“Place your head between your knees and brace for landing.”
They say your life flashes before your eyes when you die but I don’t fear death. I was provided the opportunity to turn back the hands of time and experience the glory of my first love. I’m grateful we reunited after so many years, reminisced about the love we shared and said goodbye.
Flight cancelled. Rescheduled for 7 a.m.
My flight home to Seattle was the last plane out. It was a hassle to check into a hotel so I decided to spend the night in the terminal. After several tequila shots at the bar, I went to the magazine store to purchase aspirin. I spied a copy of Kerouac’s On the Road and purchased it. I found a quiet corner of the terminal where I could sleep until morning. I thumbed through the familiar pages which reminded me of my youth with boundless opportunities and adventures ahead. It also made me melancholy because I’ve led a life of unfulfilled dreams. I’m soon to retire from a lucrative corporate career selling commercial airliners around the world. My loving wife of forty years and I raised successful children and are blessed with grandchildren, but the spark in our marriage is gone. We’re financially comfortable and I have provided for my family’s future. The renowned cancer specialist I visited diagnosed me with prostate cancer and told me that I must begin treatment immediately or die. I’ve kept this from my wife, chosen to forgo treatment, and welcome death because my thirst for living died long ago. A Jim Croce song playing in the terminal provokes an idea:
“Operator, well could you help me place this call? See, the number on the matchbook is old and faded…”
I think about a love that I thought would save me…
I wonder where she is. What life would we have created together? I long for the love of a woman I’ve never forgotten. I fondly recall the picnics in the park and planning our future together. Rachel was a painter and I was a photographer. Our dreams included attending college together, marriage, family and living abroad. My internet search reveals Rachel kept her maiden name and owns an art gallery on the Upper East Side. Did she marry, divorce–or is she a widow? I’m happy she chose a career in art and disappointed I abandoned my dream of photographing nature in exotic locales. Another internet search result led me to a newspaper article entitled, “Successful Gallery Owner Treated for Ovarian Cancer.”
I read the article and knew Rachel’s prognosis was terminal. We would both die never saying goodbye.
The lights of the airplanes reflecting off the rain-soaked tarmac and tequila buzz make me dizzy and tired. I fall asleep and have a dream with far-reaching consequences. A young man approaches the airline ticket agent holding his duffle bag with my initials hand-stitched into the canvas handle by his sweetheart, Rachel. It’s me at eighteen. His face exudes anticipation and optimism for his future. I accepted a full scholarship to an elite university abandoning my plans to attend college with Rachel. I broke her heart.
Final call for flight. Now boarding.
The stewardess hurries the young man into the plane. He enters and the door closes behind him. I hear the jet engines rev up and I run to the window, watch the plane taxi and then take off. I wasn’t able to change my destiny and pound the window heartbroken knowing I made a mistake leaving Rachel.
The gate agent wakes me, “Sir, your flight is boarding.” My dream opened a wound never healed. I’m hungover and crestfallen from the news about Rachel. I walk to the window and the sun shines in my eyes. I squint and watch the passengers file onto the plane. The loading ramp resembles my long path through life I no longer want to travel. Perhaps a stiff drink on the plane will dampen the sad news about Rachel and my resolution to return home to die? I approach the boarding agent and place my smartphone on the bar code reader. The green flash and buzzer jolt me into action. It’s now or never. I must visit Rachel, tell her I love her, beg her forgiveness for abandoning our dreams of a life together and say goodbye. I rush to the ticket counter pleading, “May I change my destination?” I’m relieved to hear, “Yes, sir. I hope you make the right choice this time.” As I settle into the first class seat on a nonstop to New York City, I’m anxious to see Rachel and ponder how she’ll receive me after so many years.
I met Rachel in the ICU. She was lying upright in bed with IV tubes in her frail arms which didn’t prevent her from sketching an unfinished portrait of herself as a teenager. Like myself, Rachel aged, and although the cancer ravaged her beauty, Rachel’s green eyes were as gorgeous as the day I first met her. Rachel recognized me and we embraced. I could feel her heartbeat race. I apologized to her for abandoning a life together and although I married and raised a family, I still loved her. I confessed I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and would die without immediate treatment but welcomed death because life wasn’t worth living. Rachel whispered, “Life is precious. You have to fight to live and love your family. I’ve always loved you and wanted you to share the sights and sounds of the magnificent world I traveled. We missed the opportunity to walk the same path through life but one of us still has the opportunity to live. You’ll always have memories of those beautiful moments we shared. I’m tired, darling. Thank you for visiting. Goodbye.”
Rachel’s eyes closed and she fell asleep. The ICU nurse walked me out of the room saying, “She has only a few hours before passing. She spoke of you often and said you shared a special love. She has no family or loved ones. It was beautiful to see you reunited.”
Everybody survived the emergency water landing. I’m standing on the long silver wing of the airplane bobbing up and down in the choppy waves. The sun is shimmering off the water creating emotional clarity. I’m grateful for surviving the landing and reuniting with Rachel. The rescue boats arrive with sirens and emergency lights alerting me life goes on. I’m handed a blanket, coffee, and I reach for my cell phone to call home, but my first thought is to phone the hospital. I reach the now familiar ICU nurse who gently informs me Rachel passed peacefully with a smile a few hours after my leaving. I remain composed knowing Rachel would want me to catch the first flight home to my loving family, live each day to the fullest and undergo cancer treatment. As the rescue boat pulls away from the sinking plane, I mumble the lyrics to the Croce song I heard in the terminal:
“…I’ve overcome the blow, I’ve learned to take it well
I only wish my words could just convince myself
That it just wasn’t real, but that’s not the way it feels
No, no, no, no–that’s not the way it feels.”