Death was on my mind as I listened to the quiet Hail Marys and shrill, agonizing cries of despair. A man wailed in the seat in front of me and threw up his arms praying to God to spare his life. The woman next to him folded her hands as tears ran down her cheeks.
On my plane ride home from El Salvador the passengers around me believed that they were going to die. It had been a rough takeoff, and midway through the flight the plane started doing unsettling things. First came the bumps, which shook the cabin and made me feel small, like a passenger in a plastic plane. Then we started to dip, dropping in altitude as the weather took hold of us.
I held my mother's hand and I thought about the tsunami. I thought about all of the souls leaving our planet, and I wondered if we would be counted among them. It was Dec. 28, two days after the 9.0 earthquake, and the world felt deserted.
Where were all of the souls going to go?
The concerned voice of the pilot came over the intercom. He announced that we had encountered turbulence that the crew had not anticipated. His voice was shaky, and there was nothing encouraging in his words as our plane continued to simulate a rollercoaster ride. The cabin noise level grew higher as cries from passengers increased. My insides felt liquidy.
I took deep, long breaths and tried to find solace in the blue sky outside my window. I thought of everyone I love - the people who have touched my life. I closed my eyes and sent them love. If these were my last moments, I wanted to be at peace.
I pictured the faces of family and friends. I looked in their eyes and I thanked them.
Recounting this story now, I feel a bit silly. Yet, in that moment, 30,000 feet above the ground, it was important to me that the people in my life felt my love. I wanted to leave them peace.
Death felt possible that day, in a way that I had never before ex-perienced. I have traveled to more than 45 countries, and this was one of the worst flights I can recall. More memorable, however, was that when we boarded the plane the tsunami death toll was at least 100,000 lives. Death was in the air, on the ground and in the water.
I squeezed my mother's hand as the plane continued to shake. I watched unrelated passengers comfort each other. A man touched my shoulder, and I immediately felt connected to him. It was the kind of touch a father would give his daughter: familiar. It told me that we were on this ride together.
In the end, we dropped down in altitude, found some friendlier air, and the pilot executed a perfect landing. When the plane came to a complete stop, there was applause from the passengers. I looked around and felt connected to the people around me.
Looking back, I realize it was an appropriate reentry to the U.S. We endured the unexpected together and tried to bring comfort to those around us. As I write this, I am still in shock about the large number of souls who left and are leaving our planet. The world feels lonelier without them. What helps is those of us who are still here.
"What else can we do but send money and make meaning?" asked a friend the first day I was home.
At first I thought of arts and crafts, scissors and glue. How does one make meaning? I thought of following a recipe and reading instructions. Eventually, I thought of the touch on my shoulder and smiles from strangers. My mother's hand and the warm blue sky outside of my window. I thought of how important it had been to me for the people in my life to feel peace. Could "make meaning" be as simple as that?