The plane nosed down once more and Robert caught a glimpse of the markers leading up to the runway. They were going to be short. They were a second or two from impact. And here came the amazing thing about the moment of death: time doesn’t slow down—it ceases to exist. You can experience the regret of not kissing your wife goodbye that morning. You can remember a family trip to St. John you didn’t take because you were too busy, which leads you to thinking you’ve missed out, you’ve barely lived, you’ve worked and worked and never strayed from your path, and now you fear you’ve wasted your life, you had your priorities all wrong, you haven’t loved enough, you haven’t experienced enough adventure whatever adventure might mean, you haven’t taken the road not taken because you’ve stayed on the road you were on, you haven’t taken risks because you’re not a risk-taker, you haven’t explored because you’re not an explorer, you haven’t followed your dreams because you’re not a dreamer. You played your life safe. You didn’t get your pilot’s license or restore that Mustang parked in your garage or visit Thailand or father a second child. You lived a nomadic life in service of your career and you didn’t cultivate lifelong friendships. You didn’t perform volunteer work and help others. You’re nothing and have been nothing all along, and you’ve blown your one and only chance to be alive and feel alive, to quench your existential thirst on the very essence of life. So you might as well die. You deserve to die. And then your mind snaps back and you remember how lucky you’ve been to have an amazing wife and a sensitive, compassionate daughter, and what more can any man ask for, what more makes for a rich and meaningful life. You can repeat a mantra of I love you I love you. You can see the people across the aisle from you clutching each other as they face annihilation, you can see a flight attendant grimace against the most extreme and unlikeliest of occupational hazards. All of this: thinking, feeling, seeing. Doubting your life; affirming your life. And yet no time at all has passed. Time does not exist. You’ve hardly gulped a breath. He had thought about his death before—who hasn’t? Not so much dwelling on how or when he was going to die, but how he would handle the moment when death arrived and the eternal unknown was upon him, and he had hoped and believed he would handle it well, face forward and head up like a man, with the pride and honor of a life well-lived, with the courage and acceptance that must accompany all that is inevitable.
He is no longer buckled in his seat. He has risen above the aircraft and is separated from his body, suspended in the sky. He is totally at ease and peaceful, filled with a calm, cottony weightlessness, looking down at the plane, the silver fuselage and wings, the red painted tail fin. He can see the long stretch of runway that remains too far away, the grassy meridians on either side, and in the farther distance the airport control tower sticking up like a mushroom from the terminal. Warm—he is so warm and comfortable. He is wrapped in sunshine, cradled in comfort. It’s like being in a hot tub, jets on full, and lowering your head underwater and you hear the water rushing around you and through you, except instead of sinking he is soaring, all these sensations he can feel so distinctly and yet he has detached from his body and is floating above the imminent disaster below. He can see inside the cabin now: the fear, the terror, the sickness, the lips moving in prayer, the begging, the passengers braced and trembling, and he can see himself alone with his seat belt buckled, sitting up straight with his head turned to the side and staring out the window as if this were any other landing on a perfect summer morning under a cloudless sky, although he knows it won’t be any other landing, and that the plane is going to crash, and he is going to die.
He’s reached that moment of preparation. He’s not going to plead his way out of this, make promises to better himself and the lives of those around him in exchange for survival. He’s done the best he could with what he had. His wife is working again, his daughter becoming an adult. It’s okay if he leaves. They will be fine. He is ready to accept his fate. Except he’s not. No! I don’t want to die! I want more life! Which plants him back in his seat at the instant the plane smacks the runway.
He is engulfed in violent, thunderous mayhem. The plane lifts again, slams down a second time. There is a horrendous scraping sound. The impact hurls Robert toward the ceiling; his seatbelt holds. Another explosive boom. The rear of the aircraft swings forward and the plane begins skipping sideways along the runway. The walls of the cabin shake apart, windows blow out. Luggage explodes from the overhead compartments. Oxygen masks fling from the ceiling. The noise is overwhelming. A subway screeching on its rails. A tornado screaming through a trailer park. Robert looks up just in time to see something hit the flight attendant in her face. He watches her forehead bloom red and then he’s wrenched to the side and his head strikes the window with enough force to crack the glass.
The aircraft skitters off the runway and spins onto a grassy area and the tail section breaks off. One wing tips up steeply and seems to drift back to the ground, and the plane comes to a sudden, thudding standstill, pitched at an angle like a slanted room in a funhouse.