My response to turbulence in airplanes disturbs other passengers.
It’s not what you probably think. I don’t go white-knuckled or green-faced or breathless or limp. I don’t jabber or skulk or pray. The opposite, really—though my response may be born of the same awe. When I see from my window the tremoring of wing tips, when I hear the rattling of loose luggage overhead, I laugh. The more violent the tremor, the louder the rattle, the harder I laugh. Come now, I think. Is that all you’ve got?
My father has accused me of having a T-type personality. On the surface this would appear not to be the case. I have never broken a bone, whether in the pursuit of a thrill or through plain clumsiness. I’ve not jumped from an airplane or off a bridge or gambled with anyone’s money or partied harder than my body could take. I have avoided most drugs. I speak softly.
But when my house nearly burned down two years ago, I was thrilled by the prospect. Earthquakes, like turbulence, make me a little manic. I like to drive too fast, swim too far past the buoys, sprint down hills until my ankles wobble and the wind whistles in my ear. I like to fight. And in affairs of the heart I have made enough reckless choices to last us both a lifetime.
I am thinking of all this now so as not to dwell on other regrets that may last a lifetime. I am sitting in the waiting room of the Ronald Reagan Surgical Center on the UCLA medical campus, where my mother is undergoing an open-heart procedure to correct a “severe mitral regurgitation exasperated by atrial fibrillation,” drinking lukewarm coffee and failing miserably at not dwelling on it.
Something, anything, else: The lights lining the runway at the Las Vegas airport are green, not blue.
In the past two days I have made: a large pot of chicken and turnip soup, a pork roast on the bone, three pots of quinoa, two of collards and spaghetti from scratch.
Yesterday on the phone with you I described the wind-battered palm trees as “curtsying,” but that was ungenerous. Bowing at the waist, I should have said.
The air in West Los Angeles before sunrise smells powerfully of jasmine—even, dissonantly, in the concrete muscular parking structure of UCLA’s medical campus.
So here we are again.
Severe mitral regurgitation, meaning more than sixty percent of her blood leaks from the left ventricle every time her heart beats. Probably, if you believe the electrocardiograph readings, more like 75 percent.
And when you press your head against her chest, it sounds like someone is squeezing a wet sponge.
That pretty much says it for me. But perhaps you would prefer the words of my father: your momma has an achy, breaky, leaky heart.
Despite all the turbulence, there’s of course no laughter, only this dread that comes in waves. I once had a neat theory about disaster: that contemplating big loss is one of the last foolproof ways to feel alive, if you can survive it. Now I am not quite ready to put the theory to bed — I think it has its truth — but I would complicate it: it is a way to feel alive if the loss has nothing to do with the woman from whom you derive everything (I mean everything), all your life and strength and story.
All my best stories start with her. Every moment we wait to hear the next chapter feels like a little death. If all had gone as planned, she would be coming out of the procedure now. But we weather the moments here in the sunshine, think about all the work and loves and unwatered plants we left behind. We think of turbulence on airplanes. And there’s no thrill. I don’t tempt fate. I don’t ask if this is all there is. This is enough.