Writing, Writing & Reading

On the Subject of Flying

This week marks the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01.  In light of this, I have decided to post an essay that I wrote in the summer of 2006.  Portions of it are clearly dated, but it is a piece that is close to my heart and that, before this, has not had the opportunity to see the light of day, so I’d like to share it with you now.

As I walk toward the airplane, I feel my anxiety begin to prickle.  I have flown twice without incident since my brother’s death, but I find that this latest trip has awakened my fear.  I wonder if this flight might also be a doomed one.  I am less concerned for myself than for my mother.  I cannot stomach the idea of her losing another child, let alone to these flighty, airborne things.

My heart still wrenches as I think back to a month earlier when we sat awaiting my sister’s arrival at another airport.  I remember the young man in his late twenties striding through the gate, to be greeted by overjoyed parents.  It seemed as though the mother had to see and touch nearly every square inch of her son—hugging him repeatedly and plucking off his cap to examine his hair.  She tended to him as if to a newborn, making certain that her child is the perfect little bundle she had hoped for—ten fingers, ten toes.

I remember watching my mother watch this other mother do what she could never again do, and I am determined to remain alive if only for her sake.  She will tell me later that as she left me at the security gate, waiting to board an American Airlines flight, she had to stop herself from telling the security guard to make sure the plane was terrorist-free.  “One of your planes killed my son,” she wanted to rail, “you’d better keep my daughter safe!”

Hearing this will again pull on my emotions, but I am reluctant to assign blame in this matter.  A great deal of energy has been invested in placing responsibility for the murder of nearly three thousand people, but the idea of knowing how and why it happened holds little comfort for me.  Although I appreciate the need for investigating security weaknesses and apprehending conspirators in order to prevent further violence, I have no desire for retribution.

Not long after the attacks I was interviewed for a documentary about them.  Its creator, Roz, was much impressed by my lack of anger toward the terrorists, and my unwillingness to exact vengeance.  I related to her my strange lifelong fascination with terrorists.  They have seemed to me an almost wholly helpless people, struggling to gain a sliver of control over their lives.  Even on the day, when I was rushing toward my brother’s apartment in Weehawken, NJ, I felt a great sorrow for those who felt so unheard, so alone, so frustrated, and perhaps even so hopeless that they could see their fellow human beings as unholy aliens deserving of death.

I told Roz how I had always wondered what it would be like to be on the receiving end of an act of violence—not that I really wanted to find out—but, I wondered if vengeance was a natural reaction for everyone.  I soon found that for me, it wasn’t.  I just wanted people to stop hurting each other.

My apprehension lingers as I step onto the plane.  It is heightened by a sudden idea that perhaps this fear is my intuition popping up to tell me not to board.  I flash on a picture of myself plummeting in this doomed aircraft—my inner voice shaking its head at me.  “I tried to tell you,” it sighs, “but do you ever listen to me?”  I decide on a “better safe than sorry” approach and do a surreptitious gut check.  I might as well entertain my intuition if only for these few seconds.  “Do you really feel like this flight is in danger?” I ask.  The faintest of replies in the negative eases my concern.  At least now, if the plane does crash, I won’t have to suffer any self-recriminations on the way down.

My thoughts return to my conversation with Roz.  The notion of war unsettles me, and I realize that I have never been able to stomach fighting—of any kind.  Watching West Side Story as a child, I sobbed uncontrollably when Bernardo killed Riff, and Tony, in his turn, stabbed Bernardo.  I was inconsolable for hours afterward—shaken by what humans are capable of—good and bad—and for the choices they could make and the choices that they ultimately do make.

All this is not to say that I don’t have my own violent impulses.  When I was driving home from my brother’s apartment on September 12, I saw a car with the word REVENGE! posted in its rear windshield.  A flood of frustration, horror, and anger sluiced through me.  It was all I could do not to ram that car from behind.  I knew my impulse was dangerously close to the driver’s own attitude, but I just wanted to pull him over and say, “Don’t you get it?  I don’t care who they are or what they’ve done to us.  I don’t want anyone else to feel what I’m feeling!  I don’t want anyone else’s brother to get blown up!”

As the plane edges toward the runway, I go through my usual routine of debating whether or not to listen to the safety instructions.  Having flown a number of times before, I suspect I am almost as fluent in them as the flight attendant is.  Besides, embarrassing as it is to admit, it doesn’t seem very cool to listen.  Looking around at my fellow passengers, I notice that few, if any, are paying the bored looking attendant any heed, and I find myself thinking that I don’t want to look like a scared little ninny who has never flown before.  In light of my recent anxiety however, I decide to pay a casual attention.

My mind wanders again though as I imagine how the passengers of those flights must have felt.  They sat much as we do, unconcernedly reading their magazines, tranquilly chatting with seatmates.  As yet unaware of the fear that would overtake them once they were airborne—once the men with the blades and mace had taken over.

And as the plane taxis leisurely, I imagine what those men must have felt.  Did their hearts beat so loudly they thought everyone must hear?  Did they feel a sense of satisfaction at the chaos and violence they would inflict?  Did they have second thoughts?  Did they wonder—ever so briefly—about the families of the people they soon meant to kill?

And how did they feel just before impact when the incontrollable self-survival instincts flooded their bodies with adrenaline one last time.  Did they rush into those buildings with a sense of serenity, a knowledge of fulfillment, of completion?  Or did they experience the regret of one who might have made a different choice if only given the chance?  Or did the natural terror of impending violent death consume them just a fragment before the flames did?

As the airplane begins to soar, banking toward the side I am sitting, I look out at the setting sun and think of my brother.  Peter was fascinated by planes and aviation.  He had taken several flying lessons in the years before his death, and had just soloed for the first time in the summer of 2001.  I thought of how he would like the view of the city from the air.  I thought of how on clear, sunny days he would look up into the sky, and, regardless of what I was talking about, respond, “Today would be a great day for flying.”

I reflect again on the people who killed my brother.  I also contemplate the real and valid anger my countrymen feel toward them that I cannot seem to summon.  I know that everything is not okay, and I agree that people have a righteous desire, and maybe even an entitlement, to protect their families, but I cannot help fearing their potential actions as much as I do another attack.  I fear the anger that might allow a lack of understanding to slip into hatred.  And it’s not always the same people doing the hating, or the same people being hated.  Some Americans call the terrorists evil.  Other Americans put the president who declared war on them into the same class.  I cannot resign either party to that realm.  I have come to believe that there is value in every human being, a lesson each could teach me—if I decided I wanted to learn.  I believe that the Divine lives in all of us.  By this logic, I cannot hate my earthly cohabitants without hating my God—and although I’ll admit things have been rough, I’m not quite ready to go down that road.

I may not be able to understand terrorists, and they may be baffled and even contemptuous of me, but surely, surely there must be something that could bridge the gap between our disparate lives—if only for an instant.  And in that instant, could we not spark a glimmer of mutual understanding?  A tiny granule of appreciation for the other’s life—regardless of ideology, geography, or deeds?  And could not that particle be a seed that might grow into something recognizable?  We are all humans after all.  We cannot be that terribly different.  I am certain many of them held commonalities with my brother—had sisters and mothers they loved, and dreams they hoped to fulfill.

I do grasp the harsh reality, however, that had I seen one of those men on that day, it is likely that no interchange between us would have altered the course of events.  If I understand nothing else, I understand pain—and the pain that these men suffered, from real or imagined causes, was most likely, too great to find a different outcome.

As the plane begins its descent through the clouds, I watch the movements of the wings.  On commercial flights my brother used to deliberately ask for a seat overlooking the wing.  He loved to watch them manipulate the air, triumphing over gravity, and then finally yielding to it when it was time to land.  I watch the night beyond the wing, the glittering lights below, knowing that my flight will not end in a building, but on the properly prepared runway waiting beneath us.  I will walk off this plane into a seemingly unending life with seemingly unending challenges.  Yet I realize the folly in this way of thinking.  One thing my brother’s death has brought home for me is that my life is a blink of an eye, a breath, a whisper.  My only refuge is in living respectfully and audaciously—to follow in his footsteps and maybe even surpass him.

I told my father after the attacks, after I had witnessed the kindness friends and strangers alike were glad to extend to those of us who were hurting the most, that perhaps this horrible thing had to have happened to remind us of our mortality and our humanity.  I reasoned that perhaps God had arranged Peter’s involvement because our family was strong enough to withstand the pain.  He was aghast at the idea, but my heart was so warmed by the incredible benevolence my fellow humans were willing to offer, that I hoped that September 11 would be an awakening of human compassion—one that might finally endure—a call to hearts, rather than a call to arms.

Now, just a few years later, I see my hopes deteriorating.  I see a return to our former indifference to one another, added to solely, by a newfound fear.  I wonder if I am naïve to believe that everything can and will be okay and that fighting is not the answer.  The only alternative I can come up with seems, on paper, silly and rather innocent.  Am I ridiculous to think that the best thing I can do is stand firm and send love all the way around?  Not that it’s easy, mind you.  Not that I even want to.  Hating seems to take a lot less effort, and the idea of evil is so much more concrete and gratifying than allowing the existence, let alone prosperity, of those I disagree with.

And there seem to be so many now—lists of people, whose agenda I once shared, finding little ticks next to their names because they don’t reinforce my opinions, from politics to baseball, from literature to behavior choices.  It doesn’t take much for me to discount even a stranger.  I don’t like the way he dresses.  I don’t approve of the way she acts.  There are so many I am tempted to brand as untouchable that I am rapidly finding myself alone.

So I pray for a loosening of my judgmental nature.  I pray for the ability not to have to understand.  I pray for a love that won’t conquer all, but instead sneaks around in the night, kissing my enemies and wishing them sweet dreams.

Just before we land, I look at the wing again.  I do not understand the Bernoulli’s effect that makes this all possible, but I know my brother would delight in explaining it to me—point by exhaustive point.  I think wryly, “I’m glad I don’t have to sit through that.”  But I smile at the notion.  I reach out into the night, sending the smile and a message, “I love you, Pete,” I sigh softly.  From somewhere beyond the clouds, unbidden, the answer returns, “I love you, too.”

Pete flying over Manhattan in July 2001 (taken by Mathew Pelto)
Pete flying over Manhattan in July 2001 (taken by Mathew Pelto)

4 thoughts on “On the Subject of Flying”

  1. As poignant and beautiful now as it was then (not that saw it then). Its funny, I had planned to write something similar on Facebook on 9/11…that is still the message that I want people to walk away from 9/11..use your freedoms to show kindness to others. I am heartened by the website started by a 9-11 family member: http://911dayofservice.org.


  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and yes, if only we all understand that only love can bring us together, we all would be living a different reality. Thinking of you always.


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