The Mile-High Death Club

An unassigned seat on a budget airline means you will sit between two sweaty men. These are cosmic mathematics that always check out.

I am on my way to Faro for a solo adventure in the Algarve sun, phone loaded with episodes of Ozark and screenshots of Portuguese pronunciation hacks. 

“The ‘om’ ending of bom dia is a nasal vowel. Instead of closing your mouth to make the ‘m’ sound, let the air out of your nose and mouth to only say the ‘o.’”

As I careen between money laundering 101 and caveman Portuguese, the two Brits who bookend me dump endless milk into their coffees. The tarry brew refuses to lighten and they are clearly stressed.

I pull out an ear bud: “How you all managed to colonize the world, I’ll never know.”

The younger of the two, Phil, is in his 50s. He sits to my left. The elder, Paul, is deep into his 70s. When I ask how they know one another, Phil mentions that Paul is his sugar daddy, AKA father-in-law. He is pretty proud of that joke. 

Phil’s wife is somewhere randomly assigned in the back of the plane (likely also between two sweaty men). They are all heading to a family villa in Spain. After a polite amount of banter, I pop my ear bud back in to enjoy more Ruth Langmore. A few minutes later, Paul nudges me:

“Are you bored?” 

Fuck, Paul. I’m not. Marty Byrde is in some serious shit. Paul wants to know if I’ve been to Athens to see the insane street traffic and mopeds heaped with people. If I know about the factory conditions in China and Ireland. And if America feels faster than Europe. Normal small talk. Paul used to teach at the University of Manchester and is apparently besties with David Beckham’s father. 

I answer his questions and tell him how Americans are experts at not taking their vacation time. I mention how long it took me to embrace the European art/disappearing act of never bringing the check at the end of a meal. I say how nice it’s been to enjoy monk-level chill when all I’d ever known to this point was work. You know your girl segued into emo death chat. 

I tell Paul how my year of funeral work shifted my soul like tectonic plates, and that I’d never choose to wait for more money or a hotter body or better timing to live my life. I mention how young people were when they were dying, their retirement funds untapped, and he grows quiet. 

When I ask if he travels to Spain with his family often, he looks at me with watery eyes and I immediately know. 

Paul is on his way to scatter his wife’s ashes in their favorite sunny place. Linda passed last May. I was so jazzed to be in this swampy seat next to this grieving man who was clearly used to people climbing up their buttholes whenever death was mentioned. Not this time, Paul. Allow me to introduce you to the world’s most relaxed sphincter.

I ask a few questions like whether he had a good crematory experience and why he wasn’t scattering Linda’s ashes off the back of a moped in Athens. He laughs. We then talk about how remains have a special way of carrying their human’s personality traits. Like how the wind seems to whip up assholes’ ashes to create a fuck-you cloud in their scatterers’ faces. 

Paul was loving it, and tells me how he’s sold his bungalow to move into an apartment complex, seemingly with a 100% success rate in housing widows. 

“All the women who live there have their husbands stuffed in different places. In the wardrobe. On the mantle. Under a rose bush. We all joke that we should have a dinner party with our dead partners.” 

Up until this point, my favorite death moment took place in a gravel driveway. I picked up a gentleman and carefully drove away as his wife, daughter and hospice nurse held each other in a circle and wept softly watching me go. It was a simple moment that felt like a baptism. This was another.

My absence from funeral work has been painful. I miss it with the ferocity of a whale calling out to her dead calf. But these moments keep finding and re-opening me. And I know when we’re done fucking around Europe in a dusty van, I’ll step back into my uniform ala Bob Parr.

When I stood in line at border control, stress-texting my Airbnb host that I’d be late, I heard MORGANNNNNN shouted from behind me. Paul and Phil (and the unnamed wife) were waving like they just saw my ship come in.