I stood barefoot on the beige carpet, barely awake, frozen in one spot, my skin clammy and sweaty, my breathing shallow and fast. They were screaming and crying. Raw, animal sounds came from my grandparents bodies. They staggered, unsteady, pacing back and forth across the living room. Muttering. Withering to the ground. Tears muddied their faces. Everyone was going crazy. I crept over to my grandmother and crouched by her, wrapping my arms around her shaking frame. She leaned almost all of her weight into me. I thought she was going to knock me over. I stayed strong and held onto her but it didn’t seem to comfort her at all. My arms dropped and I stood, backing away, gazing around the living room.
It was madness.
My aunt had her back to me. She was on the phone, whispering. Her hand shook and the tremors seemed to move through her body and down her spine in jerky movements. My uncle stood next to her, rubbing her back over and over again, her nightgown swirling under his hand. She hung up the phone and turned, her body swaying slightly as she leaned into my uncle.
"We have to pack our suitcases."
I was completely paralysed.
A plane crash. Impossible. That happened to little planes in far away countries. Not in Canada. And not with my family on board.
Wake up. My dry lips formed the words. Nightmare. It had to be a nightmare. Whenever I had a nightmare, my mother came into my room. "It’s okay. It’s just a bad dream. Everything’s fine." She would smooth my sweaty forehead and reassure me. Nightmares were not real. Even though they were scary and can seem so, they weren’t real.
But the sun was starting to peek through the heavy drapes…. Why wasn’t my mother coming into my room to comfort me?
Standing there by myself, my uncle approached me and quietly told me to go and pack my things.
My aunt picked up the phone again, shaking and swaying, jerking and trembling. I heard her murmur to the people on the other end. All these long distance calls, one after another, but when I wanted to call my mother to tell her about the burn on my leg…. I turned and walked back into the bedroom.
My cousins helped us pack, throwing everything from the drawers into the suitcases, mixing up my clothes with my grandparents. There was no time for breakfast. We took the suitcases down to the car. My cousins stood on the sidewalk, silently staring, as we pulled away. No one even waved goodbye.
And no one said one word the entire drive to the airport. The car was silent without silence, because my grandparents were crying. My uncle concentrated on driving and my aunt just sat there, stunned. I looked out the window and didn’t speak to anyone.
When we got to the ticket counter, there was an awkwardness about the way the Air Canada woman treated us. An uneasiness. Discomfort. It reminded me of the way people act around someone who has a contagious disease.
A man wearing an Air Canada shirt walked us to the gate. He offered to get my grandmother a wheelchair but she said no. I didn’t blame him for offering. Pale and wobbly, with her hair standing out in tufts around her swollen eyes and red cheeks, she looked like a drooping flower.
Saying goodbye to my uncle was quick. No long and exciting farewells this time. The Air Canada man brought us right onto the plane and told us to sit in seats in the first class section, right at the front. Really comfortable seats with much more space than the ones we had on our way to California. My aunt was coming back to Montreal with us. That part suddenly struck me as weird. But I thought it was amazing that we got to sit in first class, and the stewardesses were unbelievably doting. They kept offering us things to make us feel comfortable, like pillows and blankets, magazines, food and drinks. I felt like a princess. When I told them that I thought the little teaspoon that came with my meal was cute, they said it was alright for me to keep it.
Bubby and Zaida acted strangely. Stuck to their seats, they were silent the entire flight. There, but not there. Zaida was sweating excessively, his eyes sunken and bloodshot. Bubby was restless, distracted and unfriendly. Her faced looked so tense that her eyebrows squished together. She was grinding her teeth and her lips looked dry. They were both jumpy and weary at the same time. The stewardesses kept offering them food, which they refused, and my aunt kept telling them to eat something, but they wouldn’t change their minds. Bubby said she wasn’t hungry, but I knew that she would have eaten if she had brought her own food on board. I thought she was grumpy and upset that she didn’t have time at my aunt’s to make her own sandwiches.
They stared into space and cried a lot. In fact, the whole time on the plane, it seemed as if everyone in first class was silent or whispering. The passengers, stewardesses, everyone. The same way that people act in hospital waiting rooms. I knew because I had been in one when one of my uncles had a brain tumour.
Or, maybe this was a rich and famous thing for people travelling in first class. So, when I talked to my aunt, my grandparents or the stewardesses, I also whispered.
When we landed for the stopover in Toronto, we were barraged by reporters and flashing cameras. They shoved microphones in our faces and the questions flew. "Did you have any family members on that doomed flight?" "How old are you?" "What are your names?" "Who did you lose in the plane crash?"
The Air Canada staff did their best to shield us. I thought the whole thing was kind of exciting, like we were celebrities. It was just like the paparazzi I had seen on TV. I didn’t mind it at all. Besides, this was all just an awful nightmare and soon I would wake up. So why hadn’t my mother come in yet?
We were ushered into empty corridors where our footsteps echoed, and everyone walked fast and spoke softly. There was that whispering again. They brought us back to the plane, to our first class seats, and we took off for Montreal.
When we exited the plane in Montreal, there were lots of security officers and Air Canada employees, who immediately herded us into a long, cold hallway, safely away from the slew of reporters.
And then I saw my father.
He stood at the end of the hallway with his older brother, Dave, and my cousin Mark. They each looked completely terrified, their faces twisted in pain and anxiety. The crying and hysterics started again. I had never, ever seen my father, uncle or cousin crying before.
My stomach began to bubble, my legs felt wobbly and I was finding it hard to breathe. It was like watching a scene from above. Like I wasn’t really there. Then I started shaking and felt so unsteady that I had to lean on the concrete wall in order to stay upright.
Everything looked and felt real. Dreams can seem just like real life. But then you wake up and it’s all over.
I was more than ready to wake up.
I barely remember heading to the parking lot, its blur of gray walls and multicoloured cars like pieces of a broken rainbow. My cousin Mark drove me and my dad in one car, and my uncle drove my grandparents and aunt. Silence. Not even a whisper. I was not used to sitting in a car with no one talking. Even when we travelled a short distance, my sisters and I chatted nonstop. It was unbearable. But there are no words when you’ve just found out that your family has been killed in a plane crash. Life as we knew it was extinguished. Gone.
Yes, the drive was in complete silence.
Now what do we do? What happens next? Do we go home and make dinner? What will our life be like now that I don’t have a mother or sisters?