I don’t really remember much before passing out on Flight 159 to San Diego. I do, however, vaguely recall suddenly feeling too hot and somewhat nauseous. I had grabbed the little airsick bag from the seat pocket in front of me. I contemplated navigating my way down the airplane aisle in order to puke in the bathroom. That way, I’d be able to avoid trying to discreetly hurl into the tiny target from my crowded seat. Which, by the way, seemed like a nearly impossible task. That way too, I wouldn’t have to push my service button light in order to beckon the flight attendant. To me, the thought of having to sheepishly hand over my barf bag just seemed way too humiliating.
So I never did throw up. Nope. Instead I passed out. Right there, sitting in my airplane seat. As I went unconscious, my body collapsed and my head fell forward, violently smashing into the seat in front of me. When I finally came to, the first thing I saw was a cluster of unfamiliar, highly concerned faces peering down at me like I was a specimen on a slide under a microscope.
“Ma’am, I’m Doctor Helen. I’m here to help. Can you tell me your name?” “Melissa.” “Can you tell me what month it is?” That’s when I knew something was really wrong. I couldn’t for the life of me recall it was November. I couldn’t even remember the names of any of the other months, either. It felt like my brain was frozen and somehow needed to thaw. “I … I … I really don’t know,” I answered, feeling confused and disoriented like in the middle of some surreal dream where everyone talked with the deep, distorted voices of a record being played at the slowest speed. I grasped the doctor’s hand, obviously concerned with why my body was responding so abnormally. I whispered faintly, “I can’t remember any of the months or what year it is.”
“Okay, we need to quickly get her lying down in the aisle!” ordered the doctor to the group that was surrounding me. My legs felt numb—too weak to stand. A burly man who had introduced himself as a firefighter effortlessly lifted me from my seat and onto the floor. “On her back, head flat, knees up,” instructed the physician. In a flash, a cool washcloth was placed on my head, a blood-pressure monitor on my arm, and a stethoscope on my heart.
“Do we need to make an emergency landing?” asked an anxious flight attendant. “Not yet,” replied Dr. Helen. “Give it just a little time. Can someone test her glucose?” Another stewardess appeared with a cup of apple juice. Kneeling down, she tilted my head forward and directed the straw to my mouth. “Today’s your lucky day, honey. This plane’s filled with doctors. They’re all heading out to San Diego for a big medical convention. You’re in good hands. If I were you, as soon as you get off the plane, go buy a lottery ticket. Lady Luck is smiling on you.” At that very moment, I didn’t actually feel all that lucky, but her comment certainly explained why nearly everyone around me was wearing stethoscopes.
“Glucose level is normal,” reported another doctor after having pricked my finger for a blood sample. Dr. Helen nodded her approval, then, turning to me, she said, “Good. You’re looking a little better. The color is coming back to your cheeks. Now, do you have any medical conditions we should be aware of?” Feeling my brain fog starting to lift a bit, I answered, “No, none.” “Are you on any medications?” “No.” “How old are you?” “Turning 50 in January.” While answering her questions, I for the first time noticed the presence of the other passengers on the plane. A few were peering over at me, but most were looking straight ahead—almost as if out of respect, not wanting to intrude or distract from the seriousness of the situation. Silence blanketed the plane like the reverent hush that takes over when you enter a church or a hospital room. People weren’t talking. They were barely even whispering. My medical emergency hadn’t created waves of fear and panic, but instead, somehow the aircraft seemed flooded with a holy hush, ripples of peace and a deluge of unknowing wonder.
Another flight attendant appeared with a blanket and a pillow. “Doctor, we’ve emptied a row of seats so that she can lie down. For everyone’s safety, it’s protocol that this aisle must be cleared.” Doctor Helen, who seemed irritated that her authority was being usurped by the airline’s imposing safety etiquette, held up her hand and made the universal unspoken sign for, “Relax. Calm down. I’m in charge here. Give me a minute.”
“Melissa, your vital signs are all okay. We need to move you out of the aisle and up to the row of empty seats about ten rows down. You can lie down there.” I tried to sit up but instantly felt my body’s weakness—especially in my legs. “I don’t think I’m able to stand up yet. I’m still too weak.” The muscular fireman eagerly volunteered to pick me up and carry me to my seat. My body may have been feeble, but my brain instantly played out the potential scenarios of being heaved over this strapping firefighter’s shoulder and carried to my seat. In my mind’s eye, let me tell you, as heroic as that sounded, practically speaking, it was so not going to be a pretty picture! Sensing my obvious resistance, he quickly countered, “Or, you can scooch on your butt down the aisle.” I opted for the butt-scooching.
As I dragged my derriere down the airplane aisle, I considered that perhaps I should be feeling somewhat embarrassed for having made such a spectacle in front of all these people. I laid down across the three seats that had been cleared for me. A flight attendant buckled the seatbelt across me. Dr. Helen handed me a large water bottle, instructing, “Drink this down. It’s important to keep hydrated.” She then sat in the aisle across from me. I’m sure she was just checking to make sure I was coherent, but for about 45 minutes we had a captivating conversation. We talked about our travels, and about the importance of giving our kids international life-stretching experiences as well as a good education. (She had just returned from a medical service trip to Africa, where she’d brought her 20-year-old son along purely for the sake of exposure.) We were aligned on the importance of carving out time and space during our midlife years in order to break up the monotony of the “same-old, same-old” and to be open to the surprises of unexpected opportunities. After ping-ponging our thoughts, she eventually looked at me and said, “Well, I can honestly say this has been an unexpected delight. Thank you. I’m realizing I don’t have enough space in my life for these kinds of conversations. It’s been so nice talking with you, Melissa. And, I think you’re going to be just fine. Check in with your doctor when you get back home.” I thanked her for medical care as she disappeared to her seat behind me.
I sat for the rest of the flight replaying what had just happened to me. I was a bit blown away by the overwhelming sense of peace I had in the midst of my fainting ordeal. As others gauged whether or not to make an emergency landing, I remember thinking, Wow, this actually might just be it. I never imagined this would be the way my life would end. And yet, my spirit was at ease, light, prepared and unalarmed. I wasn’t flooded with regret or “what-ifs” and “should-haves.” I didn’t need to say final goodbyes or tell others I loved them. Mainly, I just felt an internal calm, a deep sense of being okay. I suppose one of the reasons I felt so peaceful was because over this past year I’ve consciously made a space in my life for death. I’m not surprised by it. In fact, I’ve actually come to expect it. This past year, I’ve chosen to think with intentionality about my death. At the risk of sounding too morbid, let me explain.
About a year ago, my younger brother died tragically at age 41 from a rare form of cancer. He had only five short months to live from the day he was first diagnosed. Having experienced the agony of losing someone I deeply loved changed me profoundly. As a professional Life Coach, the topic of mortality comes up frequently with my clients. Often, I hear stories of how utterly surprised or shocked people are by death, and yet it’s the one destination we all share. Since my brother died, I’ve spent much of this past year contemplating death and I guess even anticipating it. I’ve noticed at times that when the telephone rings unexpectedly, I internally brace and prepare myself for heartbreaking news. I say my goodbyes more intentionally now, with a clearer understanding that this just might be a final farewell. I pause more frequently to really focus on others, to take them in, to see them and wholeheartedly listen. I guess I want to be prepared. I’m beginning the journey of putting things in order and taking care of unfinished business.
You see, when you choose to be conscious of death, the reality of it begins to change you. When you start living as if you’re dying, everything begins to shift. Relationships become of highest importance. Priorities rearrange. Hugs last longer. Time becomes most precious and valuable. There is an intense internal nudging not to be wasteful with the days you have left here on earth, to use them wisely and purposefully. The words “I love you” are showered on others more freely and generously. You become much more forgiving and far less critical. You consider your legacy; what’s the mark you long to make on this world—how you want people to remember you. And your relationship with God becomes a high priority. When you expect death, your perspective on life is radically altered.
As I was sharing my insights from my airplane incident with my mom, she said knowingly, “Melissa, it sounds like the spiritual practice of memento mori. Are you familiar with it? Look it up.” I had no clue, so I Googled it. Memento mori is a Medieval Latin practice that, freely translated, means “remember that you have to die.” It’s different from the popular phrase “carpe diem” (“seize the day”), which is often associated with the live-it-up mindset of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Rather, the emphasis of memento mori throughout the ages, in religion and in the arts is reflection on one’s mortality, focusing on the fact that life on earth is transient. Many people think of memento mori, and some of the symbols associated with the contemplation of mortality as unnecessarily macabre. Images recalling mortality and death, such as skulls and the Grim Reaper, however, were used to remind us that our days here last only a short time. This spiritual discipline promoted reflecting on eternity and on the condition of your soul. Wow. What do you know? Without realizing it, I’d been quasi practicing a medieval spiritual discipline!
The other day, while coaching a client, our session started in an unusual way. “Melissa, before we begin, I need to ask you a very personal question. Is that okay?” I agreed as my client continued. “I was wondering if you—well—if you’re dying?” A little taken aback, I laughed and assured her I was fine. I told her the airplane incident had just turned out to be some weird fainting spell, most likely caused by my lifelong tendency of having too little sleep and pushing too hard. I let her know my doctor had checked me over and given me a clean bill of health. “Oh, good,” she replied, relieved. “I was just wondering. You know, I’ve been watching you a lot lately. I see the things you’re doing on Facebook. The choices you’re making. The trips you take. I read your blogs. It ‘s almost like you’ve been crossing items off your bucket list or something. It just got me wondering if something bigger was driving you—like that maybe you were dying or something? At first I felt inspired, and then I started to get a little worried. I just had to ask.” We both chuckled at her concern. And again, I assured her that I wasn’t dying, that truly, I was fine.
I’ve thought about that conversation a lot over the past two weeks. In fact, I’ve replayed it over and over again in my mind. A part of me wishes I’d answered her question quite differently. Perhaps a better, more honest response would have been something like, “Actually, yes … I am dying. In fact, the truth is, we all are.” Memento mori. Remember that you will die. For in the remembering, life truly becomes sweeter, deeper, more purposeful and more filled with abundant beauty and meaning. Memento mori.