Knocking on heaven's door

Published January 6, 1997 7:41PM (EST)

so there I was on a plane returning home from St. Louis. Or, rather,
there I was on a runway at the airport in St. Louis, with, I think, the not
unreasonable expectation that we would be in the air soon, as our flight
had already been delayed two hours. All things considered, I thought I was
coping quite well, especially because I am a skeptical and terrified flier:
In between devouring Hershey's chocolate and 13 dollars worth of
trashy magazines, I had spent the two hours of the delay trying to be
helpful to the other stranded passengers. I distributed all my magazines
and most of my chocolates. I got an old man some water. I flirted with
babies. I mingled; I schmoozed; I was Geoffrey Rush in "Shine." I had
recently seen what may have been a miracle at my church, and had been
feeling ever since that
I was supposed to walk through life with a deeper faith, a deeper sense of
assurance that if I took care of God's children for him, He would take care
of me. My only hope was that nothing else go wrong; that once we were on
board, everything would run smoothly, and I could see my son again soon.

My idea of everything running smoothly on an airplane is that A) I not
die in a slow motion fiery crash, or get stabbed to death by terrorists,
and that B) none of the other passengers try to talk to me.

We finally got to board. I was in row 38, between a woman slightly
older than I, with limited language skills, and a man my own age who was
reading a book by a famous right-wing Christian novelist about the

I couldn't begin to guess what country the woman was from, although I
think it's possible that she had one Latvian parent and one Korean. She
sounded a little like Latka, the Andy Kaufman character on "Taxi," except
when things began to fall apart, when she sounded just like the spacemen
in "Mars Attacks "  "Ack ack ack!," she'd cry. But I'm getting ahead of

As we sat there on the runway, the man reading the book about the
Apocalypse commented on the small gold cross I wear on a necklace. I
would describe him physically as being rather prim and tense, maybe a
little like David Eisenhower with a spastic colon.

"Are you born again?" he asked, as we taxied down the runway.
I did not know how to answer for a moment. "Yes," I said. "I am."

My friends like to tell each other that I am not really a born-again
Christian. They think of me more along the lines of that old Jonathan
Miller routine, when he said, "I'm not really a Jew; I'm Jew-ish." They
think I am Christian-ish. But I'm not. I'm just a bad Christian. A bad,
born-again Christian. And certainly, like the apostle Peter, I am capable
of denying it, of presenting myself as a sort of leftist liberation
theology enthusiast and general Jesusy bon vivant. But it's not true.
And I believe when you get on a plane, if you start lying, you are fucked
unto the very Lord.

So I told the truth, that I am a believer, a convert.
I'm probably about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus-fish
on the back of my car, although I first want to see if the application or
stickum in any way interferes with my lease agreement. I just love the
Guy. I could go to a gathering of foot-wash Baptists, and except for the
dreadlocks, fit right in. I would wash their feet. I would let them wash

But as the plane taxied out to the runway, the man on my right began
telling me about how he and his wife were home-schooling their children,
and he described the radical, free-for-all, feminist artsy-feely philosophy
of his county's school system, and I knew instantly that this description
was an act of aggression against me  that he was on to me, could see that I
am the enemy, that I will be on the same curling team in heaven as Tom
Hayden and A.S. Neill. But suddenly the plane braked to a stop.

We all
looked around for a moment, and then the captain came on the P.A. system
and announced calmly that two passengers wanted to get off the plane, right
then and there. We were headed back to our gate. "What?" we all cried.
The good news was that this was only going to take a minute or so, since,
in the past two hours we had only gotten about 500 feet. The bad
news was that FAA regulations dictated that all of the stowed luggage had
to be gone over by Security, to make sure these two people had not
accidentally left behind their pipe bombs.

The Latvian woman stared at me quizzically. I explained, very slowly
and very loudly what was going on. She gaped at me for a long moment.
"Ack," she whispered.

Eventually the three of us in row 38 began to read. The other two
seemed resigned, but I felt that I was not remotely well enough for this to
be happening. I tried to read my magazine, but I was frantic and mentally
ill. It was my own private Idaho. Time passed underwater.

An hour later the plane finally took off again.

We, the citizens of row 38, all ordered sodas. The Latvian woman put
on a Walkman and began to listen with her eyes closed; the Christian man
read his book about the Apocalypse. I read the new New Yorker. Then the
seat belt sign came on, and the pilot came back on over the P.A.system.
"I'm afraid we are about to hit some heavy turbulence," he said. "Please
return to your seats."

A moment later the plane began bouncing around so hard that we had to
hold onto our drinks. "Ack ack ack!" said the Latvian, grabbing for her
Sprite. "Everyone take your seat," the pilot literally barked over the
P.A. system. "We are in for some rough going." My heart felt like it
might explode from fear.

The plane rose, and fell, and shook, and the pilot came back on and
said sternly, like an angry dad, "Flight attendants, sit down NOW!" And the
plane hit those waves and currents of air on the choppy sea of sky; and we
bounced and we moaned and we gasped. "Whhhoooooaaaa!" we said as one, like
we were on a roller coaster ride. We're going down, I thought. I know a
basic tenet of the Christian faith is that death is really just a major
change of address, but I had to close my eyes to squinch back tears of
terror, and loss. Oh my god, I thought, Oh my God: I'll never see Sam
again. This will kill me a second time. The plane bucked and shook without
stopping, and the Christian read calmly, stoicly, rather pleased with
himself, if you asked my tiny, hysterical self. The Latvian closed her
eyes, and turned up her Walkman. I could hear it softly. And I, praying
for another one, thought about the miracle I had seen.

It took place at my church, where one of our newer members is dying of
AIDS, literally wasting away before our very eyes. He came in a year ago,
with a Jewish woman who comes every week to be with us, although she does
not believe in Jesus. Shortly after the man with AIDS started coming, his
partner died of the disease. A few weeks later he said that right then and
there, in the hole in his heart that Brandon's death left, Jesus slid in,
and had been there ever since. This man has a totally lopsided face,
deformed, ravaged, emaciated, and when he smiles, he is radiant. He looks
like God's crazy nephew Phil.
He said that he was gladly willing to pay any price for what he has now.

There's another woman in the choir who is huge and beautiful and
black and as devout as can be, who has also been a little stand-offish.
She has always looked at him with confusion, when she looks at him at all,
in his goofy, ravaged joy. She was raised in the South by fundamentalists
who taught her that his way of life  that he  was an abomination. It is
hard for her to break through this. I think she is a little afraid on the
most primitive level of catching the disease. But he has come to church
almost every week for the last year, and won almost everyone over. He
missed a couple of Sundays
because he was too weak to come. And then a month ago he came back,
weighing almost no pounds, his face even more lopsided, as if he's had
strokes, but he talks of grace and redemption during the prayers of the
people, of how safe he feels these days.

So on this one particular Sunday, when it came time to sing the first
hymn, "His Eye is on the Sparrow," I noticed that he couldn't stand up to
sing. The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen, and
only the man with AIDS remained seated, holding the hymnal in his lap. And
the big black woman watched him rather skeptically for a moment, and then
her face began to melt and contort like his, and she went to his side,
and bent down to lift him up, lifted up this white ragdoll, this scarecrow.
She held him next to her, and he was draped over and against her like a
child, and they sang. And it pierced me.

Back on board, little by little, the plane grew steadier, and the
pilot came back on to say that everything was OK. I was so excited that
we were not going to crash and that I might actually get to see my little
son again that I started feeling mingly, suddenly wanting to be new best
friends with the Christian man. But just when I opened my mouth  I swear
to God  the pilot came back on the P.A. system, and asked if there was a
doctor on board.

The woman behind us, who turned out to be a nurse, got up and went
back to investigate. The Christian man prayed; I tried to rubberneck, but
I couldn't see a thing. I went back to thinking about the miracle I had
seen. I haven't told you the very ending, yet: the black woman and the
man with AIDS, of whom she was so afraid, were trying to sing. But they
both began to cry. Tears were pouring down their faces, and their noses
were running like rivers; but as she held him up, she suddenly lay her face
against his, put her black weeping face against his feverish white one, put
her face right up against his and let all those spooky fluids mingle with

When the nurse sitting behind us returned, it was with the news that a
woman in the back was having a heart attack. A heart attack! I mean,
I ask you. But there were doctors on hand, and
the nurse thought the woman was going to be okay.

"Good lord," said the Christian man. We looked at each other, and
sighed. We shook our heads, and continued to look at each other.

"Man," I said. "I wonder when the snakes will get out of the cargo
hold." The prim apocalyptic Christian man smiled. Then he laughed out
loud. The Latvian started laughing then, too, although she still had her
Walkman on, and while I hate to look like I'm enjoying my own jokes too
much, I started laughing also. The three of us sat there in hysterics, and
when we were done, the man reached over and patted the back of my hand.
He smiled at me very gently. The Latvian leaned in close to me, into my
Soviet air space, and beamed. I could hear her music playing softly. I
leaned forward so that our foreheads touched for just a second. I thought
to myself, I do not know if what happened at church was an honest to God
little miracle, and I don't know if there has been another one here, the
smallest possible sort, the size of a tiny bird, but I felt like I was
sitting with my cousins on a plane eight miles up, a plane that was going
to make it home; and it made me so happy that I suddenly thought, this is
plenty of miracle for me to rest in now.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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