As the lightning bolts sparked around me, I saw my life flash before my eyes.
It wasn’t a recall of the highlights of my days, which is what I always thought people meant when they said they saw their life flash before their eyes. Instead, it was more of a flash in which I felt my mortal life was in grave danger, and I realized I might actually die. I thought of the last text I sent to my family and I cringed that it wasn’t something more meaningful.
“We’re fifth in line for takeoff,” is what I had sent. As soon as I put my phone in airplane mode, I wished I had said, “Tell the kids I love them, I love you, and I can’t wait to see you again,” or something closer to a goodbye than, “We’re fifth in line for takeoff.”
The thing is, even though I was thoroughly spooked sitting on that runway at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in the middle of a lightning storm, I don’t usually think I am about to die in scary situations.
Just the week before I had been on a rafting trip, steering an inflatable kayak through the biggest waves I had ever maneuvered, and I didn’t think I was going to die.
Waves on a river are particularly exciting because you can’t really tell how big they are until you are right in them. For two days I was confidently guiding myself down the San Juan River, careening over a smooth current to point myself toward riffles and dips, going out of my way to meet unnecessary obstacles. At one point, I saw the water flowing into a constant wave, and I headed for it, only to find myself beached on a rock, in the middle of the river, with water rushing all around me.
The water was cold, and deep, and in a flash of a second, I pushed myself off the rock with my arm, leaving a gouge and a contusion two inches below my elbow. Once off the rock, I spun in a circle and somehow fought the eddy below the wave to move my kayak forward, nearly capsizing myself, but pressing my legs into the plastic, and holding on for dear life.
The encounter humbled me. I didn’t need to hurt myself or risk falling out into the rushing, freezing water to make it past the rock. There was at least 12 feet of water on either side of it that was calm and smooth. After that, I added more caution to my strokes, choosing the safest line I could see, rather than seeking the thrill.
Even then, I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes.
When I approached the biggest rapid of our journey on the San Juan River, a class 3 group of waves called Government Rapid, I didn’t think I would die. I saw the raft in front of me hit the first wave, then dip down, down, down, until the boat had nearly disappeared, then pop up again over the crest of the next wave. I knew it was going to be scary. And from the first tug against my paddle that would have sent my kayak sideways down the river, I committed myself to making it through. I dug my paddle in fiercely, alternating sides, striking against the current, racing up the wave before it could crash on me, then dropping down into the gully between the next peak. It was thrilling and fun, and I made it through unscathed.
I never even considered death.
I can remember only one other time I thought death was imminent — while driving in a snowstorm — until that moment on the airplane on the runway in Texas.
It had been years since I had seen a storm like that. I hadn’t seen that color of sky or that ferocity of rain since I was a child in Oklahoma.
It was intense. I was desperate to get home, and after our plane was delayed for an hour, I wondered if I would make it that night. Then, when it was time to board the plane, the gate agent said, “Please board the plane as quickly and safely as you can, because a storm is coming in, and we may be stuck here all night.”
I don’t really like confined spaces, and as I sat in my window seat, each time I saw someone fumble with their bags, or the gate agent come on and off the plane to add people one by one to empty seats, and each precious minute ticked by, my blood pressure rose. I started sweating, and my breath was becoming rapid.
Then, the pilot came onto the intercom.
“Well, folks, the FAA has just informed me that they have lost their radar,” he said. “We’re going to stay here at the gate until the radar comes back online and hope to take off then.”
I got out of my seat to stand by the flight attendants in the back of the plane, trying not to have an anxiety attack, even though the tears were starting to spill out of my eyes. Two hours later, the captain informed us we could approach the runway, just as the full brunt of the storm fell around us. It was as dark as night. The wind blew so hard it rattled the plane as it perched on the pavement. And as dark as the sky was, there was less than a second between the blinding flashes of light striking all around.
We were fifth in line for takeoff, and then, our turn came to take off into the maelstrom above. I wished I had told my husband I love him. And as I saw the lightning spider its way along the bottom of the clouds, at eye level, and occasionally gather strength to beam straight down into the ground with a green flash of fire and sparks, I prayed.Comment on this story
I prayed hard. I made promises. I stared at the sky and waited as we flew low for longer than usual, then steadily crept higher and higher. More than an hour into our three-hour flight, I finally stopped worrying we would have to turn around and go back into the tempest.
When we landed, I found the captain and thanked him for bringing me home, with a new appreciation for being alive.
The next time I’m fifth in line for takeoff, I’m not going to have any regrets. Not then, or before, or after.
In the meantime, let this be a standing message to my family: I love you, I miss you. And I can’t wait to see you again.