by Charles W. Dowdy
My wife and I met the Angel of Death at about thirty thousand feet somewhere over the state of Missouri. We're still alive, obviously, so it was more of a "meet and greet" instead of a real "get to know you" encounter.
I'm not surprised at anyone we strike up a conversation with, even the Grim Reaper. My wife, my mother, and my mother-in-law are all the kind of people who can and will talk to anyone. They actually listen when someone tells them something, which makes them great to go to funerals with, because they somehow know exactly what to say and how to say it. When I try to be like that my wife says it comes off as flirting. I'm not suggesting this happens at funerals. What I meant was that when I make the effort with total strangers it rarely works for me. I feel like a sham, a fake, and I try too hard to hide it.
We were on a plane, headed home to get married. This was an exciting time for us, but you wouldn't know it looking at my fiancée. She is not a scared flyer, but she is a nervous one, and she's not her normally, chirpy self on a plane. That's because she has to spend the entire flight concentrating on keeping the plane in the air. She has taken on that responsibility for everyone else on board, and if we go down in flames, or with wings loaded with ice, then it will be her fault. That's why she asks, "What was that?" each time the plane makes a noise, or "Why are we turning?" each time the plane's wings dip. Flying would be perfect in her mind if someone could design a plane that made no noise, and was able to always fly in a straight line. She does not understand why a machine that is capable of lifting two hundred people into the air, fly them a thousand miles at six hundred miles per hour, then land them safely back on the ground, can't make those last few modifications toward perfection.
You would think the Angel of Death would take a sinister form on a commercial flight, maybe some nutty guy with a shoe bomb, somebody who locked all the bathroom doors, or even a stewardess who was stingy with the peanuts. Not so. We were in a row with three seats. I had the aisle, my wife-to-be was in the middle, and the Angel of Death got the window seat. Luckily, leg room wasn't a problem; she was short, gray-haired, dressed comfortably upper middle class. She was holding a novel with a crossword puzzle sticking out of it.
My mother-in-law does it more like a history professor. She'll spend a few moments with the people she did not know, then say, "That's Gene and Myrtle Norman from Atlanta. Gene's in sales, Myrtle's a part time decorator. They have two children, one is in politics and works in DC, and the other may be in some kind of treatment facility. It sounded like a problem with alcohol, but I'm not sure."
My mother will meet the same two strangers and come back with a more surfacy report, and generally one that always seems to benefit her in some way. "That's Myrtle and her husband. She's a decorator and thinks I should switch out the leather couch with some kind of patterned one. She says neutral colors are out, and she's also a big fan of Turkish rugs."
For some reason, my wife is an everyman's Dr. Phil. She is Barbara Walters minus the plastic surgery. People will tell her things they'll barely admit to themselves. And they'll do it anywhere. A bathroom. A restaurant. (That's my favorite; somehow we go from what kind of wine would be good with the tenderloin to a cheating husband wanted by the IRS.) It can even happen at thirty thousand feet.
This was not the usual conversational volley you get back after telling someone you're on your way to get married. My wife was so thrown by the response the plane turned to the left the slightest bit. She put her focus back on guiding the plane as she offered her condolences to Dorothy.
Dorothy nodded. "Our oldest son committed suicide."
Now my wife-to-be went into full consoling mode. I was forgotten. The fate of the plane became secondary. She turned in her seat to give Dorothy her full attention. See, on the backside, she will often complain when people dump their emotional garbage on her, but she always comes back for more. She can't help it. If she senses someone in need, she's all for it.
My fiancée placed her hand on Dorothy's arm, a physical gesture to let her know it was OK, and Dorothy let go with her story. In addition to losing a husband to cancer and a son to suicide, Dorothy had another son in prison and another son who'd been killed in a car wreck. And this was all before cabin service.
Armed with ginger ale (we'd been planning on getting champagne or wine but that didn't seem appropriate now), we sat and listened to Dorothy relay a life filled with tragedy and sadness. It went on and on, Dorothy sharing some God awful occurrence, and my wife offering some well wishing words of comfort. Dorothy never stopped and my wife-to-be could not bring herself to disengage her. Their exchange got to be like banjoes dueling between the promise of hope and the reality of despair. Actually, my fiancée may have been keeping the plane in the air because I think this woman was praying we'd go down in flames, just so she could add it to her repertoire of heartbreak.
What had begun as a flight toward a lifelong commitment to each other, was dissolving into a descent into life's hell.
Once she had exhausted the actual events that made her life terrible, Dorothy started in with general statements that she'd picked up while being life's doormat. It started getting creepier and creepier. "Enjoy the good times," Dorothy told us, "because life is full of heartbreak."
"I know," my fiancée said, having long since run shy of platitudes.
"It'll surprise you. You'll be going along, happy as a lark, then out of nowhere, it'll all be gone."
"You have to enjoy the good times," fiancée said, looping back to Dorothy's advice.
"And the good times don't last nearly as long as they should."
"Life is short."
"In fact," Dorothy said, "sometimes you don't even realize those were supposed to be the good times. It's not until things are really, really bad that you even know that."
"Wow," my fiancée said.
"You just can't deny death," Dorothy said.
A few years ago our kids found our cat dead in the woods behind our house. They pleaded with me to do mouth to mouth, but I assured them the cardboard stiff carcass was well beyond our efforts.
The kids were traumatized. We dug a hole and stuck Gray the dead cat in it. We had an elaborate service, viewing it as a learning opportunity for the kids. There were poems and prayers and tears. An expensive sterling silver cross was brought from inside and stuck in the dirt. This was something of a surprise to the wife and me. An expensive surprise. But it wasn't like we could take the thing back now.
And my kids were generous with their grief, saying things like "We'll miss you, Gray," and "It's all your fault, Mom! If you'd let her stay inside then Gray would still be alive."
That's not exactly true. Gray had lived outside in the days prior to and after Hurricane Katrina. My family evacuated and I was working, so Gray was on her own in the eighty mile per hour winds. Gray had become a pretty self-reliant cat after that. Judging by the few wounds that I'd been able to see on Gray, it looked like another animal had done her in, probably a dog.
So, after they heaped abuse on their mother, our children dropped into the dirt for one last prayer for their departed cat. I was headed for the back door, thinking about lunch, when I suddenly stopped. I called my wife. To her credit, she was still with the kids and their really long prayer, staying to the bitter end, hoping that would absolve her of some of the blame. She kept her head bowed, and held up a hand for me to wait.
I called her again. She gestured with her hand, like can't you see we are praying here? I called her once more
She finally looked up, seeing what I saw. Which was our cat Gray. Very much alive. Standing by the back door.
"It's a miracle," the children yelled, as they all stood around the cat. I didn't recall their being that close to Gray in the first place. Nothing was said about the cat we had buried. We had a joyous reunion, and a celebratory lunch, although Gray wasn't nearly as excited as the children were. Then the doorbell rang.
Our visitor was a neighbor from down the street. Looking for his cat. They'd gotten it declawed and it was missing.
"Any chance it was gray?" I asked.
"Yes. You've seen him?"
"Nope, just curious," I said, then shut the door.
So, as my kids would be the first to report, death, on occasion, can be cheated.
"And where did you say the two of you are going?" Dorothy said to my fiancée when I delivered her bag to the crowded terminal.
"Going to get married," my now-wife said.
Dorothy frowned even as she said, "How nice," like maybe she was realizing what we were doing for the first time, and now she was piecing back together her words of the last two hours. But she couldn't let death go. She had to get in one last negative word. "My husband and I got a divorce."
I had not spoken the whole time. "Wait a minute. I thought you said he died of cancer."
"He did. Throat cancer. After he ran off with his receptionist. Served the sorry bastard right."
Then Dorothy hunched her shoulders, adopting a defeated pose. Perhaps she was an angel at one time, but she'd seen too much death in her life, and now death kept her firmly in its clutches as she trudged out of sight, pulling her carry-on behind her.
Charles Dowdy is the father of four and the husband of one. Editors may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more stories by Charles Dowdy, visit these USADS pages:
Expensive Dancing Specks
Hair plucking and Gandhi
Goodby, Debt; Hello, Ricecakes
The Waiting Room War Zone
Small Towns and The 3 Second Intersection Rule
President Bush, Sponge Bob, and a Banana
The Twins Journal
Amending the Neighborhood Constitution
Double Trouble: Cross-eyed Twins
An open letter to my wolf
The Chattanooga North Pole
This column really stinks
Cub Scouts and a bad Tenderfoot
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