Heaven for Paul

Mark Doty

The flight attendant said:

We have a mechanical problem with the plane,
and we have contacted the FAA for advice,

and then: We will be making an emergency landing in Detroit,

and then: We will be landing at an Air Force base in Dayton,
because there is a long runway there, and because
there will be a lot of help on the ground.

Her voice broke slightly on the word help,
and she switched off the microphone, hung it back on its hook,
turned to face those of us seated near her,
and began to weep.

Could the message have been more clear?
Around us people began to cry themselves,
or to pray quietly, or to speak to those with whom
they were travelling, saying the things that people
would choose to say to one another before
an impending accident of uncertain proportions.

It was impossible to hear, really, the details
of their conversations – it would have been wrong to try –
but one understood the import of the tones of voice
everywhere around us, and we turned to each other,

as if there should have been some profound things to be imparted,
but what was to be said seemed so obvious and clear:
that we’d had a fine few years, that we were terrified
for the fate of our own bodies and each other’s,
and didn’t want to suffer, and could not imagine

the half hour ahead of us. We were crying a little
and holding each other’s hands, on the armrest;
I was vaguely aware of a woman behind us, on the aisle,
who was startled at the sight of two men holding hands,

and I wondered how it could matter to her, now,
on the verge of this life – and then I wondered how it could matter to me,
that she was startled, when I was on the verge of this life.

The flight attendant instructed us in how to brace
for a crash landing – to remove our glasses and shoes
and put our heads down, as we did long ago, in school,
in the old days of civil defence. We sat together, quietly.
And this is what amazed me: Paul,

who of the two of us is the more nervous,
the less steadily grounded in his own body,
became completely calm. Later he told me

how he visualised his own spirit
stepping from the flames, and visited,
in his mind’s picturing, each person he loved,
and made his contact and peace with each one,

and then imagined himself turning toward
what came next, an unseeable ahead.
For me,
it wasn’t like that at all. In the face of death

I had no composure whatsoever,
and any ideas I’d ever entertained about dying
seemed merely that, speculations flown now
while my mind spiralled in a hopeless sorrowful motion,

sure I’d merely be that undulant fuel haze
in the air over the runway, hot chemical exhaust,
atomised, no idea what had happened to me,

what to do next, and how much of the next life
would I spend (as I have how much of this one?)
hanging around an airport. I thought of my dog,

and who’d care for him. No heaven for me,
only the unimaginable shape of not-myself –
and in the chaos of that expectation,

without compassion, unwilling,
I couldn’t think beyond my own dissolution.
What was the world without me to see it?

And while Paul grew increasingly radiant,

the flight attendant told us it was time to crouch
into the positions we had rehearsed,
the plane began to descend, wobbling,

and the tyres screeched against the runway,
burning down all but a few feet of five miles of asphalt
before it rolled its way to a halt.

We looked around us, we let go
the long held breath, the sighs and exhalations,
Paul exhausted from the effort of transcendence,

myself too pleased to be breathing to be vexed
with my own failure, and we were still sitting and beginning to laugh
when the doors of the plane burst open,

and large uniformed firemen came rushing down the aisles,
shouting: Everybody off the plane, now, bring nothing with you,
leave the plane immediately

– because, as we’d learn in the basement
of the airplane hangar where they’d brought us,
a line of tornados was scouring western Ohio,
approaching the runway we’d fled.

At this point it seemed plain: if God intervenes
in history, his intent’s either to torment us
or to make us laugh, or both, which is how

we faced the imminence of our deaths the second time.
I didn’t think once about my soul, as we waited in line,
filing into the hangar, down into the shelter

– where, after a long while, the National Guard would bring us
boxes and boxes of pizza, and much later, transport us, in buses,
to complimentary hotel rooms in Cincinnati.