The Sense Of Falling

Lots of things scare me. The possibility of not having enough work to pay the bills. The idea of my parents getting sick. Climate change. Spiders. Most of my fears are pretty general, though; they wake me up at night and start my heart pounding, but still, they don’t inspire that immediate kind of terror that you see in movies (well, except for the spiders).

I’m ten thousand feet up in the air right now. My son is watching Thor in the row in front of me and my daughter is asleep on my lap, and my hands are shaking almost too badly to write this, because I don’t know that I’ve ever been more scared in my life than I was just a few minutes ago.

I dream often of plane crashes. I’m pretty sure that they symbolize a fear of losing control, which means my subconscious really knows what it’s doing. The dreams are always different, but one element stays the same: I’m looking out the window, and I feel a lift in my stomach, and then there’s the sense of falling. Sometimes I crash in my dreams. Sometimes I board another plane, just trying to get home, and the next plane I’m on crashes, too.

About ten minutes after takeoff – half an hour ago as of right now – my daughter said she needed to use the bathroom, and she is three, so even though the seatbelt sign was still on, I took her. We had just locked the door when a sound started – a low rumbling, but loud enough that I poked my head out of the bathroom: What’s going on? I asked a woman sitting in a nearby seat – as if she’d know – and she shrugged

Ladies and gentlemen, said a voice over the PA, we’re experiencing some issues with the flight configuration, so you’ll hear that sound for a few more minutes while we sort it out. “Flight configuration issues” didn’t sound great, exactly, but at least there was an explanation. I closed the door behind us again – the rumbling still there, still loud, like the captain had said it’d be – and then the voice came back:

Return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts. 

Not “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re experiencing a moment of turbulence, so if you could please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts, it’d be much appreciated.”

Return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts.

And that wasn’t the worst part – the worst part was that I heard the edge in his voice. The captain sounded…not scared, precisely, but definitely more anxious than you want the person flying your plane to sound. I pulled my daughter up and out of the bathroom and rushed her back to our seats. The rumbling stopped, but was replaced by a weird stillness – almost like we were hovering instead of flying. And then we started to turn, making a hard left and angling down, the wing rising up into the air until we were practically on our side, and all I could see was blue sky. I buckled us in, held onto my daughter with my right hand, and reached my left through the space between the seats to hold onto my son. And suddenly I was in my dream, my stomach lifting into my throat, the sense of falling, the quiet. Everyone, everything – the flight attendants, the captain, the passengers, the plane – was quiet.

I caught the eye of a woman sitting across the aisle from me. We’d chatted briefly before takeoff about traveling with kids – her three daughters were sitting in the row in front of her – and we’d laughed about how hard it is, what a mess it always is. You know.

“I’m scared,” she mouthed, so her daughters wouldn’t hear. “I am, too,” I whispered back.

This is not a text you want to send.

The woman took out her phone and started hurriedly texting someone, and I thought, Oh, right. Now is when I’m supposed to text people. Like I was recognizing a scene from a movie. I sent Kendrick a message: I love you. It didn’t go through, so I tried again, and then I started to text my parents, but thought better of it and put down my phone. I held on to my children, wondering if the falling sensation was in my head or whether the cloud line really was coming closer. I squeezed my son’s shoulder so hard that he whined (“Mom, you’re making me miss the movie!”). I thought about whether I regretted anything. I didn’t think I did; nothing came to mind, at least. I buried my nose in my daughter’s hair, and I felt suddenly, overwhelmingly sad.

Then I turned and saw the mother across the aisle again – she was visibly terrified, her hands pressed over her mouth. Her three daughters were all looking at me, trying to figure out if the only grown-up in their direct line of sight was scared, and whether they should be. So I smiled. “Everything’s okay,” I told them. “We’re okay.” I rolled my eyes a little, like ugh, isn’t this annoying? The littlest daughter, the one sitting closest to me, giggled.

It turned out I was telling them the truth. I’m still here, in any case, although just writing this post is making every superstitious bone in my body ping. The problem, the captain eventually told us, was the landing gear: part of it had failed to lift during takeoff, and so they had to lower it and then try again; that had been the rumbling sound we’d heard. I don’t know what the banking and the falling sensation were about; maybe they were considering an emergency landing. Maybe they just didn’t want to tell us what really happened until we were safe on the ground, and then didn’t see the point in telling us at all. That would make sense, honestly.

I’ve always wondered what an experience like this would feel like if it really happened outside of my dreams, whether I’d be able to stay calm for my kids; whether I’d be crying, or hysterical; whether I’d text someone, and what I would say if I did. The woman across from me is still hovering on the edge of panic – one of the flight attendants sat with her for awhile, and I overheard her saying, “I know, honey, I know; I was saying my prayers, too,” so there went my questions about whether I’d been overreacting; if flight attendants are saying their prayers it’s a good bet that things aren’t going well. The flight attendant had to go back to work, though, so now every time we hit even the tiniest amount of turbulence I look over at the woman and tell her, “It’s okay. This is normal. We’re okay.” I keep smiling and making faces at her girls, like we’re friends or something, and they’re smiling back too often and too hard. I think they get it, a little.

This story already feels unreal; like I’m just telling you about another one of my dreams.

But I’m awake. I’m sitting here, ten thousand feet up in the air. My son is watching Thor in the row just ahead of me, and my daughter is asleep on my lap, and we are okay.

  • mimi

    ukh i don’t blame you. i hate flying.

  • Kirstin Bunton

    Holy lord, this just gave me chills. How brave you are, to take care of the babies, and even that other passenger. What a relief.
    You do have a line about thinking you don’t have any regrets and that is a truely incredible thing to take away from this intense horrifying experience.
    As always, thank you for sharing. And so happy to hear you all are fine.

    • jordanreid

      thank you, Kristin <3

  • Ronja Stavrou

    Holy crap… that post was incredible. Not only for the amazing and scary story but for how you told it. You really are a great writer with an uncanny ability to tell a great story! I’m glad everyone is ok.

    PS- both of my parents are retired air traffic controllers (and dad is a trained pilot). I LOVE flying. It gives me a thrill of excitement. This is a needed reminder that that thrill I feel is related to the dangers and not to take anything for granted.

    • jordanreid

      well, it’s true that commercial flights are one of the safest modes of transportation – we actually put a page called “comforting facts about airplanes” in our new book about anxiety – so I certainly don’t want to make anyone feel more anxious about flying than they may already be…but I’m pretty happy our pilots were (as our flight attendant assured us repeatedly) ex-fighter pilots with 45 years of experience.

  • Hope Varnedoe

    i was actually in tears by the end of reading this. you told this in such a powerful way jordan you are such an amazing writer. i’m so sorry you had to go through this but you are strong and brave. i’m also glad about that line you wrote about regrets and not having any and it really made me think about my life too — do i have any ? i really need to ponder that a bit.

    • jordanreid

      <3 <3 <3 thank you, hope.

  • Samantha Brewster-Owens

    The chills and the immediate flood of tears that text message screenshot brought on was intense.
    I had a very similar flight experience while traveling in South America a few weeks ago. I fly ALL the time. I’m always the one who is cool and collected, and actually feels that way when turbulence hits. But this time was something different…I don’t know if it was that the captain never explained what was going on (in Spanish or English) but we were flying through a pretty violent thunderstorm and there was no mention of a storm before we took off or during flight. The turbulence was awful and we suddenly dropped a good amount while in the air. People screamed and I lost my shit. Burst into tears, shaking, everything you just described. My husband went into cool and calm mode, holding my hand and telling me over and over we would be okay. And like you were right, so was he. I’ve never been anxious about flying, and I know that was a one off, but I’ve been dreaming about plane crashes since. Amazing how the kids powered through and even more amazing you held it together for that woman’s children. Incredible.

  • Annette

    How do you think this will affect you with flying in the future? I had a very scary flight experience last year and since then it’s been such a terrifying experience for me to travel. I’ve cancelled a few trips and just tried to avoid it, but when I couldn’t, I’d just be a crying mess. I have anxiety issues to begin with, so I’ve been trying to deal with it – but just wondering if you have any thoughts or feelings on how you’ll address your next flight..maybe you can’t answer that until that time though. 😉 Thanks for sharing!

    • jordanreid

      Goooood question. I think I’ll be fine. Malfunctions like this – any malfunctions, really – are SO rare, and statistically my chances of having to deal with something similar are even lower now than they were before. And there’s also the fact that even when something like this does happen, it’s almost always ok – like I said in another comment, commercial air travel really is suuuuper safe – so I’ll know that even when things feel bumpy or a little scary, it’s okay.
      Also, we had a connecting flight later that day – a short one in a small plane – and I was totally relaxed, no issues. So hopefully that continues 🙂

      • Annette

        Those are VERY good points for me to keep in mind before my next flight! 🙂

  • JENNY b

    Well crying through reading this because I was right there with you. Luckily we’re all okay, and hopefully you’re pre-disastered now- my favorite World According to Garp notion of the world

    • jordanreid

      “pre-disastered” – love that too 🙂
      (and sorry if I’m being dense, but when you say “luckily we’re all okay”…do you mean you were actually on that plane???)

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