19 March 2014

At the Airport

I was waiting at the gate at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo international airport, computer in my lap, pleased that I’d found a place to sit close to the check-in desk, where there was already a small group of people hovering anxiously next to the sign for priority boarding.

I’d been comfortably seated there 30 minutes earlier, when they called us up for a special security check—something they were doing for all the flights headed to the United States.

—For fuck’s sake, I’d muttered under my breath, agitated as usual just by being in an airport. I hate flying. Even the smallest bump or a noise I don’t recognize sends my imagination whirling, and the thought of sitting for 15 hours, hurtling over the ocean in a steel tube in the dark, had been on my mind for days.

I closed my laptop, gathered my notebook and pen, and rushed to join the line, which formed instantaneous, stretching down the terminal’s long white corridor.

I wound up in the middle of a group of 20-somethings who were returning to the States from vacation. In hip, studied outfits of trendy sunglasses and high tops, they talked loudly, conspicuously, surrounded by bags of alcohol from duty free. I listened to the girls tease one of the guys: we know you’re excited for the security pat down, haha. Evidently, it was the most action he’d had in a while.

Further up in line was a tall American who looked to be in his late twenties, and wore a khaki vest with an inordinate amount of pockets and zippers, all of which were stuffed full of God knows what. He had a scraggly goatee and eager blue eyes, and he gazed into the crowd, as friendly and good-natured as a pine tree.

There was an older American couple, also in hiking gear, who smiled vaguely at the group of cool cats talking behind me and looked mildly stoned. An attractive older couple, dressed in understated, expensive clothes, were at the head of the line. They kept their arms crossed and stayed close to each other, as if to avoid being contaminated by the masses. Next to them were three middle-aged ladies, one of whom wore an enormous pink blazer and kept laughing like a hyena and pointing at her phone.

There was a group of young women in scrubs; some quiet loners like me; businessmen; a of couple families with kids.

The security check was relatively painless and I made it back to my original seat. Fired up my computer. Exchanged polite smiles with the lady sitting next to me. Checked the time.

Then one of the SAA employees ran down the aisle behind me yelling for help.

I turned my head and noticed a man, about 20 feet from where I was sitting, slumped over in his chair.

He must not be feeling well, I thought. The commotion died down after a few seconds, and I looked again at my computer.

But then, a minute later, a strange sound wafted through the crowd, low and anguished, like a drone, and when I looked back down the aisle, I realized that the sound was coming from the man. Except now he wasn’t slumped over in his seat—now he was lying on the floor, and the girls in scrubs were on their knees, pounding on his chest, breathing into his mouth, while SAA employees ran frantically back and forth down the aisle, making telephone calls and talking in urgent, hushed voices.

And what started to dawn on everyone who was watching was that this man was either dying or already dead.


It’s hard to believe—that someone can be here one minute and gone the next, in the middle of a crowd, beneath the fluorescent lights, next to the Nandos.

What you expect, somehow, in a moment like that, is for everything to stop. You expect the crowd to be silent, for all conversations to cease, for all attention to be focused on that man, who ever he was, at least for a little while.

But what was so strange was that things did not stop. Some people gathered around him, of course. A couple of the 20-somethings who had annoyed me so much were crying silently in their chairs. Some, like me, watched from our seats, glancing at each other expectantly, waiting.

But all around us, things went on. People floated by on the moving walkway that snaked past our gate, bags on their shoulder, mostly unaware of what was happening. A voice came over the loudspeaker to make the final boarding announcement for a flight to London.

Even among our group at the gate, many seemed not to notice what was happening. The pine tree guy, who was sitting a few seats away, chatted jovially about organic farming and Al Gore with the two American campers he’d made friends with in the security line. They never once turned their heads or stopped talking.

The three women on vacation, who were in a better line of sight than I was to see what was happening, took selfies on their phones and laughed, only pausing after about 15 minutes had gone by.

The expensive couple stayed close to the check-in desk, jealously guarding their first place at priority boarding. They glanced over their shoulders once or twice to see what was happening, before turning their backs and checking their watches.  

I wanted to tell them to stop, for God’s sake, stop. Can’t you see this man is dying? He’s dying, right there in front of you.

Can’t you see?

What’s wrong with you? It’s impossible. This can’t be real.


It’s easy to moralize about a scene like this. But hang on, not too fast. We've all done things that don't make sense, behaved in ways we know we ought not to have behaved, for reasons we scarcely understand.  

So then maybe this is an example of our collective numbness, an example of how easily distracted and self-involved we can be. Those ladies taking selfiesthey represent all of us, don't they? Taking pictures of ourselves while tragedy unfolds around us? 

Or perhaps we can see it as a metaphor for impermanence, and the need to live life to the fullest, because you never know what day is your last.

Yes maybe. Both things are true, of course. We have a huge capacity for compassion, but sometimes we are as unmoved as stone by other peoples' pain.  

And most of us live as if we had all the time in the world when the truth is, we do not.

Life is precious, as Frederick Buechner writes, and “We must be careful with our lives, for Christ's sake, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously.”

Everyone knows this. We don’t need to be reminded.

Except that we do need to be reminded, all the time, at least I do. Because no matter how much I know these things, intellectually, it is another matter entirely to live as if they were true.

Maybe that’s why we have religious rituals like Lent, which began just a few weeks ago. You don’t have to be a church-type to appreciate the idea—of taking time out of our frenetic, 100mph, too organized, too business-like lives, to stop and take stock, to step back and try, again, to get ahold of who we are and where we are going. 

Yes, these lessons are important. 

But still. 

There's a part of me that doesn't want to draw out lessons about Mankind from that night in Johannesburg, no matter how true they might be.  

Because it wasn't mankindbut one manwho died that night. One man who had a story of his own, who is more than the ideas we may draw. One man in the crowd who was someone. 

I tried to fight them, but tears welled up in my eyes, and so I sat at the gate and cried silently for a minute or two.

I cried because the man had been alive a minute ago but now he was dead, and it is sad when people die. I cried at the heroic effort that was being made to bring him back to life, how hard they were trying, and how right they were to drop everything and get down on their hands and knees and fight to save him.

I cried at the people around me who were carrying on, and I cried because I knew that I too would get up a few minutes later when they announced that our flight was boarding, and would become impatient and worried again, about the flight, about there being enough room in the overhead compartment, and I would feel sadness and exasperation at myself for how petty I can be.

They called us to board, and so we left him there on the floor, only to learn later that he had in fact died, despite the best efforts of his fellow passengers to resuscitate him. 

I wish that, before we boarded, we had stopped what we were doingall of us, together, strangers, but not strangersand been present with him, to honor his life and the fact that we were a part of it for a short time.


No man is an island entire of itself; every man  is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;  if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe  is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as  well as any manner of thy friends or of thine  own were; any man's death diminishes me,  because I am involved in mankind.  And therefore never send to know for whom  the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

--John Donne