Death, Dying, and Such
Hiccups, or synchronous diaphragmatic flutter, happen when the diaphragm gets spastic, causing the epiglottis to close involuntarily. Everyone seems to have a different remedy for these, ranging from holding one’s breath to drinking water from the wrong side of the cup to dumping copious amounts of sugar down one’s gullet. The remedies are always much funnier and weirder than the hiccups themselves, providing entertainment for passersby and reminding us that sometimes, life does what it wants with us.
I was thinking about this yesterday, as I watched a US Airways passenger jet bobbing in the frigid Hudson. Seeing that no one was killed, I allowed myself a moment of levity and began thinking about the normal things that happen just before something terribly abnormal happens.
I wondered if anyone on board had a bout of the hiccups just before the engines blew.
Picture it. An older couple, in their sixties, wearing pastels up top and khakis below, both with white hair, an insatiable love of travel, and an unflappable sense of adventure.
“Betty - hic - I can’t seem to get rid of these damned - hic - hiccups!” This is Bob Jarvis, retired accountant, to his wife Betty, who’s obviously amused.
“Well, Bob,” Betty says, “Why don’t you ask the flight attendant for a cup of water?”
Bob shakes his head. “No, that’s not my remedy.”
“Well what is your remedy, honey?” she asks blithely. Betty is working on the Times crossword, finding a 5-letter word for “wild time” a particularly vexing task. Party? No, too vague. Soiree? No, that’s six letters.
To Betty’s right, out the double-sealed window, a flock of Canadian geese are sucked into the massive jet engines on the Airbus A320, effectively ruining both the airliner’s source of forward thrust, and the Jarvis’s weekend travel plans. Fun fact for Bob & Betty: The impact of a 12-pound bird hitting a plane traveling at 150 miles per hour is equal to that of a 1,000 pound weight dropped from a height of 10 feet, according to experts on bird strikes.
Not long after that, a stewardess runs up the aisle, looking for a fire extinguisher. Bob reminds himself to get her attention when she comes back - he plans to gargle some Schweppes Bitter Lemon and put these hiccups behind him. Betty smiles, pleased with herself as she realizes that the 5-letter word for “wild time” is spree.
Pretty soon, the captain simultaneously cures Bob’s hiccups and threatens Betty’s bloomers. “Brace for impact,” were the words that resounded over the rows of seats. Before long, the jet, on fire and out of time, swoops in low over the Hudson, not unlike one of the ill-fated Canadian geese, whose feathers were now floating down somewhere over on 49th Street, coming to rest on a Persian man who decided to take it as a positive omen for the day.
A miraculous landing by a fantastic pilot yielded a sigh of national relief as we, glued to our televisions or refreshing our web browsers with manic concern, all watched the passengers - Bob, Betty, and the rest of them - wing-walking to vigilant ferry boats and escorted to safety and warmth by the FDNY, looking like bright-colored courtesans from a strange land, with floatation devices puffed full around their cold necks.
Death and dying didn’t come for them, and we are thankful. But as Betty’s crossword clue would suggest, wild times aren’t only had by those who purchase airline tickets. The spree continued, but quietly, elsewhere, out of the purview of CNN and FOXNews. Sir John Mortimer finished his race yesterday, quietly in his Oxfordshire home. Earlier this week, Arne Naess, Hortense Calisher, and W.D. Snodgrass, three members of the long lineage of thinkers, writers, and poets, ended their stay with us, no longer able to say what needs to be said, write what hasn’t been written, and no chance left for us who’ve yet to shuffle off the coil to be moved by them.
I’m captivated by moments like these. My brain begins its eternal calculations, thinking about the people who might have died yesterday, did die yesterday, and those who would die the day after that. Before long, my brain feels dizzy, like I’d just gotten off the teacups at Disney. Pondering death sucks.
With timing that only life can bring, I was interrupted from my death-meditation by the happy giggles that tumbled out of my one-year-old nephew as he climbed on my back while I watched the news. I turned away from the analysts and rolled on my back, grabbing him and perching him on my chest. I looked at his little face, the picture of joy on the smooth skin of his little face, smiling and reminding me that, thank God, it wasn’t my time yet either. A long string of the purest drool began its descent from his lower lip to my chest when I decided to stop thinking about death and dying and make faces with a one-year-old who - yep, hoo boy, it’s confirmed - had just recently filled his pants, and was laughing about it.
I end this today with a bit from W.D. Snodgrass’s “Old Apple Trees,” in hopes that we keep in mind the magnificent gift that each breath, laugh, and quiet moment brings.
Not one of us got it his own way.
Nothing like any of us
Will be seen again, forever.
Each of us held some noble shape in mind.
It seemed better that we kept alive.