The Hyperventilating Samurai
It was a panic attack in July of 2005 that led to the organizing principle behind this True/Slant page.
That summer, when my son was six months old, my wife Emily and I took him with us on a trip to the South of France—his first time on an airplane. As soon as we were in our seats, he took his pacifier out of his mouth and threw it into the aisle. My son was a squirmy, energetic baby who didn’t often sit still or let his parents sit still.
Seven hours of reaching down into the aisle to pick up the pacifier later, we landed in Paris. I hadn’t slept, and the time change was already making me feel weird, but we had to board another plane and fly another hour-and-a-half to Marseilles. I sat the kid on my lap and buckled up.
I’d never suffered from a fear of flying. When I was a kid, I always enjoyed airplane rides. Going up to visit the pilots in the cockpit, getting the little plastic pin to wear on my shirt. I even liked the food for some reason, the novelty of it, I guess—the tomato juice, in those slender tin cans with the teardrop shape silver-tape over the hole in top. As an adult, too, I always thought of flying as a good time to read or write or watch a bad movie. Skip the food, but have a couple drinks and bring a sandwich. I found plane travel, if anything, relaxing.
That day, though, was different. The kid fell asleep soon after take-off. I didn’t want to risk waking him to get out a book, as my wife had done across the aisle, so I just sat there and looked around. It was a small plane, one cabin, four seats across. I did a rough head count and guessed maybe 45 passengers. Everyone else seemed to be elderly French people heading to the beach. When we reached cruising altitude, and the fasten seat beats sign dinged off, despite the captain’s recommendation we stay in our seats with our seatbelt’s fastened, everyone stood up and got loud and boisterous, visiting with friends, opening the overhead luggage containers, talking, laughing. I swear a couple of them lit cigarettes. After a couple of minutes it occurred to me that this was just the type of flight that would go down. Everyone was so carefree, having fun, scoffing at the rules, moving around way too much on such a small plane 30,000 feet above the earth. And me sitting there with this tiny person strapped to me, asleep, snoring his familiar wheezy snore. I felt his breathing against my belly. Then I started to feel dizzy.
I realized, later, thinking back, that the way I’d always dealt with the fear that came with flying—with all fear, maybe, at least as an adult—was to focus intently on the possibility of the very worst happening. During take-offs, rather than try to push thoughts of the plane crashing out of my mind, I would embrace them and slow them down, imagining the bank slipping out of the pilot’s control, how it feel to go into a spin. I’d envision the luggage flying around the cabin, the screaming, the plummet. I think I’d read something about this idea in an Asian philosophy class in college, but more distinct in my mind is the voice of Forest Whitaker, as the modern-day samurai in the Jim Jarmusch movie, Ghost Dog: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” It always worked. I’d look around, see other passengers gripping the handles of their armrests, knuckles white, jaws clenched. But I’d be calm, breathing easy, accepting the thought that if today was the day, well, I’d had a pretty good life. We all gotta go sometime. In fact, I made a habit of leaving my seatbelt unbuckled, in recognition of the fact that I was in the hand of fate—and that a seatbelt wasn’t going to save me if this 75-ton hunk of metal went down.
I wrapped my arms around the kid and clutched him closer. My mouth went dry and I felt cold and clammy under my shirt. I breathed hard, puffing my cheeks out like I was blowing out candles on a birthday cake, but it felt like I wasn’t getting any air into my lungs. What were these people doing standing up in the aisles? Leaning against the seatbacks, chatting in French as if we weren’t all about to die. Some of us too young, too innocent, having never even walked yet, having never spoken a sentence. It seemed unfair in a way I couldn’t reconcile.
Emily looked up from her book. “Are you okay?” she said. “You don’t look so good.”
My lips stuck together when I opened my mouth. “Water,” I gasped. “Water.”
Emily waved for a stewardess and asked me what was wrong.
“I’ll be okay,” I said, concentrating on breathing. “I’m having a little problem. I feel like I might pass out.”
“You want me to take him?” She nodded at the kid. “You’re white as a ghost.”
“Wait a minute.” My voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere next to me, but the notion of water made me feel a little better. “No. I think I’ll be okay if I get some water.”
Water came and it helped. I found my breath and the vertigo passed. And though Emily said it took a while for the color to return to my face, I was able to tough it out for the rest of the flight. The plane didn’t crash.
Seven days of picking pacifiers up off French floors later, I made it through the two flights home without a similar incident—with the help of drinking more than usual. Air travel has not been easy since. I always buckle my seat belt now. Even when the kid’s not on board, my old devices don’t work as well. Meditating on inevitable death doesn’t make me feel better like it used to. Parenting has made certain realities, certain possibilities unacceptable. The worst-case scenario has gotten way, way worse.