The road I take / to paradise is bright / with flowers. — Japanese death poem by Sokin
From the archives
My journeys across the Pacific are becoming more frequent. For years I have been going to Australia to visit my mother. When she was in her sixties, still relatively youthful and fit for long-distance travel, we used to alternate trips each year, which meant that I went down there every two years. When she got into her seventies and wasn’t up for the long flight, I went down there every year. When she turned eighty it was a different story and I started going down there twice a year.
The flight from New York is a twenty-hour mind trip through six time zones. The Qantas 747 leaves Kennedy Airport at night, stops for more passengers at LAX, and takes off again, flying into darkness all the way. We don’t see the dawn again until the descent into Sydney, fourteen hours later and the sun is coming up over the Sydney Harbor Bridge and reflecting off the shell-shaped roofs of the Opera House. A beautiful sight.
When I was younger and figured I had most of my life ahead of me I would tense up during anxious moments, like when the cabin lights flicker on and off and the captain’s voice comes on the intercom: “We seem to be having a bit of an electrical problem…”; or if the engines begin making strange noises; or if God suddenly reaches out and, for no apparent reason, gives the plane a darn good shake.
As I get older and more resigned to my fate, I sit back and take it easy, in an aisle seat in the center row if possible, where, if I get lucky, I might have three or four seats to myself and can stretch out under a Qantas blanket; or get luckier still and sit next to a pretty woman traveling alone, which has happened more than once. Sweet friendships can be forged at that height and at that speed, especially if God is shaking the plane.
A young dark-haired woman, during extreme turbulence, once gave him a look that said, You can climb under this blanket with me if you like because 40,000 feet of black death terrifies me.
A man answers a cry like that.
My mother believes in heaven; she believes she will be reunited with her husband, who died at fifty, and her first-born son, who died at twenty-four just six months later.
My brother died on the side of the road, the scent of eucalyptus in the air. He was in the passenger seat of a sports car that overturned at high speed on a country road. His best friend was driving. He survived.
“They took the curve too fast,” the bearer of the news told my mother and me at five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. I was eleven. “We don’t think there was any pain.” The death of my first-born is infinite pain, my mother’s eyes said.
The accident was reported next morning on the front page of the newspaper:
FOOTBALLER DIES IN CAR CRASH
The club photo they used was particularly soulful, his eyes staring sadly at eternity.
My uncomplicated mother, with her childlike view of life and death, expressed it poignantly in a letter to me some years later: One minute he was here, and the next in Paradise.
After the accident, the best friend who was driving, a fellow footballer, wrote a painful letter to my mother, asking her forgiveness. He sent her a delicate porcelain figurine—a ballerina—an unusual gift from a football player. She put it on the mantel in her living room.
“He didn’t know what to do with his grief,” she says over the years, as she carefully dusts the ornament.
I remember going to my brother’s football games, and afterwards, in the locker room, the smell of sweat was the smell of a hero. All those years without him. I miss him more with each year, and never more than flying across that sea of darkness.
I would give anything to be met at the airport by my brother. I would get off the plane looking for a tall figure waiting at the gate, a man in his fifties now.
“Good flight?” he would ask.
“It was okay.”
My brother would take one of my suitcases, not an ounce of fat on him, still lean and strong. “You’re looking well,” he’d say.
“You look great,” I’d say, and we’d walk out to the parking lot, the scent of eucalyptus in the air.
Originally published in the Miami Herald