Death takes a holiday

by James Wysong on May 24, 2005

An announcement of a three-hour mechanical delay rang throughout the aircraft and 300 people grumbled simultaneously. Except for the middle-aged man sitting next to me. He merely chuckled and sat back in his chair.

“What made this guy so jolly?” I pondered as he stared straight ahead with a peaceful but goofy grin affixed to his face. I wasn’t in the mood for a “look on the bright side” lecture, so I just kept to myself. As the delay wore on, the man’s calm demeanor started to annoy me. He was a fairly good-looking man in his late forties or early fifties, but the black circles under his eyes indicated a good sleep was in order.

Misery loves company but he wasn’t joining the consensus and his grin never subsided. He wasn’t doing anything except staring straight ahead. It was as if he was sleeping with his eyes open, perhaps meditating. Whatever it was, he was bugging me, and if he were on drugs, I needed the same.

I looked at my watch worriedly and realized that if we didn’t go soon I would never catch my connecting flight. Two more mechanics boarded the plane and the future of our flight looked dim.

“What’s your deal?” I blurted out, not being able to take his silence any longer.

“I beg your pardon?” He turned his head to me.

“Everyone in this plane is stressing out that we’re not going anywhere, but here you sit calm, cool and collected. And if I’m not mistaken, you’re actually enjoying this.”

“Oh, I am in no hurry,” he calmly replied.

“Do you work for the airline?”

“Nope.”

“What’s your secret?” I asked, hoping for a small amount of enlightenment.

“I’m dying.”

“I beg your pardon?” I managed to get out as I swallowed my gum.

“I found out last week that I’ve got about six months tops.”

“I…Uh…am sorry,” was all I could think to say.

“Don’t be. I’m not.”

An awkward silence followed. I had previously sat next to a dying lady who was in route to spend her final days in Florida. But this was different. He seemed to be at peace and had a wonderful aura about him. My morbid curiosity searched for the probable diagnosis.

“Cancer, if you were wondering,” he said as if he was reading my mind.

The airplane door closed and we pushed back from the gate. The passengers cheered but now I was intrigued with this man sitting next to me.

“You seem so calm about it, are you on some kind of anti-depressant?” I asked.
“No, even though I have enough morphine for future pain. The weird thing about all of this is that I am not sad or scared. Remarkably, I am relieved.”

“How so?” I asked.

“I never really enjoyed life, from my dysfunctional childhood to being a stressed out adult. I never found a good woman, I was a major hypochondriac and everyday I lived in fear. I thought of suicide many times. But now it is being done for me.”

“Surely you found something wonderful in life?” I asked.

(What was I doing? A man was dying and I was trying to talk him into being upset about it?)

“It is only now that I know what it’s like to live without fear. Life is a rather cruel joke; you don’t get the punch line until it’s too late.”

We talked for the duration of the flight and when we started to descend I had many more questions for him. Where do you imagine yourself to be going? Are you religious?

“Not very religious, but I imagine that I’m about to go to sleep for a very long time. Sleep was one of the very few pleasures I have had in my life and I can only hope for a great dream.”

He chuckled and looked out the window as we landed. “The aspect that you won’t be able to grasp until you are in my shoes is that the secret of life…is death.”

I smiled with a confused expression trying to comprehend what he had said. Somehow, I felt enlightened and wanted more.

“Hey, don’t you have a connecting flight?” he asked as we suddenly noticed that all of the other passengers had disembarked.

Then he said: “Well, I guess I do too.”

“Yes you do, and I love the way you look on it,” I said, trying to be profound.

“No, I mean I really do.”

He got up, grabbed his bags and started to walk away. “When life gets too stressful,” he said, “Try and remember what I told you.”

I sat still and tried to comprehend his remarks as he disappeared into the airport. Why was I filled with such an odd emotion? Was it because I wasn’t in his shoes? Or was I merely fascinated by his unique outlook on life and death?

You always hear about people with cancer who courageously fight for life until the end, but never of the people who are relieved and ready to throw in the towel. Was he a coward or merely a lonely person who was just happy to declare the whole game over?

Why did his lack of appreciation of life seem to double mine?

Whatever it was, I felt great, inebriated by the oxygen flowing in and out of my lungs. I looked at my watch, and even though I was extremely late, I walked to my connecting gate, less fearful and extremely at peace.

In some small way I think he cured me of my own hypochondria and convinced me to live for the now.

I never caught his name but I like to refer to him as Destiny. He wasn’t exactly sure where he was going, but was well-prepared, and in a manner of speaking, his mental bags were already packed.

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