The woman was flying home across Megalopolis on one of those planes jammed with VIPs. If it went down, she mused, congressmembers, university presidents and television people would have to compete with each other for space in the obituary columns.

The woman had conquered her worst, white-knuckled fear of flying, but planes were still places where she gave a nod to death, tipped her hat to its possibility. Especially last week. That day.

It had been a week, after all, when death had lost its sense of timing. It had forgotten its place. Ended beginnings. Interrupted middles.

The death of the new pope had seemed somehow as unnatural as the death of passengers on the 727 in San Diego.

She had been struck by the suddenness. In Rome, the beginning and end of Pope John Paul I's papacy had come so close together that they hit each other with the sound of two hands clapping in shock. In San Diego, it had been a matter of inches and the sound of two planes crashing.

But now, she was already surprised by her surprise. She remembered a West African proverb: Death is always new. Is it conceit that makes us think that death should have a better sense of timing? Or is it a hope?

She thought about how we try to control our fears of both the randomness and inevitability of death. How we build fortresses of ideas, hanging onto safety-strap notions like the Life Cycle, or even Death Preparedness.

Whether we read Shakespeare or Erikson, there is some comfort as well as sadness in the vision of life as a cycle with "guarantees" of seasons and stages. We choose to think that there is some predictable pattern of growth and decline. We look at actuarial tables as if they were personal promises instead of estimates, and feel gypped if someone we love doesn't fill out the timetable.

Perhaps that's why stories of accidents and tales of "premature" deaths - whether of a new pope or of passengers in their prime - fill our newspapers and imaginations. They shock our sense of order and threaten the safety of our plans.

We have forgotten that death is "the great perhaps." We expect it to wait politely until our life cycle, like a novel, is completed.

She wondered sometimes whether the belief in the life cycle wasn't just another one of our bargains with death: Wait until we're ready and we won't mind so much.

She had read lately about people coming to terms with death. Others were advocating courses on death as if it were natural childbirth - something for which everyone could prepare. These people seemed to respond to our profound desire that death not be a shock, but something we can control and something we can accept. Keep in its place.

Yet, how few people there are like Edgar Bergen, who say their goodbyes, round off their lives on stage and then, on cue, leave life. It is, perhaps, as singular a feat as making a career as a ventriloquist on the radio.

She suspected that more people, like John Paul I, die just as they have begun something new - experienced some new possibility, grasped some new and vital insight. And many more, perhaps most of us, die like the people on that 727. En route. In the middle of something, if only the middle of creating and elaborating that unique thing, the self.

Her grandfather used to say that no one wants to live to be 100 until you ask the man who's 99. She thought that almost all of us, in some way, die "prematurely."

Ten thousand precarious feet in the air, somewhere between Washington and Boston, she though that life is rarely finished. It is rather, ended. At some point in, as Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, "The fever called living is conquered at last." And it is always new.