December 21, 2017 by The Citron Review
by Christopher Rabley
“She’s dead. … Mum’s dead.”
My brother and I sat on either side of my father, who, when he spoke to us, hunched forward and perched his forearms on his knees; he stared wooden-faced at the gray carpet lining the floor of the airport lounge. As soon as we had heard the news, about the typhoon and the air crash, we had called each other and agreed to meet at San Francisco Airport, then left our homes on the first flights we could find—I flew in from Boston, my brother from D.C., and Dad, The Villages in Florida.
Some thirty-six hours earlier, Typhoon Xangsane had devastated Taiwan, killing over fifty people. As the typhoon descended upon Taipei’s Chiang Kai-Shek Airport late on the night of October 31, 2000, lashing the airfield with heavy wind and sheets of rain, the flight crew for Singapore Airlines flight 006, bound for Los Angeles, attempted to raise the plane into the air: speeding 275,000 pounds of fuel, 159 passengers, and 20 cabin crew 150 miles per hour, down the wrong runway.
The plane collided with construction equipment, slammed to the ground, and skidded down the runway, spinning counterclockwise; almost immediately fire engulfed the fuselage and people inside. Eighty-three people on board the flight perished, including my mother, who was on her way back home from Singapore after helping my sister following the birth of her second child.
My fear of flying ended several hours later: the moment my brother and I stepped on a plane bound for Taipei—the possibility I might die in a plane crash was something I could now accept. I convinced myself that what my mother could go through, I could also.
I slept most of the flight.
Several days after we arrived in Taipei, we stepped off a bus onto the now infamous runway 05R. A group of us, anyone connected with victims of the crash, came to visit the crash site—strangers forced to share a secret so terrible and personal. Grief was easily recognized; we did not need to announce it to each other. Our faces gave us away, as did our eyes, the way we held ourselves, shifted our bodies, wept. Anonymity and intimacy fused and left me spinning.
I buttoned my tweed blazer, put my hands in my pockets, and with head bent down, strode toward the wreckage.
Wind and rain from the typhoon had washed the runway clean, and then the sun had baked it dry. For so long I imagined what the crashed fuselage might look like; now it was in front of me, broken into pieces. Amazed at how small it had become, I stood next to remnants of the front cabin, where there once had been a cockpit and an upper deck, near the place where Mum was found on that stairway. Questions plagued my mind.
I closed my eyes.
Speak to me now that you are gone. How long did you wait your turn to flee to your family, grandchildren? Did you suffer?
Silence draped my head, pressed hard against my eardrums.
A giant plane was transformed into a raging furnace, fueled by petroleum and air blasted in, ushering death and leaving fragments charred small.
Wind circled my body.
Speak to me now that you are gone. Did you fight the beast that vaporized, smelted, ravaged? Were you forced to breathe in red-hot smoke, make a deal with the serpent that scorches and singes as it is drawn down deep?
My legs became pins, stiff and sharp, kept me standing.
A group of people to my left cried, placed bunches of flowers near ashes, and prayed. Heads bowed forward, tears flooded eyes, streamed down cheeks, and dripped onto the runway, on this public pathway, intimacy exposed, dignity stripped.
I looked away.
Speak to me. Were you calm when the light flashed bright? Were you lonely when you were taken back to your mother’s bosom, to the dance floor at Prestatyn, atop Twmbarlwm Mountain?
Inside, my skeleton housed a pit, empty save for hurt swirling and stabbing.
Missionaries sang hymns quiet and close by. Closest to me was a tall man, his chest next to my head; I could feel his breath. I let go and their kindness brewed emotions and electrified. My legs and face became numb, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
I wept, and then I was no longer there:
We hiked our favorite trail, the one where three birch trees grow clumped together and mark the turning point back, and talked like we used to—Mum’s boots glided over rounded stones clamped in damp earth,
I leaned over her shoulder—she sat in the screened-in porch at our old house in the Bahamas and painted petals and bells of a yellow elder—her paintbrush, hand, faded away,
We sat in a mountain hut in Nepal and watched tips of loosely rolled cigarettes intermittently glow faces—shy grins—hidden within shawls, and shingles of dough tossed onto bright coals bunched in an open-faced oven, puff stiff—then she vanished.
I jumped inside.
Morning filtered through dreary curtains, feeding light on brown furniture, dark nooks and crannies; everything in the hotel at Chiang Kai-Shek Airport was quiet and still, except for my mind, and heart. I took a valium, and another for good measure.
I had trouble sleeping.
Speak to me.
Christopher Rabley lost his mother, Margaret Rabley, in the infamous crash of Singapore Airlines Flight 006. Since then, Christopher started work on his memoir Passengers. Born in the Bahamas, he attended preparatory school in England and later graduated from University of Miami School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of The International and Comparative Law Review. He is the father of three children and lives near New York City.