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Traveling in Death's Shadow

Student Work
by Colm FitzGerald Apr 29, 2014

MY WIFE ANITA and I walked wearily, as if in a trance, beneath the hanging yellow signs and brushed aluminum fixtures of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Bleary eyed, looking ahead, silent. The call had come just after midnight on Monday. It was Orsolya, Anita’s sister, and as if she already knew, Anita cried out, “Anya!”

Their mother had died. After a brief stay in hospital, she had quietly passed in her sleep. She was 59 years old.

Drowned out by a thousand tears punctuated by anguished cries, two sisters grieved together, thousands of miles apart, consoling each other in Hungarian. I will never forget those moments: being awakened by the ascending piano ring tone, feeling powerless to soothe my wife’s pain, and then the sleepless hours of disbelief that followed.

It was now Saturday morning. After leaving Los Angeles on Friday afternoon, we were zombies trudging towards our connecting flight to Budapest.

Schiphol was humming; rolling luggage was whisked across the gleaming floor by well-dressed people with places to be. Those in suits with angular haircuts fit right into the airport’s backdrop of sleek metal and glass. Others swooped about in bright parrot-like outfits, symbolic of the tropical paradises I imagined they were off to.

We didn’t have much time before our connection, but after a ten-hour flight, Anita insisted on finding the smoking lounge. While she puffed away inside her quarantined glass box, I leaned on the railing and stared out over the scene below me. In the arching green steel and glass conservatory of the Grand Café Het Paleis, people drank coffee, ate plates of bacon and eggs, pastries and baguette sandwiches. A group of British teenagers finished up their breakfast at a table near me on the upper deck. “That was quite nice, that,” one of the ponytailed girls said chirpily.

I had never traveled under such somber circumstances, and the pleasure of others was beginning to annoy me. The people below, pulsing like blood cells in an artery, the cockney chatter and the glittering shops with their garish luxuries seemed vulgar and meaningless. Death had put life in perspective.

I gazed off into the dull, grey sky through the wall of glass to my left. A woman announced something in Dutch over the loudspeaker, but all I heard was an indecipherable mixture of “oo,” “ah,” “jah,” “kah.” Thoughts pinballed around my head as I played over the past week. Buying the plane tickets had been robbed of its usual joy. Our taxes were due, as was rent, and work had begun to pick up after the winter slowdown. This wasn’t good timing, this wasn’t part of the plan, I thought. But since when has death kept a schedule? When is death on time?

In a rare moment of absolute clarity, the jigsaw pieces in my head slid into place. Money, the IRS, work — overshadowed by death, the insignificance of these things was blissfully liberating. I was right where I needed to be. The person who taught my wife to cook, how to love and how to be a woman…was gone. Life often plays out in recurring cycles, but the death of your mother — the one who gave you life — happens only once.

The glass door slid open and Anita came out of the smokers’ lounge. We walked past a peculiar yet soothing artificial nature scene; plastic trees and bushes sprung up and birds chirped from hidden speakers. Holding hands, we neared Gate D71 AMS-BUD. Conversations in French, English, and Dutch floated from the crowd of antsy travelers. Amidst the cosmopolitan clamor, the familiar sounds of Hungarian came from the mouth of a bushy-haired man speaking softly and assuredly to his elderly father.

Regardless of the circumstances, we were going home.

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