I have never been apprehensive about travelling, not even by air.
However, in recent times, each time I have to leave family and friends even for two days, I wonder if that will be the last time I’d see them again.
Now, as I sit in the cabin with other passengers waiting for take-off, my mind is travelling to many destinations and I’m pre-occupied with all kinds of morbid thoughts, the kind of thoughts I’d rather not indulge, lest they come to pass, because I know how potent my thoughts can be and how they often became reality when I dwell on them; like the day I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in years, after thinking about her the whole of the previous day, and even the previous week. I chide myself for indulging my very fertile imaginations.
I’m totally resigned to whatever lies ahead. There are situations you can’t control and this is one of them. Sitting in an aircraft about to take off, you can do nothing but abandon yourself to fate. And what is Fate? Is it enough to say it’s the result of pre-ordained events beyond one’s control? Perhaps it is. Or is it something more? But this is not the time to engage in mental discourse with myself. I start to wonder if the well-dressed men and women around me, their faces devoid of emotion, are as unflustered as they look. Are they afraid the plane might crash? Are they scared of dying? Do they have families? Did they say goodbye to their loved ones? No scratch that…they would have done so….who doesn’t….but did they suppose it could be the last? Do they believe in God and an after-life? What medley of emotions would normally run through the minds of people sitting in a plane that’s about to crash, who know without a doubt that they’d never come out alive? Do they panic? Do they shout? Do they feel frustrated because they didn’t get a chance to make an escape? Do they shed tears of fear and regret? Do they become angry at God? Do they pray and plead with God for mercy? Or do they choose to remain stoic, while making their last supplications to this God? Do the couples among them cling to each other for dear life, literally? Do they speak words of assurance, final words of good bye to each other? Do strangers turn to each other for comfort in those last moments? Do parents wrap their bodies around their children in a bid to lessen any impact from the crash?
I can’t continue with these thoughts, so I will my mind to travel elsewhere.
The plane ascends smoothly into the skies and I mouth prayers, my lips moving silently and almost imperceptibly. This is a ritual for me, praying before a flight. I see fellow passengers, heads bowed in different moods of supplication – counting prayer beads, mouthing words earnestly, leafing through bibles and prayer books. Like me, these people believe in the existence of a supreme being, God. They also believe in prayer, the act of communicating with this being. But do they ever question, like I usually do, why prayers are not an antidote to calamities in the air; because if they were, there would be no plane crashes. Yet the world keeps praying, regardless.
When I’m done with praying, I bring out a packet of chewing gums and pop one into my mouth. A man to my left asks for one. He says it’s for his ears. I suffer severe ear aches in the air so I understand the discomfort that comes with the pain. I give him two pieces and he thanks me.
The hostesses begin pulling their trolleys down the aisle as they prepare to serve refreshment. It is pastry, dry and not very tasty – cakes, meat pies and sausage rolls, served with the smallest quantities of juice, water, tea or coffee you ever saw. They stop at my side and ask what I’d have. I have often wondered why the local airlines do not serve small quantities of food in-flight, like some of the bus companies do. I reason that perhaps flights are too short and may arrive at their destinations before the meals are eaten and the cabins cleaned up.
My mind wouldn’t let me be and I become pre-occupied, once again, with the macabre.
I start to imagine mayhem in the cabin. A man is banging on the windows of the plane – as it bounces this way and that, jerking, somersaulting and careering in the air – screaming to be let out, but knowing how impossible it is. A mother is hugging her children close, imploring God for death to be quick so they won’t have to suffer much. I see passengers screaming, crying, praying out loud and pleading with God to avert the crash. I imagine the air hostess who had admired my bag, as she put it away in the over-head luggage compartment, walking calmly through the cabin and trying to reassure passengers the plane will not crash. I imagine myself putting on an oxygen mask…
These are bad thoughts. I scold myself inwardly.
I glance briefly at the lady sitting to my right. She has natural hair which is plaited and pulled back with the ends jutting straight out. She wears no make-up and no jewelry but her business suit is expensive and well-cut. She’s engrossed in an Apostolic Faith book and I wonder if she’s as calm as she looks. I take my attention off my no-make-up-and-no-jewelry-but-expensive-suit-wearing-co-traveller.
I imagine myself leaving a memento so members of my family will have something to hold on to if I died. I think about saving a text in my phone, or leaving a note in my bag. But the note will get destroyed in the crash and the phone may never be found. In the note, I’d tell one of my sisters the dress I want to be buried in. I favour my red dress with the ruffles on the left shoulder. How I love that dress! But it’s too tight on me now, so I know it won’t do. Besides, it’s too pretty to be wasted since it’s going to be eaten by maggots eventually. Somebody should inherit it, I think. My sisters are all bigger than me so I rule them out as potential inheritors of my red dress. Then I remember it will be my cousin Onyinye’s size. My missive will also say I want my face well made-up, but not heavily, so I’d look natural and not like some corpses I’ve seen in the past. What an irony! The dead who want to look like the living! I will also say I want to wear my hair natural, rather than in braids. The same note or text will express how grateful I am to God for the imperfect but blessed life I’ve lived. Finally, I will tell my family not to mourn my passing too deeply, but to give out my belongings to charity, and to get on with their lives.
I’m roused from these dismal thoughts by a voice. It’s the pilot announcing that descent will commence in twenty seven minutes. And indeed it does. There’s a bit of turbulence because it’s threatening to rain. The clouds hang heavy and pregnant as they race after each other. The plane quivers and bounces up and down gently. I clutch the handles of my seat and look out of a window.
Now my ears are aching so badly I have to stop chewing. Then I see the tops of buildings, as tiny as match boxes. Eventually the plane touches down at 3.07 pm.
It’s all over…at long last.
I’m relieved. I’m happy. I’m grateful.
I’m alive. We’re all alive.
I remain on my seat while other passengers disembark. Then I bring out my phone and start to text members of my family. In the past it would take about an hour after arrival before I informed them of my arrival. By then I would be home and settled in with her favourite meal. The man who had asked for chewing gums notices me sitting down and making no attempt to leave the cabin.
“Madam, won’t you go down?” he asks.
“I will,” I answer. “I just want to send some texts.”
My text message reads, “We’ve arrived Lagos. Thank God for a safe flight.”
My sister Nkechi replies, “Thank God o!”
Written by Vivian Ogbonna, tweets @vivianogbonna8 and blogs at undertheinfluence.wordpress.com