaches the clouds and only stars and infinity remain. I look down at my feet. Left. Left, Right. Left, Right, Right.