I still remember that the captain communicated with the passengers fairly directly about their situation, and everybody in the plane knew that they were about to die, or probably about to die, but even so there were things to do. Everyone was still going to do this thing and that thing in a certain order. Somebody would tell them when.
The original preface from Walking Backwards (A journey of a thousand miles on the Camino de Santiago) that didn’t make the final manuscript, but captures, still, what I was trying to get at writing the book:
Years ago I was watching a television program about a plane crash in the Midwest. I don’t remember all the exact circumstances, but it involved a large commercial airliner, and I think an engine exploded shortly after takeoff. The plane was on fire and billowing smoke, literally falling out of the sky. They played black-box snippets of the crew’s conversation with the control tower, and I remember the crew was looking for a place to land, any place to land, preferably a runway, but even an open stretch of field would do. It was clear to everyone that the flight was going to end disastrously, and air traffic control and the crew were focused on preventing unnecessary fatalities on the ground.
This program was some twenty years ago, but I still remember that the captain communicated with the passengers fairly directly about their situation, and everybody in the plane knew that they were about to die, or probably about to die, but even so there were things to do. Everyone was still going to do this thing and that thing in a certain order. Somebody would tell them when.
And when the time came they did all of those things.
I don’t believe the pilot or anyone in the front half of the plane survived the crash, but there were survivors. A handful were interviewed about the final moments before the plane hit the runway and broke in two, a fracture that actually saved passengers in the rear section. Anyway, I think it was in that rear section where some of them survived. It’s years ago now, but I am pretty sure this is the emergency crash landing that you see surveillance footage of from time to time. It’s the one where you’re looking in through a chain link security fence outside an airport, and the camera pans to track the trajectory of a cartwheeling inferno.
But it could have been a different crash from that one, and I could be wrong about a lot of the details. But the details of an accident really don’t matter. Not really. What matters, what makes the whole tragedy worth mentioning, is something someone said to the interviewer. One of the survivors said that people looked at each other in those last few seconds before impact, knowing their lives were over, and all around the plane passengers took each other’s hands. And this survivor said she took the hand of a total stranger across the aisle, and she looked into his eyes and said, “Well, it’s been a good life.”
The whole thing right there.
In those last moments some of them must have tried to write something for their loved ones, scrambling for any piece of paper with white margins, scrambling for a pen. They would have named their closest loved ones – their Chris, Melanie, Daniel, and Alannah – because to get the simple fact of their names on a piece of paper would be a way of pulling out a few specific colors from the white light of gratitude, of orienting the fragile prisms of their hearts.
And they probably would have added the words “I Love You” and their own names, or the names that their children call them. And then they would have done what they could to protect that desperate scrap of paper from the crash, securing it between the screen and keyboard of a closed laptop or within a thick wallet or a steel eyeglasses case.
And if they had had a little more time, a few precious minutes more, they might have scribbled further, trying to comfort their loved ones with words, to allay fears, to assure them in the swiftest sentences they could legibly fashion that everything would be okay, that they were okay. That It was okay. In the pressure – you could even say the opportunity – of those last minutes they might imagine, selflessly, a future for their loved ones without them, and they would do their best to protect them there in that new world. And like the captain of their plane they would do this even as they were also tuned to terrified cries in other parts of the cabin.
And with each additional interval of clock time, their expression might build in complexity, in sophistication, in subtlety, in personality. If they were fortunate enough to write for ten or even fifteen minutes they might begin to dwell in memory or express regret and apology. They might touch on the dramas of their histories and their dreams. And because of the complete attention they were now paying, they might notice in the crucible of that moment some new things they had never noticed before, and they would add those as well. A million different things could happen on that piece of paper, and as those moments expanded out over time each of their scribbles would become as individual as fingerprints.
And this creative world of I love you and thank you that they were leaving behind would spring up in the same way that the physical world around us has sprung up, building from the first nanoflash of God only knows what, then into Hydrogen, and then into a hundred other elements born in the marvelous contractions and explosions of this Periodic Universe.
So it occurs to me that if you had all the time in the world to write your good-bye, if you had an Eternity, if you had Forever, oh, the things you’d say and leave behind! You would leave your loved ones the most marvelous creations and surprises. You would leave them birdsong and shoelaces, red lips and cellophane, dogs barking, handstands, orange tulips. You would leave them honey and sorrow and waltzes. You would leave them everything you could think of.
Because to be alive is to wander in the charred fields looking for this letter.
This book is my letter.
You are the stranger across the aisle.
– the original preface to Walking Backwards (A journey of a thousand miles on the Camino de Santiago)
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