I have read how Tibetan monks, having carried the dead to the green valleys on a mountainside will strip a body of flesh, cut skin and muscle to fragments; then praying, take hammer to bone, crushing the last bits to powder. In the evening, these are left on the valley floor, offerings for gathering vultures. So in time, body and spirit—piece by shattered piece—will rise on the wind. Burial by air.
They are sending me up whole. My carcass is still intact, sort of—broken but packed in the hard shell of a body cast. I have now been unconscious three times since the accident—once on impact when my head must have hit the back of the front seat (or Susan…I will wonder forever if my skull crushed hers), once to set the rods in place for traction, and once more to put me in this casing—an exoskeleton hard as any insect’s. I have almost lost track of waking time and dream time. My dreams are hollow. I walk though planes of echo. No visions of my wife or son. They do not come to me…they are gone even there. I shout their names. I drift and float in my body, buoyed up my morphine. Pain sufferers will often tell others that narcotics don’t erase or dull or stop pain—they simply detach you from it, so that you float above it or under it. It simply doesn’t really matter any longer. Very little does. I will not remember who rides with me to the airport. Though when the ambulance stops, it is Rhian who sits above me. My father stands on the tarmac waiting. He will see me home.
I have always been afraid of flight. Susie used to tease me about it. Once, landing at O’Hare, the 747, having dropped to within feet of the ground, suddenly leapt up again and rose like a rocket. Passengers gasped as the force of acceleration pinned them to the backs of their seats. Leveling out, the captain told us it was a “touch and go,” that there was another plane on the runway. He made a joke. People laughed. I breathed in and out, tried not to vomit. Susie laughed hard.
Every time I have gotten on an airplane I have felt that strange foreboding. That I am giving up control of my life to others who have no stake in it. From the first security check, to the terminal shuttle, to the fastwalk, we are herded, guided, ushered in by gentle, professional hands that comfort and shield us from the fact that we will soon hurl ourselves across land and ocean, thousands of miles into the air on faith alone.
I cannot see out the window from the make-shift bed, hanging from the ceiling of the first-class cabin and I am grateful. I breathe in and out slowly. I am in terrible pain that even the narcotics can’t touch or make irrelevant. They couldn’t make me fit. Having been so careful. Gently lifting me from beds to gurneys, chattering over me in Arabic, whispering to me in broken English. From bed, to ambulance, to the blinding sun of the windy tarmac, to the service truck with the boxes of food that rose with me on hydraulics to the back of the plane. Each step carefully coordinated, through the aisles hand to hand to gentle hand. They carried me like a casket on a funeral march—with great care and solemnity.
So different I imagine than it must have been when they airlifted Susan and me on separate helicopters to the army hospital. I was unconscious then so I did not see Darius being placed alone in the ambulance, Cyrus’ crumpled body thrown free and far ahead. I cannot hear my mother-in-law’s lonely screams.
By now my oldest son and my wife are flying on separate journeys in real caskets beneath another plane, and I lie on a makeshift bed in an airplane in pieces placed together by so many gentle hands. And the engine is roaring. They couldn’t make me fit, you see. The cast was set with the legs splayed too far apart. So they pushed them together. There was nothing else to do. I can’t remember that I even spoke, much less cried out. And when my father meets me on the plane holding Darius’ little hand, he wipes the water from my cheeks.
“Are you okay?” he whispers as my mother tells an attendant the story.
“He lost his wife and son in a car accident. We’ve come to fly him home,” she says. “We will help him, heal.”
For the rest of the flight the attendant will stand by me, wiping my brow with a cold cloth, spooning soup to my mouth. “Eat, you must eat.”
The engine roars. And when I think of flying now I think of the sound of helicopter blades above two women. One beautiful even as she dies, half her head leaking through a bandage—perhaps a medic furrows a brow. And the mother rising with her and without her, the ground receding beneath her feet. Did she want to fall as I do now. Did she want to crawl through the window and fly into a thousand shattered pieces, scattered into nothing?
–refers from the word crush in Rose Auslander’s poem Breaking
Joel Peckham is an assistant professor of American Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati, Clermont College. You can find him online at http://www.joelpeckham.com.
Photo by Elliot Brown via Flickr Creative Commons: http://bit.ly/17F14hd.