Strange-ers On A Plane

It is late at night. I am on my second consecutive flight after a long day of work. Exhaustion seeps into every fiber of my frame. All I want to do is close my eyes and let the 2 hour flight take me home.

Having done this a thousand times I know that at this hour 90% – 100% of the other inhabitants of this flying metal tube want the same peace that I seek. Unfortunately on this night it is only 90% and I sit within 5 feet of the other 10%… with no possibility of escape.

My frequent flier status allows me to be one of the first on the plane. I settled in, put on my noise reducing headphones and waited for the plane to fill. Everything was great for the first 10 minutes. Then he boarded and sat in the same row just across the aisle. He was wired. From drugs? Adrenaline? Who knows.

He started telling the story of his day and then his life to the guy in the next seat (I think his name was Job). He started before he even sat down and seemingly did not inhale for an hour. No, it was not that it seemed like an hour. I timed it. An hour. It seemed like days. The constancy and length of the monologue were painful enough, but that VOICE.  His loud, deep, gravely voice is seared into my synapses.

I think he was in sales. I think he had some great opportunity that was as of yet unclosed. I got the impression that this man lives in a world of the “almost got it, will get the next one”. Each new opportunity brings excitement. He is not deterred by past experience.  I know this much because it was impossible not to catch some of what he said. I was in the window seat and therefore as far across the aisle as could be. My seatmates in the row started whispering about him but no one, myself included had the guts to ask him to tone it down or better yet to end our misery. But finally it did end, though like one of those car alarms on the street that makes an awful sound and then stops for a minute or two only to start anew, I remained on edge fearing that he would restart. But no, it was over. For him.

Shortly after he concluded the only other person who was not asleep on this flight began telling her story. At least this one had modest entertainment value. Entertainment value in the sense of one of those odd movies that you watch late at night filled with oddball “characters” from the sticks.

This woman was a grandmother from a small town in North Carolina. How small?   As she put it, “…most excitement in town see the dead bodies pile up at funeral home next door “.  She was traveling to the big city of Chicago for the first time to bring her granddaughter to meet the girl’s mother for the first time since she was born. The girl was one of nine grandkids. She had no credit cards, just cash so someone from the 20th century (not even the 21st) had to buy her granddaughter a snack. (No you cannot make this kind of stuff up). She spoke in a drawl that could only be described as small town NC hick. No insult intended [don’t you hate when people say things like no ___intended when that is exactly what they intended].

She went on and on until after the flight had landed. There went my last hope of rest. I staggered to the parking lot, found my car and an hour later crawled into bed. Now I know why rich people like their private planes.

I Would Not Wish This On My Worst Enemy

Those were the first words his mom said to me as I hugged her not knowing how to ease her pain.

I stood out in the bitter cold for 45 minutes. The line just to get inside the funeral home snaked its way around the building even now in the 4th hour of the visitation. The line never got shorter until the doors closed 5 hours later. Hundreds and hundreds of people who loved him, loved his family came to say they were sorry and to ask “Why?”.

Scottie was 17. Smart, athletic, funny. Dozens of good friends, dated regularly. Two older brothers who were friends as well as siblings. Two loving and attentive parents. Lots of close family. Seemed to be happy.

And then came Monday night. He seemed tired and went to bed early. His parents went to bed a little later. At 4:30 the police were at their door telling them that their son was dead.

The details are sketchy. At some point he drove from his house, parked the car on an overpass above an expressway and left the car with the motor running. Somewhere around one he was lying on the expressway when he was hit by a car. The assumption is that this kid, who was seemingly happy and loved life, and according to his father “afraid of roller coasters”, jumped off the height of the overpass with the intent to die. The injuries sustained from being hit by the car make it impossible to know for sure that he jumped. Questions of why was the car motor left running and did he jump or go down to the highway by foot would be interesting mystery clues if this were a made for TV movie. Instead it is all too real life.

The bigger and much, much harder to answer question is  WHY. No note. No signs of depression or despair. Had been talking to parents and friends about making various plans for the future. Why?

The sad thing is that we will probably never know. Actually the tragically sad thing is that Scottie is dead. Not knowing why just adds to the pain. Could something have been done? Should someone have noticed something more? We will never know. What I do know that for the past two days I have been witnessing the toll of this tragedy on his parents, brothers, grandfather and uncle. All have been a part of my life for a long time, 3 of them for most of my life. Let me share some moments from the visitation day on Friday and the funeral service on Saturday.

Just one word can describe Friday. People. Hundreds of people. They just kept coming and coming. They waited in line in the cold for an hour and then inside for another hour until you finally got to the family and the casket. The visitation was scheduled from 3-9 but lasted until 11 because people just kept coming.

Maybe there are three more words, love, sorrow and hugs. Love could be seen on the numerous poster boards with pictures remembering and celebrating Scott’s life. In so many of the picture he had that great big smile that he was so well-known for just beaming. Only one of the poster boards had been prepared by the family. The others were spontaneous gestures by friends and extended family, all who loved this kid.Because the love was so strong the sorrow went so deep. So deep for so many people. All of whom were asking why.As Scott’s grandfather said, this is the worst day of my life.

The hugs. When there are no words to be said, nothing that can provide any comfort, there are hugs. There was more hugging done in these two days than I can ever remember being a part of. A hug, a squeeze, a rub on the shoulder provided some measure of comfort to all of us who mourned.

Saturday was the church service and the cemetery. What I noticed the most about the church service was when a family member  would be heart-broken and sobbing another would be strong for the moment and provide loving support. Then sometime later, often moments later, the strong would become the weak and someone else would provide comfort and strength. During one of those moments Scott’s father broke down and his eldest on just put his arm around his dad as if to say yes, this is horror but I am here by your side and I will be strong for you now.

Scott’s uncle is one of my oldest and closest friends. His grandfather and my mother lived together for almost thirty years until her death. My goal was to be strong for them. Instead as I approached them during the service I broke down and sobbed. Loudly. Not the comfort I had been planning to provide but we all understood.

The deacon led a beautiful service and many good memories of Scot were shared. His eldest brother delivered a powerful speech. He made the point that as the youngest of three boys Scott wanted to grow up fast. He always wanted what his brothers had, wanted to do what they did and hang around with their friends. We were told that to honor Scott’s life we should each live our life as we want it to be lived. No compromises and no excuses. That is what a grown up does.

After the cemetery there was a lunch. At least 200 people came. It was the Catholic version of a Shiva. People and food together help the family to momentarily ease the pain and to recognize that while it will forever be different, life will go on. I was glad to hear the beginning of some normalcy in the conversation. Somethings other than more words about a life ended and how sad it all is. There was even a discussion of the best pizza in town. Why do I find that to be worth mentioning? Because I know from experience that the sorrow ebbs and flows and will be strong for quite some time and that talk of pizza takes nothing away from the respect that Scott’s memory deserves but it does mean there is life for others after his death.

After the lunch my wife and I could do nothing more than collapse at home. I have no idea how the family could physically and emotionally endure the past few days. I was exhausted and my body hurt as if I had taken a beating.

The last point I want to share takes some set up. Through my mother and their father our families became family. At several gatherings over the past couple of years, Scott’s dad had challenged my wife, an avid tennis player, to a game of doubles, he and Scott versus my wife and son.

One of the last things Scott’s dad said to my wife yesterday was;

“I guess we will never have that doubles match”.