Airport Pizza or The Man Who Died in Terminal B

 

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The airport is no one’s favorite place. I don’t care where you are from or what you do for a living. No one really loves the airport. I am particularly put off by Laguardia, but because they offer cheap flights to Fort Lauderdale on Spirit airlines, the most tragic air bus to ever exist, I find myself here often. You can’t beat the price, but you can beat the terrible service into oblivion. “Here” was not a typo, because I am indeed here, right now, taking in the scenery. The waves of people undulating in and out of terminals, some of them lonely, some of them waving their arms frantically at toddlers eating bottle caps they found on the ground. I think to myself, don’t eat it! You’ll choke! You’ll probably die! But I never say these things out loud. Especially not after this.

Being at LGA is always the same. The same light bulbs in the bathrooms are blown out, there are always more people than the number of molting seats and the pizza is forever an imposter; it looks fine, but it is far too terrible to eat. However, today wasn’t like my previous visits to this airport. Today was different. I had just decided to take a field opportunity in my home country of Belize and had begun the process of applying for a grant to fund my research. The nerves induced by crossing paths with TSA aside (this was born of personal anxiety and in its maturity it has melded with the current political climate to become a full blown fête nerveuse), I was feeling pretty good for someone doomed to a mindless hour and half of waiting for a flight that would inevitably be delayed.

Today, I thought to myself, is my day. Today I will indulge. Today is terrible pizza day.

It’s hard to convince myself that the choice to actively participate in the consumption of terrible pizza isn’t masochistic. Masticating, gnashing away at a day old display slice seems like a cry for help. But something drew me there, whether it was the incessant grumbling of my gut or my desire to be someone who lived life on the edge I can not decipher. I’m sure whatever it was that was calling, calling me to the airport pizza stand didn’t intend for what followed to occur, or for me to bear witness to the simultaneously reticent and vociferous death of a man waiting for his flight.

. . . . . . .

Pesto. . . Plain . . . Pepperoni. Endless options. I mull over the gastrointestinal emergencies that each one will surprise me with later, and choose pepperoni. Maybe I really am a bit of a masochist, but heart burn is a humbling reminder that I am a biological entity that ticks and tocs and hiccups and hurts. Life doesn’t stop because you don’t have tums.

Pizza ordered. Seltzer purchased. Commence shuffling to a dirty high top where I squash myself and my bulbous carry on between two travelers, not unlike a mouse does when he achieves the otherworldly and seemingly breaks his own bones to slide under a door. It is always an unnerving experience for me, sitting between two complete strangers who are enjoying, or not enjoying, a meal. As soon as I start to board a mundane train of thought about strangers eating boring food, my peripheral catches a security guard barreling through the terminal. I had never seen anyone run that fast in an airport who wasn’t five years old and in extremely deep shit, so of course, my anxiety worsened. I nervously tapped my fingers, sending out a morse code message that said “Where is my pizza! Stop! I feel extremely uncomfortable! Stop!” The pizza did not arrive. Instead, being wheeled toward me was a man on a stretcher, moving alongside him were five paramedics and a tangible lack of urgency.

I knew what I was looking at the moment I registered it’s presence… the shift in the sounds and the smells of the airport pizza place. The man on the stretcher was quiet and still, but the machines that were forcing his heart to continue beating were not. The compression vest keeping him alive caused his chest to thrash wildly in the same successive “lub dub” I learned from Bill Nye as a kid: “This is the sound your heart makes when it’s pumping blood… lub dub… lub dub… lub dub.” But this lub dub sounded different from the one of my childhood. The robotic din was not the sound of life and warm blood, of cellular division or firing neurons. Instead it resonated it’s mechanical morbidity through the terminal, echoing this great defeat of human existence. The sound moved from the terminal and into my body and I felt it then, the sigh that everyone talks about. That whisper of a life leaving the body. Or maybe it was just the whooshing sound of the ambu bag the apathetic paramedic continued to pump listlessly.

And then, my pizza arrived. The woman at the Dunkin Donuts’ counter paid for her sickly sweet strawberry frosted, and the paramedics rolled the body of the lonely man out of the terminal. As I ate my pizza, I thought of the family that waited in vain for him to emerge on the other side of some other terminal, anywhere, in any airport. I realized at that moment that my eating was shock induced. My brain was so stretched from wrapping itself around this coincidence-vs-fate encounter with death that the only message it could fire was “eat this pizza.” I watched the woman with her donut, my fellow pizza eater typing away on his phone and the rest of the travelers that returned to their habit of blending into the molting seats, the way all travelers do, as if nothing had ever happened. I casually noted the ease with which everyone who had just witnessed the death of a human being returned to their cell phones, kindles and bags of chips. If we don’t acknowledge it, it didn’t happen. Therefore, death won’t come for the rest of us.

The embarrassing realization was this: What do we do when we witness a death, when we are forced to converse with our own mortality? What do we do when we receive a not-so-friendly reminder that some day we will be food for worms? Hearing everyone shuffle around me, their impatient mumbles and the squeal of a tantrum, I was able to put my finger on exactly what it is that we do in situations such as these.

Why, we eat pizza of course.

Welcome to Trowel and Bone

Death and the Story of Me

When I was little, I thought about death very often. I didn’t immediately understand why, but in retrospect I realize it was born of the general anxiety I wouldn’t discover I had until I was a teenager. I wasn’t afraid of death herself, in imagery or in conversation. Rather, I was obsessed with the absence of someone, of never being able to touch them, smell them or hear their voices again. When I was in eighth grade I was so desperate to get out of class that I decided to tell my teacher that my sister went missing after school, and that I had to step out to call my mom (and hopefully never return). The performance I put on became so real to me, and my emotional reaction to my own tall tale was one of hysteric proportion. Then I thought, what if this were true? What if I somehow manifested the loss of my sister? I had managed to convince myself that she really was missing, and what I thought would be a fun get out of class free pass turned into a mourning session in the bathroom of my middle school for a sister that was not gone, but most likely in the backseat of my mom’s car whining about something. I admit I was probably too old for this sort of behavior, but the strange and specific type of thanatophobia I suffered from was so visible. I didn’t have a fear of death, but a fear of loss, whether it was death or disappearance, and a made up loss at that. Maybe it was more of an abandonment issue that traced back to childhood ::insert “it all started when I was five” here:: but regardless, the pain I invented and burdened myself with was so real, and I had to do something about it.

It wasn’t until high school that I realized my relationship with death went beyond any fear I associated with it. After a suicide attempt gone wrong, I understood that I was totally ok with dying. The idea of my own death somehow brought me comfort. This was mostly born of teenage angst and a recent diagnosis of bipolar II. But my eureka moment came not from staring death in the face and being awarded a second chance, but rather it made me realize that death comes for everyone, whether at your own hand or at the hands of the universe. You are going to go when you are going to go, and that was it; it just wasn’t my time to go. Thus began my slow-growing intimate relationship with death. I became obsessed with it, reading about it in novels both fiction and non, pouring through textbooks and watching choice television shows that explored it in every way. I watched X-files, Forensic Files, Creep Show and Snapped. My fear turned into an unhealthy obsession which hit its peak in college when I decided I wanted to dedicate my life to exploring death in art. I spent endless hours making dioramas and photographing them, desperately trying to find a way to relate them to death, even when it came across as convoluted, pretentious or plain old dumb.

Then my grandmother died, and everything went dark, quiet… everything I thought I knew about death and how to deal with it was snuffed out at the very same second her life was. I had to start from the beginning, and that feat seemed nothing less than impossible. I must admit, I did a terrible job going through the motions of dealing with personal loss, because not unlike being ill-prepared for childbirth despite convincing yourself that you are ready, no one is ever truly prepared to watch the life of their loved one leave their body. I can only assume that it is this moment that has inspired so many amazing people who study death and the afterlife, who have been ushered into this place where death becomes their world. After much deliberation and a haphazard “recovery” (I like to imagine that my fumbles through the theoretical five stages of grief were not unlike an extremely depressing Benny Hill intro) I too was ushered into the need to somehow dedicate my life to understanding and exploring death at an academic level. Eight years later, I have arrived.

In my field of study, I stare death in the eyes everyday. Whether in a book, through the words I write or as skeletal remains in my hands, she is always there. And I am not afraid of her anymore. I feel, with confidence, that we are friends. I am concerned for the day the loss of my loved ones will come; if I was not I would be worried about my mental state. I know this concern exists because I almost lost my mother to cancer. Whenever I held her hand, kissed her forehead, snuggled up beside her waning body, I absorbed her. I thought, if I can bring you into myself, if you leave us, I will still have some of you in me forever. She and I both danced with death in different capacities, but both experiences, despite the lead up, were very much the same. “I am going to die,” we both thought at some point. And yet, here we are with warm, beating hearts. Because of this, I have the tools to meet death if she visits us again. Of course, the fear of my mother coming out of remission still lingers. But the thought doesn’t engulf me anymore. It no longer catapults me into anxiety attacks I can’t control or episodes of depression during which going to the bathroom is impossible (forget brushing your teeth). Because of this shift, I can only conclude that thinking on and working with death everyday has helped me deal with the chemical imbalances that have afflicted me for so long. It has given me a point of meditation and allowed me to truly appreciate everything I have, every experience and the love of those around me who I will hate to lose when their time comes. And that is just the point; your time will come. But when it does, remember that it is not the end. We keep our loved ones alive in story, in song and in memories shared with the ones we still have. It is better to spend your life becoming comfortable with the inevitable than it is to live in fear of the unavoidable.

I hope that the content of this site, whether it is serious, scientific or whimsical, will help you reach a place of comfort with mortality. This is the manifesto. Welcome to Trowel and Bone.