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Together, he and I checked for airsickness bags in the pockets in front of us. Turbulence severe enough to cause nausea: Oh boy, indeed, this was a first. I remember thinking what a blessing it was there were no children onboard.

But what did the continued silence from the crew mean? That the pilot was too preoccupied getting the plane under control to address us? What about the copilot? The flight attendants, it turned out, were strapped in their seats at the back of the plane, as helpless as the rest of us.

An unpleasant smell filled the cabin, like the stench of overheated electrical wiring. Then, somewhere below us and to the right, there came a rhythmic ker-chunk, ker-chunk, ker-chunk—exactly like the sound of a car whose right rear tire had just blown out. That's when I began thinking maybe it wasn't turbulence. Or at least not just turbulence, not anymore.

And that's when a woman began to wail. "Oh, God, no. Please, God, no, no, no." Hers was not the only terrified voice to be heard, and at least one person was sniffling.

I took a deep breath and told myself that even if the plane was damaged or there was some kind of mechanical problem, this did not automatically spell doom; there was such a thing as an emergency landing. And how often, after all, do large passenger planes crash? Everyone knows it's one of the least likely accidents to befall a person.

Nevertheless, my anxiety soared. At the same time, I was overcome by a piercing sadness, but this sadness was mixed with strong feelings of wonder and awe. It was as if every idea I'd ever had about dying had been faint or ambiguous, and now here it loomed, the real thing, stunning in its vivid clarity. Then I remembered reading about a Japanese man who, in the minutes before the plane he was traveling on crashed, managed to scribble a note to his wife and children.

And what if we, like that man, were only minutes away from crashing? Such presence of mind, such stoic control—I knew I would never be capable of that. But it struck me with the force of lightning that I needed a plan. If the plane started to go down—if nothing could save us—what should I do?

One thing I knew for certain: I did not want to go out in a blaze of terror. I will not die screaming for my life! my inner voice screamed.

Perhaps if I, like that Japanese man, had a spouse and children, I would have wanted my last thoughts to be only of them. But now, as thoughts of my family and friends—and even of the cat waiting for me to come home—crowded in, they were too much for me. Too much! They brought on panic and despair. I had to push them away, for I did not want to die with turbulence in my soul.

I told myself that if we started to go down, I must reach for the hands of the young man sitting next to me.

And that was my simple plan. To hold on to this kind young man, and to comfort him and be comforted by him. To be calm and present. To gather myself, and to distill my thoughts. This is how the story ends. So be it.

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