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September 16, 2003
In the doctor's waiting room, the news: it is the weather. Hurricane Isabel is coming. We have felt the sodden air of her perimeter for several days now, air so heavy you can scarcely draw breath, air that makes you think it's terribly hot when it really isn't. The mayor comes on the radio and suggests that we put candles and flashlights and some food that doesn't need cooking into a bag, in case we're evacuated from our buildings.

But I'm leaving. Getting on a plane today. They don't have hurricanes in Missouri, I don't think. I think they have tornadoes. I haven't heard that one is scheduled. But it may be that Isabel will make landfall on the day I return and I'll end up in Pittsburgh instead of New York. This has happened to people.

Hurricanes are immense and disk-shaped. They whirl around and around. When you fly, you fly above them -- creatures of the atmosphere, they are confined to it. All air turbulence is connected to the great mass of the earth. Get far enough away from the earth and you no longer feel it. On takeoff and on landing, you feel it. Sometimes you come upon a terrifying pocket of it in flight, and people sit stiffly in their seats, silently wondering why they decided to take this flight, why didn't they just stay home, what if the plane is seized by the wind and cannot break free and spirals horribly back down to the earth? We listen to the determinedly cheerful voices of the flight attendants as they call to one another about coffee and whether there are any more ginger ales. They seem fine. They're probably taught to call to one another about soft drinks at such times. It works, though: we relax a little.

I favor serial Hail Marys at times like this. Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. I use it on takeoff and on landing and in turbulence. I prefer its predictability to anything I might dream up spontaneously -- left to my own devices, I would only scare myself. But these words are ancient. And they are honest -- one of the things that might happen to us is that we might die, and we might die at any time. A good Hail Mary or two acknowledges that, and also acknowledges something shocking at first: if we do die, it's not the end of the world. People have done it before. Everybody does it. The people who first heard these words and first said them have all done it: died and gone to heaven. They managed to get through the gate of death. If worse come to worse, I'll manage, too. I'll be afraid, but then it will be over. And I'll see them all there. That will be nice. I've always wanted to meet the Blessed Mother.

Hail Mary, Full of Grace!
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Prayer for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
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