• Mariely Lares

That time I almost died



I was born in 1988, the Year of the Dragon in Chinese astrology.


In China, the Dragon is the absolute zenith of sacreda creature of greatness, power, divinity, guardianship. Lord of the four elements (fire, water, air, earth) and the four directions (east, west, north, south). The most auspicious of the twelve zodiac animals and the only one that is a mythical creature.


I'm an Earth Dragon. All my life, some part of me believed that made me lucky.


However, according to the Chinese, every twelfth year after your birth is bad luck (1988, 2000, 2012, 2024, etc). They even have a name for it.


Ben Ming Nian

The Ben Ming Nian is said to be a whole year of bad luck. I've heard people refer to it as the 12-year curse. Generally, all aspects of your life, including love, health, career, and finance, will not go well. Therefore “Dragons” should be more careful in years of the Dragon.


I'm not Chinese myself. Mexicali, Baja California (where I grew up and my parents currently live), is home to the largest Chinese community in Mexico. The pioneers of Mexicali were primarily Chinese immigrants and have greatly contributed to the city’s cultural identity with their festivals, cuisine, architecture, and customs. At one point, Mexicali was more Chinese than Mexican.


Ask anyone who lives in or grew up in Mexicali what they do on Sundays, regardless of ethnic background, and the answer is likely that they and their families head to a Chinese restaurant. If you're ever in Mexicali, Chinese food is as good as it gets outside of China.


Anyway.


On Saturday, December 31, 2011, I took two pieces of paper, went deep into the dark abyss of my mind, and jotted down what I wanted to let go of from that year.


All the bad shit, basically.


Then, in the other, I wrote: I want to be the best possible version of myself. Eat healthy. Sleep more. Stress less. Love. Travel.


At exactly 12:00 a.m., I went out to my parents' yard and looked up at the night sky. I shut my eyes and said, "On this new year, I let go of..." and burned the paper after I was finished.


I let go.


Next, I took the other paper and again called it into existence.


The next couple of days, my wishful thinking started to fade away. Noticeably. My family noticed. My friends noticed. Something didn't feel right.


That same week, on Sunday, I had a flight bound to Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, where I was in university at the time.


One day before my flight, I couldn't really sleep. I was up at the crack of dawn. I've never been an early bird, but I wasn't myself that morning. My parents and my grandmother looked at me with concerned eyes while we sat at the breakfast table.


"What's wrong, darling?" my Tita asked me.


"I don't know. I feel like my time's running out."


I told my grandmother that nothing was wrong, but that's exactly how I felt.


I gave my grandmother a kiss and went back to my room to finish packing.


A month or so before, I had bought two cards for my mom and dad for no reason. That day it felt like the right time to write them something. Again, no reason.


I had flown countless times to my parents' every time the holidays rolled around. I didn't know why I was being so emotional. I didn't know what was happening inside me.


On January 8, 2012, while my mother was shouting at me from the kitchen to hurry up because I was going to lose my flight, I hid the cards underneath my parents' pillows. It was so weird (and dramatic) of me to do this.


I grabbed my cat, Achilles, put him inside his travel carrier, and then we were off.


At the check-in counter at our small airport, I patted Achilles on the head before he was taken away. I hated that he couldn't ride with me on the plane.


I was told my flight was delayed, so my mom, dad, little brother, and I decided to wait in the airport rest area until my flight was announced.


One coffee later, we all looked past the transparent glass windows where one lone plane sat visibly at the tarmac. We knew it was my flight's plane, because it was the only one departing at 2:30 p.m. Again, small airport.


“What are they doing?” my dad asked, as a team of technicians busied themselves around the airplane. My mother, a chronic worrier, stood from her chair and walked over to two pilots as they were ordering coffee.


“Mr. Pilot, what is going on? We haven’t been told anything,” she asked.


The pilot removed his hat. “There seems to be a problem with the left engine, an oil valve we were told―”


My dad, brother, and I had one hand behind our ears.


My mom, stressed to her stomach, eyed him suspiciously. “How old are you?”


“Twenty-three.”


"Aren't you a little young to be a pilot?"


"It's actually my first day on the job."


News no passenger wants to hear.


“Okay, listen to me carefully, young man. You see this girl here?" She gestured at me. "This is my daughter. She’s also twenty-three. She's in your hands." She sounded like she was joking, but my mom never jokes about her children's safety.


After my flight was finally announced, we all said our goodbyes.


While in the air, the flight attendant spoke. “Ladies and gentlemen, we will be arriving at the nearest airport due to a slight maintenance problem. Please stand by.”


When we landed, I called my mom right away.


“Where are you? Are you okay?” she asked.


“Yeah, we had to make a quick stop because there’s still something wrong with the plane.”


“What? But they said they fixed it. What's wrong?"


"I don't know. The won't say."


"Don’t get on that plane. Do you hear? Catch another flight―”


“Mom, it’s fine. They’re fixing it.”


“I shouldn’t have let you on that plane.”


“I’ll be fine, don’t worry. I’ll call you when I land.”


Two hours later and finally we were taking off. Fifty-one passengers were aboard flight 2053 that day. The flight attendant offered us a brief apology and joyfully said we were on our way to our final destination. Ironic.


I was in 8A, window bound. Seated on an eight on an eighth day. Creepy? This is around the time when my fascination for numerology and my relationship with the number eight started.


Exactly one hour in flight time, I got up from my seat and headed to the bathroom all the way toward the back. I followed the low-dimmed lights on the carpet. Night had fallen; there was complete blackness, except for probably two or three readers with a light on.


The bathroom was occupied.


I noticed a friend of mine seated in the last row. She studied at my university. We chatted a bit about school, but then I realized Bathroom Guy had been in there for a long time.


I knocked on the door. “Almost out?”


"Almost," he answered.


That's about when a filthy stink filled my nostrils.


Smoke.


My heart hammered. I looked at my friend. Did she smell it too? What was that? Where was it coming from?


There was a loud clattering of metal. Then the plane dropped.


Nose-first.


Passengers screamed. I hurled myself onto my friend in one desperate motion. I held on like I've never held on to anyone or anything in my life.


I had one thought: my mom. She won't be able to live with this! She'll blame herself!

Smoke crept inside the cabin. My friend and I prayed hysterically. When the plane leveled out, I bolted to my seat and fastened my seat belt.


Meanwhile, the flight attendant was screaming, “Everyone, stay calm! We’ve lost power! The plane is presenting a mechanical problem! When I yell ‘brace for impact’, engage in brace position! When I yell ‘open’, the people seated at an emergency exit open the doors!”


All I could hear was the sound of my last moments on Earth. The sound of agony, terror, desperationthat one lady behind my seat telling her children it was all going to be okay. That they were going to a better place.


Please, God. I can’t. I can't die. I’m twenty-three. I haven’t married or had kids. I'm not finished with school. I haven't done anything with my life. Please, let us live. Spare our lives. I know I’m meant to do something greater with my life. Please, my parents. This will ruin them. Please, God.

I put my face in between my legs and grabbed my seat from underneath. The flight attendant hadn't yelled "brace for impact" yet. But you bet I was holding on.


Everything happened so fast. On the ground, the plane slid like it had landed on ice. All I kept thinking about was my mom. I called my parents right away. I reached for my cat the second I saw his carrier on the carousel. I think Achilles did die that day. One life down…eight more to go.


As for me, I don't think I was the same person after January 8, 2012. The moment I walked out of that plane, I was a different person. It's cheesy, but it's true.


Looking back at that letter I wrote on New Year’s Eve, everything changed.


Out of nowhere, I went vegan. Cold turkey. I traveled. I slept. I laughed. I loved. I met new friends. I lost others. I ran a 5k. I started writing. I'd never written a single thing in my life.


I learned that the universe listens. What you ask for is what you get.


I don't suppose a person can feel they're going to die. If they can, then that's exactly what I felt in the days leading up to my flight.


2012, the Year of the Dragon, was far from an unlucky year for me.


I survived.

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