I fly a lot. So it should come as no surprise how I felt when US Airways Flight 1549 landed in NY’s Hudson River, especially since I was supposed to take the same flight a week later. Due to the circumstances, I followed the news and events around the crew and passengers very closely. I could imagine if I had been on that flight, I would have ended up on Larry King or David Letterman, featured as one of Charlotte’s survivors. I was kind of jealous I did not have the chance.
But that jealously was short lived. My attitude changed immediately when Continental Flight 3407 crashed in Buffalo a few weeks later. Unlike those on the US Airways flight, the Continental passengers and crew would not be given the keys to the city or receive new luggage from Ellen. Everyone was dead, and death is so final.
Now, that statement hits me hard. My initial reaction is to stop flying so I will not die. But the statistics tell a different story. The risk of dying in a plane crash is 1 in 11 million. However, the risk of being killed in a car accident is 1 in 5000 and dying of heart disease is 1 in 400. The bottom line: we just have to take our chances and do the best we can. The fact that we are going to die anyway at some point in our lives made me evaluate not what death means, but what it means to be alive.
What would the Buffalo passengers have given to be spared of such fate? What were their final thoughts? We will never know. But I am convinced that the Bank of America Charlotteans that experienced the Hudson landing were not thinking about the bank’s stock when they came home to Charlotte or their merger negotiations with Merrill Lynch. They thought about their loved ones and second chances. It mattered to them more than anything that they could breathe, think, hug and kiss someone. Perhaps there was a sense of freshness, of newness; of renewed purpose. Was there a shift in their priorities on what is important? Probably – the reality of death changes the way we see things.
When my mother passed away this summer, I went to Puerto Rico to help my sister go over my mother’s things. I tossed most of the stuff I found – they had no meaning to me. It did not matter the number of hours she labored to get those things. After she was gone, we the living decided what was relevant. For me, it was the pictures of her, my siblings and my kids. I packed the pictures in a suitcase and brought them back home to Charlotte.
As soon as I got back, I inventoried what I had. I wondered, when my husband and I die, what will our kids throw away? Better yet, what will they keep? Knowing them, they will also keep the pictures, the good books and the grand piano. Everything else would go. I hope they will remember our trips together, our set of values, the intense love that Dad and Mom have for each other, and the unconditional love we have for them.
I firmly believe that we all have a US Airways Flight 1549 experience in our lives. It comes sooner or later. It is that drastic event that shakes us to the core; makes us remember the Bible passage, “Whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away;” and then changes our course.
So while I am gathering my bags to get on a plane to San Francisco, let us all learn from those blessed Charlotteans that came home alive. Let’s be grateful for what we have, gather our collective individual voices and passion, and leave our imprint in our families, communities and our nation. Let’s live.
Previously published in Charlotte Viewpoint on March 8, 2009