The Meaning of Empathy
February 28, 2020
I had never been a fan of flying. The idea of being trapped in the sky with no idea of what could possibly happen if you were to fall shook me. It only took one gun, one sleeping pill, one person to kill many. I didn’t like that thought at all. I had sworn off flying ever since my mother was killed in a plane, a plane with terrorists that had crashed into a building. The World Trade Center building to be exact. Now I was being forced on a plane against my will for “business”. I had learned just how evil people could be. No one was trustworthy. People only cared about themselves and no one else. Humans were but animals, greedy beings, killing and morphing anything and everything that they wanted so that it suited them.
“Hey don’t look so gloomy,” my brother said to me, “You know I don’t want to do this either, but we don’t have any money. We have to do this to survive. You know, I miss them too.” My brother was the only member In my family I could look directly in the eye. I mean, I could’ve looked my father in the eye if he hadn’t left me and brother behind after my mom died, but it’s not like I would anyways. He was just another bad person among all the rest.
“Don’t give me that look. Trust me. I’d rather be out looking for food but this is our only opportunity to make, you know, our own money,” he continued. His face was consumed by regret and worry, some of the only things I hated more than people.
I shrugged and said to him, “No, I get it Kore, we need money. I just…really, really don’t want to have to fly. I’ve never been on a plane and after what happened to mom, I just, I just…”. I felt his warm hands pull me in close for a hug. His grip was so tight I began to struggle to breathe, but that was just part of one of Kore’s good old’ sibling bear hugs. And though I’m a huge advocate for personal space, Kore’s hugs were something that I’d never denied.
“Look champ,” he said, pulling me towards him and looking me in my eyes, “I know you’re having a rough time right now. I am too, but we’ve just got to power through this. One plane ride, one meeting, and one job and well have a new home, new things, and a new life. Can you stay strong, for me?”
“I’d move the Earth for you,” I said, faking a smile.
“And I’d move it back,” he said, his worry starting to fade.
Silence fell upon us and the weight of the situation began to get to me. The thick, palpable air, filling my lungs with what felt like rocks, only weighed me down further. The constant yelling and screaming only agitated me. It was as if every child was screaming bloody murder.
. . .
A voice rained down from above, “Now boarding for flight 31B. Again boarding 31B. ” We stood up slowly and walked over to the gate. My brother looked over to me and gave me a slight smile. I stuffed my anxiety far down smiling at him half-heartedly and continuing toward the gate. As we stepped foot on the plane, my heart ran marathons and my brain began to melt. Every sight was too bright, every sound was loud and every step brought images of my brother’s distraught face flooding through my mind. I had to stay strong for him. I took my seat, I watched the video and looked for all possible exits. I didn’t want to cry in front of him, because it would just hurt him knowing that he put me here.
The sound of the bell sent shivers down my spine. The voice of the announcer sent an electric shock through me. I didn’t even care what she had to say. All I knew was that we would be taking off soon. The plane shook and I felt my world began to crumble. The floor started to spin in every direction and my stomach clenched in knots. I felt my limp body crash into the seat behind me, my heart still pounding in my chest and my brain still running. I wished that I was passed out. Somehow, I eventually dozed off.
I jolted awake. The plane was in the air and I was filled with almost a sense of relief. However, that relief quickly turned into something more sinister after I realized I was trapped inside my greatest fear. I was living my nightmare. The plane started to shake. I began to hyperventilate, and my eyes darted in every direction.
The flight attendant’s voice came over the speaker. What had been a soft gentle voice was now a voice plagued with terror. Oxygen masks rained from the sky and the plane started to shake violently. Any words were drowned out by screams. Hysterics ruled the plane. Crying, yelling and screaming surrounded me. As the plane plummeted faster and faster, everyone braced for impact. Children clung to their mothers. Looks of goodbye darted from eye to eye. I looked at my brother, sobbing. I looked for even the slightest bit of hope in his eyes that would tell me it would be ok. He wrapped his arms around me and gave me a tense smile. I couldn’t hear anything but I saw his lips spell out “I love you” and I copied him. We clung close together and took every precaution to break our fall. I glanced back at his sad eyes and began to say the only thing I could ever fathom saying in a moment like this.
“I’d move the earth for you, Kore.”
“And I’d move it back, Nova,” he said with a smile. Crazy how the only time I could truly smile was when I was staring death in its ugly face. Then everything went black.
The darkness fully engulfed me. The only things I knew were that I only saw black, I was in excruciating pain, and the ringing in my ears just wouldn’t stop. I could not move. Even if I tried, what was the point? I just wanted to sleep so badly. I felt a cold clammy hand touch my neck. I couldn’t even be bothered by it, though. I heard a gasp through the ringing then felt an arm grasp circle my body, lifting me up. With what little strength I had left I fought the hands that were causing me more pain. The hand gripped tighter. Again I fought, this time mumbling in protest.
“I’m not going to hurt you, I’m just glad I’m not the only one alive.” The voice was rough and harsh, yet gentle and genuine. Knowing that it didn’t matter how I died, I just let my body go limp, feeling myself being dragged somewhere.
It seemed like a bad dream. But the aching feeling in my body was a painful reminder that It wasn’t just a nightmare. The dragging finally came to an end and I felt my arm fall to the ground without resistance, like a wounded bird. I tried to open my eyes, curious to see what my savior or killer looked like. All I saw was a dark figure standing above me.
It felt like there were nails surrounding my body, almost paralyzing me. I felt no will to move but was so determined to learn about this mystery person I mustered the strength to contour my body and sit up. I saw a pale face with short, ragged, dark-brown hair. Dirt and blood were smattered across it. Piercing blue eyes shot through my heart, almost giving me a sense of security. I looked around my surroundings unclear what had happened. I saw a plane destroyed in front of me. The events still hadn’t clicked in my head. Then I thought of Kore.
With adrenaline now flowing through my veins, I stood straight up, sobbing hysterically. I yelled out for Kore, screaming and believing he could hear me. Stumbling forward, I ran into the rubble of the plane. I knelt down and began to throw anything that got in my way behind me. I continued with this madness until the mystery person pulled me backward, away from the rubble. I struggled as much as I could but I finally started to feel the pain I was in. I cried and struggled and yelled for what felt like an eternity. The weight of the situation began to fall on me like a boulder. I lay on the ground, curled in a ball knowing that the only thing that actually meant something to me was now gone.
. . .
I finally woke up from what felt like a nap that had lasted a second. The smell of burning stung my nose. I felt an urge to move. I tried to block out what had happened, knowing I would not like the truth.. I sat up and saw a scene of utter destruction, the remains of a plane smashed into the side of an island. The fire had consumed most of what remained of the plane and the island was littered in debris. Large chunks of the broken plane were lodged in the sand and torn bags of luggage dotted the landscape. Terrified, I looked around only to see a person sitting staring at their wounds. It looked to be a tall boy around my age, maybe 16 or so. He had short dark brown hair and a pale complexion. In an instant, all my memories came flooding back to me–being on a plane, the plane crashing, and the mysterious person. I lay flat back on the ground and let my emotions overcome me. I was right about planes. Just like how I was right about people and right about dad. It was so painful to constantly be right about the things that I so desperately wanted to be wrong about. If only Mom had listened to me.
I stared up at the burning sun. Sad how the sight of the bright sun didn’t even hurt as bad as everything else. The hot sand seeped through my torn clothing and started to burn my skin. I sat up again, this time with an intent to stand. I propped myself up and tried walking. The problem was I had nowhere to go. I had no family to run to, no people to save, no food to eat, nothing. I frantically looked around trying to look for, anything that would distract me from my vicious brain. Then I felt the cold of a shadow. It was that boy.
“Feeling any better?” he said with almost immense worry.
“Who are you? What happened? Where are we? What’s going on?” I asked.
“I’m just as confused and concerned as you are but I know it’s hot and we need to clean up our wounds.” His voice shook. Had he lost someone too?
Walking was strenuous. As we walked one of my legs dragged through the sand. I was getting frustrated. Then a supportive arm helped me along. I flinched, nearly falling over again. I hated it when people were too close to me. It made me wonder what they wanted from me. I pushed his arm away and continued forward.
I sat in the shade starting at my cuts and wondering how to even go about treating them. I just wanted to give up. It would be so easy. Just laying in the sand not moving would be so much easier than having to walk and try to fix everything. But then I thought of my brother. I couldn’t let him down. I burst into tears, then saw the pain rising in the stranger’s eyes. Without even thinking, I asked, “Did you, did you lose someone?”
His eyes looked sad and began to tear up. I shouldn’t have said anything, but I didn’t want to be the only one feeling this bad. I hated talking to people but at that moment my need to fit in overpowered my need to avoid people. “My sister and my Dad,” he began. “We were all going on vacation, our first one together in years. And this is how it turned out.” His voice cracked and he started to cry. I’d never think that I’d be the one feeling sorry for someone else. To be honest, after what had happened to my mom, I had stopped caring for people altogether.
We took some time apart trying to cope with everything. I knew how to make a fire. Boiling water was my main priority. Not only could we drink it, we could also use it to flush our cuts out. And shelter wasn’t hard to come by since there were still supplies from the plane.
. . .
I made my first strides to get to know this stranger I was stuck with. I found him looking off into the ocean crying. I felt my body wince as I took a couple steps towards him. With my mind being consumed by the nervousness of talking to a stranger, I completely forgot that I was in severe pain. My mind was decided, but my legs tried to run in the other direction. I tapped his shoulder and felt my brain break into tiny pieces. He brushed away tears in his eyes, startled by my touch.
“I um… I am probably going to… boil water. You..you should come w..with,” I stammered. He smiled slightly, almost amused by my trying. It felt nice in a way. It felt like he actually cared.
We both slowing limped inward towards land. The silence was so thick I felt like I could cut it with a knife.
“Hey,” he said, “You know, I never did catch your name?”
“Oh, it’s uh, it’s um… Nova. What’s, what’s yours?”
“It’s Ash. I was actually named after my mother Ashley. She was one of the victims of 9/11.” I was caught completely off guard. I felt horrible that I was happy with his tragedy. My eyes lit up and my whole body tensed.
“Actually,” I said shakily, “I lost my mom on 9/11 too.”
With almost a mirror reaction to mine, he stood shocked. We stared at each other for a second looking into each other’s sad eyes. Even though it was only for a second, I felt like I completely understood his pain and what he must have felt like coping with it. Is that what empathy is?
. . .
We gathered dry wood and whatever else we could find in the wreck of the plane. Somehow we were able to build a makeshift fire dried branches and scraps of dried rubble. After the water was done boiling we let it cool and took a little more time to be alone. My mind ran wild when I thought about the crash. Disturbing images of my brother’s face flooded through my mind. Like pesky flies that never leave. My thoughts fled when I heard yelling from afar.
“Nova! Nova! Come here, quick!” His voice was shaky yet thrilled at the same time. I ran as fast as my bruised legs would allow. Almost in a panic, he said, “Look what I found in the plane.” In his hand, I saw about 6 or 8 flares in perfect condition. I started to tear up and fell to my knees. Sobbing now, I let every bit of worry that had been building up inside of me out. Spontaneously, I wrapped my arms around Ash. Just as suddenly, a wave of fear rushed over me, and I quickly pulled back. I had never actually hugged someone that wasn’t in my family before. Terrified, I quickly hid my face and started to walk off. But Before I did I saw that he had on one of those “good job for trying” smiles. That’s when I learned that, if a person is in the worst situation of their life and they can still be good, then maybe people aren’t so bad.
It didn’t take long before we started to put a plan in motion. We knew that the plane crash was going to be a newsworthy event. So we just had to time things right. Because what good is a flare if there’s no one to see it? Our plan was that when we hear the sound of a helicopter or boat we fire a flare, and only if he hear them actively looking for us do we use another. We would spell out SOS with whatever we could find to show our location. Then we’d get rescued. The problem was that he had to stay alive until that happened. We salvaged, cooked and talked.
A few days later, we heard the sound of a helicopter. Having already used four of our seven flares, we kept our hopes in check. We fired one into the light blue sky. The sound didn’t return. Desperate for rescue, we fired another one. Nothing. Then out of nowhere a helicopter flew by a couple of times, stopping to hover right above the island. It began to lower a ladder down towards the ground. Overcome with emotion, Ash and I started crying hysterically, holding onto each other tighter than ever. The sound of freedom when the helicopter touched the sand rang in my ear. We helped each other onto the helicopter, finally free from our prison. At that moment, everything changed. I no longer felt burdened by my hate for people and even felt relieved to finally be away from the constant reminder of my brother. It wasn’t too long till we touched solid ground again. After profusely thanking the pilot, we started our new lives. Our first step was to find a foster family, together.
(Published February 2020)