The day my plane didn’t crash…

As I sit here, replaying yesterday in my head, I am filled with emotion and deep, deep gratitude. I feel strangely calm. Settled. Priorities once more in focus.

My alarm was set for 4am, but I awoke at 3:54 and got up. I had everything ready, showered, put on my new suit, did my make up, kissed and hugged my husband goodbye and drove to the airport. I was booked on a 6:25am flight from Edinburgh to Southampton, where I would talk and give workshops at the first ever Simon Says Childhood Bereavement charity’s bereavement conference. As I sat on the plane, seat 12A, I sent a few last messages before going into flight mode, telling my husband I loved him and to have a good day – just in case. Ever since Martin died, or probably even before, I am acutely aware of saying goodbye. A last hug. A last kiss. A last ‘I love you’, a little note, or a short text. Because I know what it feels like for someone to go out the door and never come home again.

So here I am, next to some guy on a laptop, putting my phone into flight mode, playing Candy Crush and Diamond Digger until I run out of lives, then put my head back, and think about today’s keynote speech. What I am going to say. How it is going to feel. About my nerves, and about how I know I’ll do a good job. This is the first time I will completely free talk – no written notes, just images… I must’ve nodded off, because when I wake up again, it is light outside, and I squint into a beautiful sunrise. I smile and try and take some pictures. “Why can you never quite capture the beauty that is nature?” I ask myself, and give up. Instead, I quietly marvel at the stunning, hopeful, promising pinkish clouds, and try to capture it with my soul instead.

We land, get out, I get picked up and taken to the conference. I have a lovely chat on the way, then I go into business mode. I am nervous. But excited. I am captivated by Ellie Baker’s keynote speech, and as she explains about brain connections and genetically-wired responses by drawing dots on her fingers and cradling her thumb into her hand in order to visualise the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, a lot of my emotional responses start to make sense. The overreactions. The panic attacks. The infuriating catastrophising thoughts that keep boring themselves into my head…

A quick coffee and a chat with the lovely Colette from WAY Widowed and Young, and it’s my turn. I feel nervous. But I am ready. I talk. I hold the room. I make eye contact. People nod, and cry. It’s silent. I get the familiar emotional surges. Feel the passion rising in my throat, filled with emotion and threatening tears. I swallow them down and carry on. Then I am done, and everything goes busy again. Quick lunch, then setting up workshops. People hug me, and tell me how inspiring my talk has been. How much it has helped them. I feel so moved. So emotional. I swallow down some more tears, and then we make Fimo volcanoes and origami bangers. A room full of creative busyness and laughter. Everything feels right. People are engaged. Ask questions. Time flies. Then it’s all over. A few more chats with some more lovely people; then it’s time to pack up my stuff and head for the airport. A quick dinner with a friend, and eventually I am in the departure lounge at Southampton airport, wishing I had brought spare shoes. My feet are killing… I wait for my 8:45pm flight. Message my husband to tell him I love him. Then it’s time to board. Gate 7. My lucky number. Of course… I smile. 9D. I make my way through the two-engined propeller plane, glancing left and right at people already sitting down. Two left, aisle, two right. I reach row 9 – “excuse me please”, and the person in 9C lets me in. I look at him and could’ve sworn it’s the same guy who sat next to me this morning. As I slump down into my seat and organise myself, he looks over and says: “It’s been a long day, hasn’t it?!…”, and I immediately know that it IS the guy who sat next to me this morning… What a strange coincidence. We get talking. He is interesting, and funny and I enjoy our chat. The plane takes off – noisily – and we remark just what a racket these things make. We keep chatting, and all is calm. I’m looking forward to getting back. All of a sudden I hear a loud ‘pop’ from the engine on my right, and as the noise changes from ‘awfully noisy propeller plane’ to ‘slightly broken washing machine on a spin cycle’, the plane drops slightly and veers to the left. I look around at the other passengers, but all seems calm. Yet I’m sure there’s something not right. I glance over at the engine, which is pretty much right next to me, and the propellers are still moving. I could’ve sworn they’re turning at half speed though. Something doesn’t feel right. But the plane is still flying, so I try and put those thoughts out of my head and carry on chatting. The sense of alarm stays. A short while later: the ‘bing bong’ of the tannoy. “This is your captain speaking. As you are aware, we are having a bit of a problem with one of our engines. We have decided that it is not safe to carry on to Edinburgh, and unfortunately we will make an emergency landing in Manchester in about 10 minutes.” Cabin crew come round, preparing the cabin for landing. People look a little alarmed. My neighbour jokingly says ‘I’ll sign a disclaimer, just carry on flying!’. The girl across the aisle is chewing on her fingers. My stomach churns. But the propeller keeps turning, and the plane keeps on flying. It seems to take forever, but with a sudden rumble, the landing gear folds down. Wheels. Propeller. Airport. We get lower and lower. Someone behind us is already on her mobile phone, talking to someone or another, saying that she won’t be back in time. Could that not have waited until we’re down? I have strange visions of people calling their loved ones on the highjacked 9/11 flight, leaving answer phone messages, and final “I love yous”. I try not to think about it. The closer the ground comes, the more unstable the plane feels, and the guy next to me nervously remarks that landing in Manchester might’ve been a good call after all… Finally we touch down. I feel relieved. Then I see the sea of blue lights that are waiting for us on the runway. Fire engines. Ambulances… We slow down to a stop. We’re told not to move. I glance at the engine to my right, and see firemen in full gear inspecting it carefully. Are they thinking it will burst into flames? There must still be a lot of fuel in this thing, I think, trying not to imagine the worst case scenario. I picture the rotor blades flying off through the window in front of me, decapitating some poor soul. “For fuck’s sake woman” I say quietly in my head, and pull myself back into the present. It seems to take forever, but finally the door to the plane opens and a couple of firemen appear. We start making jokes about whether these are the strippers we ordered, and that one of them looks like the lovely insecure bigger bloke out of ‘The Full Monty’. There is a bit more toing and froing – more people, more chats, before we’re allowed to disembark. And as I finally climb down the airplane stairs, I shout a cheery “Thanks for getting us to the ground safely” towards the pilot. Then we wait. We’re told there will be another plane. Then we’re told there will be a couple of coaches to take us back to Edinburgh. Some woman pipes up and asks if there is the option to take a flight in the morning. I don’t really fancy going on a coach either to be honest… It is now 11pm or thereabouts. We wait some more. Eventually we get told that we could stay in a hotel and get a flight in the morning, or there is the option of taking the bus now. Our choice. Some people wander off to find the promised coach. Others stay in the queue to find out about hotels and flights. We make jokes about them taping the plane back together with duct tape and cable ties, and how we will just be loaded right back onto the same plane that we have just been on. “But I marked it with a half eaten bag of Skittles” says the guy who sat next to me, and we both grin. Maybe it’s hysteria setting in, but it all feels quite funny and jovial. I really just want to know what is going on. Eventually we get told that they have decided to actually fly us home tonight. There is more aimless wandering around empty departure and arrival halls, and eventually we get back on a plane. NOT the same plane. As I walk in, I have total déjà vu. The same people as a few hours before – in the same seats. So weird. I sit down, and as the girl across the aisle jokes some more about it being held together with sticky tape, I glance over to the engine on my right and ACTUALLY see some duct tape. You couldn’t make it up. We once more take to the skies, and all is well. We arrive in Edinburgh, I get out the car park, and I make it home in one piece. As I climb into bed at 3:36am, 23 hours and 42 minutes after getting out of it, my husband and I hold each other close for ages. “Don’t scare me like that again”, he says, and we lie still, filled with enormous waves of gratitude.

We stayed like that for a long time, and then again this morning. I feel strangely calm. Grateful. Centred.

I whisper: “Imagine for one second that the plane had come down, and I hadn’t come home… Maybe now you better understand why it matters so much to me to say goodbye every time. Because I know what it feels like for someone to leave the house and never come back. It rocks the foundations of your being.” And as the day Martin left the house flashes back into my head, and I vividly and viscerally replay our final goodbye, I get a sense of what it would feel like for John if I had never come home again. The destruction. The devastation. The disbelief. All of my stuff, now an eery reminder of my lost presence, the flowers he gave me only the day before, and how glad he is that he did. Wondering how to tell the kids that Mummy had died in a plane crash and was never coming home again… And as a tear flows quietly from the corner of my eye, engulfed in my husband’s warm arms, we hold each other. And I feel a deep, deep sense of gratitude.

And suddenly I realise that rather than panicking about all the things that could’ve been, I am just so truly grateful for all the things that weren’t. And for all that might sound like the same thing to some, I understand what a huge shift I have achieved. And as I well up, full of emotion, gratitude, and a peaceful sense of calm, I think about how grateful I am for everything I have learnt over the last eventful years. For speaking my truths. For telling my loved ones I love them. For being kind. For following my gut, and for being brave enough to try and live my authentic life.

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