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“Are you travelling alone?” the flight attendant asked with a polite urgency. I was one row from the very back of the plane, but had settled into an aisle seat where I could at least recline, stretch out my leg, and not have to hop over people to reach the restroom. I like to hydrate when I travel. It gets stuffy on an airplane.
A brown-skinned man walked towards us, plaintive and looking like he was missing something. “This man would like to sit with his wife and two children in the row behind you,” the attendant said. I paused, thinking of karma and good deeds. “There’s a middle seat waiting for you all the way up front in row 11.”
Ugh, middle seats.
“You’ll get off sooner,” she suggests with a half-sincere smile.
“I’d be happy to.”
I grabbed my backpack and shuffled past the family man, looking behind me to see him sitting down in arm’s reach of his two little girls. I was pleased with myself and my dedication to sacrifice. A middle seat! But I would endure it. After all, what if my 6-year old was split from me 36,000 feet in the air? It was the right thing to do.
Row 11 is just fine. A business-clad traveling regular on my left is reading a book on Christ filled with frequent blue underlines. On my right sits a millennial with face stubble and worn cargo pants who looks like he may have just returned from hiking in the Andes. They appear two spectrum ends of freedom in the world: one to wear a suit on airplanes and prosper with hard work and puritan faith; the other to wander the earth and feel distant landscapes beneath his feet.
Having just departed from a seven-day global academic conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota where I represented Wikipedia and the sprawling but loosely organized program I run within it, I fit somewhere in the middle. Literally, I think, as I buckled my seat belt.
“Where are you from?” blurted a loud man one row behind me in the aisle-seat. His voice was louder and more pressured than necessary for casual conversation. The Texas twang was undeniable. His tenor signaled a lack of restraint or self-consciousness and a charge of self-importance. He was punchy and inquiring, but the slight Asian boy he spoke to — the one immediately behind me — seemed overwhelmed by the volume and enthusiasm.
“I’m from Korea” he replied. “I finished college and am going back to live with my parents. I, uh, just graduated.”
“What did you study?” asked the Texan.
“Oh, you must be smart then.”
There was a pause which the drawling commentator quickly filled.
“I’m an engineer, too” the Texan injected. “Well, I’m not actually an engineer but I oversee engineers. I work on networks, you know the telecommunications backbone. I go into Sprint and AT&T and make sure everyone’s phones work. I’m a problem solver, been doing it for 17 years. I’ll tell you one thing, you’ve got to find work that you like to do, and once you find it, you have to stick with it.”
“I have only been on one flight before,” the student said. He was wearing a black t-shirt with white lettering. His hair was clipped and had a sweep across his brow to the right. “I am nervous. This is my first flight.”
Row 12’s window-seat was filled with a more mature but equally middle-American fellow who spit chewing tobacco juice into a styrofoam cup. “Well, if this is your first flight, then how did you get to the U.S.?” he curiously pointed out.
“Oh, then this is my second flight,” said the student in a quiet voice.
“So if Korea is so advanced technologically, why did you come to the US to study?” the Texan probed, in a nauseating and nativist-sounding line of questioning. I sighed.
I plugged my earbuds into my phone and turned on a droning binaural audio track to drown out the two-sided, pseudo-patriotic interrogation happening behind me.
It was my ninth day of travel, a trip from San Francisco that began with a 40-hour trek to reach Minneapolis, due to weather and the poor decision to make Chicago a connection hub in disregard for its severe summer thunder and lightning. I got to spend an overnight in Missouri where we’d diverted after the pilot casually announced that if we kept circling O’Hare airport, we’d run out of fuel. It seemed a simple calculation.
I had arrived a day late to my conference and began my campaign of outreach to thousands of professors and administrators. A full week-later, eyes closed and trying to zone out to wandering ambient noises, I wanted to finally be home. Through Chicago. Grab my bags in San Francisco. Drive down the coast to Santa Cruz. I wanted to just have an easy flight, kiss my fiance, give my six-year old her presents, and fall asleep in my own bed.
“Sir,” the flight attendant said, kindly jostling me from my trance. “Would you like a snack or a drink or anything? It’s on us. I feel bad about you having a middle seat. Would you like something to eat or a cocktail?”
I don’t usually drink when I fly, but free booze after those dozens of exhibit-hall conversations, evening mingles, company pitches, two-hour lectures, and day-long workshops… well, I guess I deserved it.
“Bloody Mary, please”.
She handed me a mini bottle of Tito’s handmade vodka and a can of mixer.
The briny heat of the drink felt good as I sipped it down. This was guiltless karma. I was being rewarded. This is how the world works: if you are a decent human being, things work out for you in the end. My plastic cup empty down to the remaining cubes of ice, I nestled the drink between my hip and the armrest. I closed my eyes again.
Two minutes later the flight attendant returned. “Would you like one more?” she smiled. “We really appreciate what you did, with the middle seat and all.”
I was uncertain but didn’t wait for convincing. “OK,” I voiced, affirming permission to myself to imbibe again. Karma. Why not?
Behind me the Texan grated with more tales of his technical exploits. He’s always challenged by new technology. He manages a dozen computer programmers. He sees the big picture, how everything fits together. He gets inside the rooms where the servers are — the big ones. His younger friend works for him and his friend is smart — he got the second highest score on the SAT in the whole country.
Meanwhile, the student is seeming more agitated. “I need to sleep,” he says. The Texan is instantly as helpful as he is boastful and sure. He offers to walk right with the student to the nearest newsstand once we reach Chicago and show him where the Advil PM is. “Don’t worry about it,” says the Texan. “We’ll pick you up somethin’ PM, no problem.”
A few minutes later the student is in pressing discomfort. “I need to pee,” I hear him say, as if he has a problem that he doesn’t know how to solve. The Texan seems not one for coddling, but he won’t begrudge the young man a guiding hand, and walks him up to the restroom. The student is confused and needs the Texan to open the inverting bathroom door panels for him. I return to my headphones.
Behind me I overhear the Texan and the man with the styrofoam cup confer. “It seems like he’s in a bit of a way,” says the tobacco spitter.
The tell-tale signs — anxiety, claustrophobia, fear of flying, intimidation at speaking to two brash Americans, the disorientation of airplanes the first few times you use them — all seem pretty understandable to me.
The student returns awkwardly to his seat. He keeps mumbling something.
“I need peace. I need to sleep. I need to sleep. I need to sleep.”
A few minutes pass and the student again dislodges from his row, angling towards the rear bathroom in what seems like physical pain. Maybe he is getting sick, I think, or just losing control.
Sitting back, finally I find a rhythm in my music and feel a wave of deepening dissociation overcome me. I welcome the tendrils of naptime as I start to slip into my subconscious. It is a moment of respite I have been dreaming of for days. Zoning, droning, sinking into my seat. It is blissful. I lose track of time.
“CODE RED” says a tense voice over the loudspeaker. I jerk upright and for a millisecond scan the plane for a burning engine, open escape hatch, or released oxygen mask. There isn’t anything wrong that I can see, and my returning frontal cortex reminds me that “red” is usually medical. It seems so in the moment of otherwise calm passengers.
I watch a flight attendant walk briskly back towards the bathroom, and put my headphones back on. “I guess he threw up or had a panic attack,” I say to the hiker on my right before turning up the volume.
“Are there any doctors on the plane?” an urgent voice sounds out with raised alarm. I look around for hands or movement but no one budges.
A minute later the woman on my side’s row-10 window seat reluctantly says to herself, “Well I am a nurse. I guess I better go back there.” She’s middle-aged, wearing a white blouse and has cropped brown hair. She climbs over two people.
The Texan is dialoging in whispers with the tobacco spitter. I can barely hear them over the engines. “He was in there a long time,” the Texan says. “So, I told them to go and check on him.”
“Prepare the airplane for landing” says a voice from the cockpit. It is not the pleasant airplane voice that beckons you to return to Delta with scripted appreciation. He means we are landing now.
The real-time map in front of me shows 25 minutes to our destination. I tell the hiker we must be speeding up into Chicago, but he’s doubtful we made it that far. We didn’t even cross the border into Illinois yet, he says.
“Ladies and gentleman,” the pilot continues. “Because of a medical emergency we need to divert.”
Another flight attendant hurries towards the rear of the plane with a large blue bag I suspect is filled with medical supplies. Heads turn to catch a glimpse of what is happening but from row 11 there is only speculation.
The tobacco spitter is raising concerns — that student boy didn’t seem in his right mind. He kept getting upset, saying those things about his needs — peace. And sleep. The Texan agrees, something wasn’t as it should be.
A blonde flight attendant comes by row 12 to speak with both men behind me. Her eyes are bloodshot, and though her voice is steady, there is wetness welling up to her eyelashes. She asks the Texan what happened. He summarizes, as the tobacco spitter notes his observations in alternating statements.
The plane corrects suddenly to the left and we are tipped downward to descend. The town we are flying over is filling out to the edges with flat green spaces. This is not Chicago.
We touch down and taxi quickly towards the gate. We can see a firetruck and an ambulance by the airport gate, red lights blinking. “Ladies and gentleman,” the pilot begins again. “Please remain seated while the paramedics board the plane.”
Four men, well-built, confident, eyes flooded with focus and adrenaline careen down aisle towards the missing student. I wait. People around us are playing guessing games. Realizations of missed connections and travel woes catch up with folks who start calling their airline representatives amid the event.
I am beginning to grasp something more serious than flight delays. The Texan is upset and signalling something worse than fainting or puking all over the toilet. He can’t say what but he is fixated on the student’s state of mind. “‘I need sleep, I need sleep’ he just kept sayin’.”
A shuffle of eight footsteps overtakes row 11 as the men in their dark blue uniforms go by us in the opposite direction. Each has a hand on a sturdy sheet corner. Inside is something heavy, its still weight dragging along the airplane carpet. I see two knees wobbled over to one side. I cannot see a face.
A flight attendant returns to row 12 and asks the two interlocutors if they can write down their reports. She is still weary-eyed and starting to lose that crisp facade of seasoned airplane personnel. She is looking far too human for the incessant demands of this work. Something seems broken.
A minute later another man in a dark blue uniform walks past us. This one has a gun on his hip and a badge. Suddenly it all hits me. Like a battering ram in the gut. Police don’t investigate seizures and stomach aches. They investigate deaths.
I feel the energy spilling out of my intestines like someone has released a ballast of my spirit. I know the smell of death, from long-loved puppies put to sleep, to hospitalized pill-swallowers who nearly escape overdoses. It is a scent that ties empty knots inside you and grips at your breath.
In the unclear moments afterwards, we are left in purgatory on the tarmac. There is no news of when we can continue to fly. Gossip spreads, and with my row 11 middle seat position between the row 12 Americanos and the row 10 nurse, I am well-placed to collate and corroborate details.
He was in the bathroom for over 15 minutes. They found him on the floor. He wasn’t moving. There were signs you can’t unwash from memory, that he had done it to himself.
We are given permission to exit the plane and seek out our final destinations with rental cars or new flights. The plane thins out, but many of us are stranded wanting for further details. Chicago is inundated with more thunderstorms and nothing is landing there anyway. We wait.
Another policeman boards the plane. Then an air marshal. It feels like the signature is being put on the documents. Final confirmation. Time of expiry.
A flight attendant hunches over at row 10 and speaks with the nurse. They discuss equipment and procedure. “You really should have an Epi-pen,” the nurse says. “And glucose.”
“I know” says the attendant. “I will bring it up at my next training. And CPR, this new method of 60 pumps per minute is too hard.”
“It should be 30 pumps per minute,” the nurse agrees. “It’s all about the breath. These new recommendations for just pumping and no breaths is not the best.”
I learn that CPR in the rear of a five-seat wide plane is difficult. There’s no good angle to get at the sternum. Arms tire. I learn the student was long and his body barely laid flat in the tight spaces. I learn that atropine and adrenaline were administered by the paramedics. I learn the student remained unresponsive.
More minutes go by in static agony. The flight attendant returns to the nurse from the front of the plane.
“They have a heartbeat” she affirms.
I think this is good news, but I see in both their eyes that this is definitive of nothing. Hearts can beat when brains have long given up their grasp on the body.
“Well at least there’s a heartbeat,” the nurse says, sounding more resigned than relieved.
We take off an hour later in the same plane. The weather had cleared in Chicago and we could land, scamper towards new airplanes or baggage claim carousels. On the flight there I use the bathroom. Inside I wonder whether it’s this one I’m in on the left, or the other one across, where they found him lifeless. Where he decided he couldn’t go on. I think about what kind of pain, sickness, fear, or dejection he must have been suffering.
I think about how I am lucky to be feeling strong enough to console the teary flight attendant as I walk back in the plane. How I could tell the nurse how thankful we were for her. How the tobacco spitter should feel reassured that he did everything he could.
I learn that he told the student he would be fine, didn’t need to do nothin’ but put his head back and relax, and showed him pictures of his kid who graduated college to take his mind off of things. I ask him how he is doing.
“I’m in shock I guess,” he says. “Really, thank you for asking, brother.”
I think more about the distance I have traveled to and from the cliffs and beaches of Santa Cruz. How each flight was one more travail and delay and detour from getting to my destination and making it back safely. I think about the student’s parents, about going home. About how some people take off, and never get there.
Some details have been changed to protect the identity of the victim. Everything else is true.
Curated thoughts for inadvertent witnesses:
- As in any tragedy, you have to take care of yourself first. Sometimes that happens after taking care of others. It has to happen at some point.
- Proximity to tragedy is trauma. There is no such thing as an unaffected witness.
- Our duty in retelling the stories of others pain is to respect their integrity, dignity, privacy, and memory. A good story can not supercede that.
- Effects of trauma can appear days, weeks, months, or even years later. We are first adrenaline-ridden heroes or survivors. When that armor fades, we feel vulnerability with new and sometimes crushing intensity.
- If you are starting to react to everyday life events like they are loaded, threatening, offensive, or foreboding, it is completely natural. It is also a sign that you need to talk to someone about what happened.
- Recovery is for the future. We don’t examine trauma to solve or cure it, but to make sure that it doesn’t derail our own journey towards a meaningful life.
- When you are weak, lean on the people around you. Literally, go rest your body on someone’s chest or shoulder. Just lie there. It’s ok.
- If you can’t open to others and you find yourself seeking isolation, then take isolation in self-care. While your mind processes, give your body rest and nourishment.
- When you are ready, understanding will come. This is not an answer to question, but a vision for what comes next and a willingness to accept it.
- Recovery is work. Even when an injury is outside of our control, the task of cleaning wounds falls into our hands. Like much work, it can not only heal but also make you strong. It’s ok to become stronger. Sometimes it’s the only way.