I’ve never flown out of Albany before today but I’ve seen these seats before. Neat rows of 15 or 20, sitting elbow-to-empty-elbow, all slender steel and curving leather, looking like they were taken out of some future that, by now, is 35 years old.
In other airports at other times,I had crawled in and out of these chairs, teasing little brother or looking for sleep with tousled hair on a shared armrest.
I’ve never flown out of Albany before but this place I know with its congregation of soulless seats, faded travel posters, and smells of mass transit (tired bodies, coffee, and – from some restless restaurant – frozen patties sizzling with Special Sauce).
It’s a quarter after five and the sun is still a ways from our Eastern horizon. I came for the funeral but had to leave before the burial. Thirty-five years ago, on a morning like this, back in their old place along the 1000-acre cove in Seekonk, I might have been rolling out of a tousled bed (warm from my once-young body), bumping down the hallway to the bathroom that always smelled like Dial and Brüt for Men. Soon, she would have had the coffee on for the grown-ups and bacon and eggs sizzling for everyone. She’d grown up on a farm, so it was always bacon and soft, salty eggs.
I sit here today though in these leather-and-steel seats. CNN is flashing headlines about the potential for 20 million Africans to starve to death this year. 20 million. Starving. To death. They break from the story to advertise a series on an investigation into world religions. It’s a finely-manicured commercial for a carefully-polished introspection (extro-spection??) on faith or something like that word.
The night before the viewing and the funeral, a few of us took a break from coffee and chili and desserts and stories to set up some photos – those saved, imperfect memories from reunions and weddings and graduations too many to remember. She was there in all of them, the sensible farm girl from Bradevelt, NJ, who loved horses but lost everything in the depression, who sang like a faerie and laughed like a leprechaun, who raised seven children (always a lucky number) and complimented perfectly my German Grampa who, teasing and wily himself, occasionally had to be tempered with a sunny Irish heart. Photos from her childhood (faded), her graduation (dog-eared), her children’s weddings (warm with the photo-tones of the ’70’s and ’80’s), her anniversaries (cleaner images of a woman herself softened over years filled with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren), all showing the progress of a girl with the bold features of a young Joan Crawford to the softer, worn posture of a woman after a lifetime of serving. Slightly faded, warm-colored, dog-eared, always serving. Coffee. Bacon and soft, salty eggs. Seven children driven to half a dozen different schools. Family dogs. Grandchildren repeating the genetic impetuousness of youth. Grand- and Great-grandchildren, some thriving and tousling the earth with their young wills, some lost to complications. Serving. Always moving to lift, give, help, soothe. Always moving. Or still with prayer. (I stop here to breathe and wipe my eyes. And I become still for a minute with my own supplications.)
We went that night to set up the photos – imperfect memories – and I paused by her body. Or rather, the body – no longer hers. It was manicured, rouged, posed and composed. But empty. It had been all used up. She had used it up. There was nothing left to give and there was the body. Eyes closed, but not really looking like I remember her. An imperfect memory.
Another commercial comes on there in the airport – flashy, perfectly lit, cleanly edited with a healthy-looking Nazarene striking a very Messiah-like pose. Finding Jesus, they call it. They’ll probably ask if such a Jew could have existed, they’ll wonder about the validity of Bronze-age miracles, they’ll look at the politics of Roman governance, local rebellion, and the utility of public crucifixion. Jesus looks healthy up there on the flat screen – strong, photogenic. I think about what a body might look like hanging on a scrap of wood, the perfection of governance gone slightly awry with the tearing of flesh, the rending of body. Crows, tears, broken legs, punctured lungs. Used up.
Close commercial and cut to “Studio A.” More insight on the inevitability of 20 million starvations.
I sit and breathe for a while. I got 2 hours of sleep last night. I’ve begun working out again. I’m trying to watch what I eat. My hips have started bothering me if I sleep too long on a side.
Soon, we board. They sky’s still dark. The crew goes about their work. They load other passenger’s checked bags. I don’t check any bags. That costs more these days. Not like 35 years ago. This is the future. Crew hustling more, passengers conserving more space. We’ve got to travel. Weddings. Funerals. Moving from where we’re at, always to where we’re going, and never really returning to anywhere we’ve been before.
We’re pushed away from the gate. The pilot taxis us out into the dark while the copilot cycles first the flaps then the air brakes then the ailerons, moving quickly through pre-flight checks. The engines fire, roar against inertia, and by a few hundred feet, the sun pours in through the starboard windows. We rise, the New York countryside falling away – white and rimmed with gold – beneath us.
I’m tired. Two hours of sleep last night, but I’ve had my coffee, and I’ve got a couple hours to myself until I return to the chaos of a place I’ve never really been.
A place where both he and she are now really gone – a generation folded into the past. (We’ve got their wedding picture – chrome and shadow – on our wall, surrounded by the faces of our kids, but those are all imperfect memories…)
We rise above the clouds and the horizon suddenly looks empty and lonely. I used to think this is where the angels lived. Now just 150 or so souls bouncing around in an aluminum tube. Aluminum, unlike steel, has a finite fatigue limit. Maintenance and operation of these aircraft are rigorously tracked. A crew of technicians, pilots, and engineers work against gravity, carries on against inertia, with engines that tend toward entropy, dissipation of energy, expansion. And I make sure not to check luggage so that I don’t have to pay them any more than I already do.
I’ve got my own gravity to work against (sore hips), seductive inertia of a tired body, and the crazy entropy of the young bodies waiting for me in a home made new and somewhat stranger with this new death.
This generation two rows ahead of us has emptied itself out. The generation behind us has its own needs, temper tantrums, midnight fevers, skinned knees and bruised shins, loose teeth, soccer goals and tragically blinded teddy bears, dinners, breakfasts, and everything in between that needs to be bought, cooked, then cleaned from mouths and then from floors, and did I say sick children and hungry children, and laughing invincible children, and wailing heartbroken children, and blue eyes and brown eyes looking to my eyes, asking me if this-or-that is ok (even wordlessly) as they pry my eyelids open on weekend mornings, the heat of their young faces close to mine.
And I love them.
I love them.
I love them.
Back at the airport or in an empty hotel room, CNN may be discussing the politics of crucifixion. I sit here though, in an aluminum tube filled with the smell of people and cheap coffee, remembering that Depression-era farm girl who, in time, said goodbye to so much until we had to say goodbye to her, crying over imperfect memories, but left with the perfection of the entropy, dispersion, and chaos back down here beneath the clouds.
And, suddenly we’re preparing for landing here in the Midwest again, and – on 2 hours of sleep – I’ve got the gift, blessing, and Grace of a home that is at once familiar and newly-strange, filled with not imperfect memories, but the perfect immediacy of gravity, inertia, and entropy. And I can again lift, give, help, soothe. I will. I will.
But now, the pilot taxis us to the gate. Now, he works. So I will let him.
And before I move, I’ll be still for a minute with prayer.
from the collection of: d. heidel