I find myself in a position that every pilot hates…and by hate, I mean vehemently despises. I have no options to consider, no decisions to make, and I am NOT the arbiter of my own (or my loved ones) fate. It’s impossible for me to express how uncomfortable I am in this position, and I can’t begin to convey how much I loathe it. I have spent my adult life making difficult decisions, and I have not only (hopefully) excelled at it…truth be told…I’ve loved it.
(The mighty Boeing 757 readying for the 0430 launch from Palau to Tokyo.)
My life’s work has been an infinite que of tough decisions. Do I accept the broken airplane with the promise of repair, or do I refuse the machine, cancel the flight, and disrupt hundreds of lives? Do I add precious fuel to compensate for the anticipated bad weather, or is the flight plan amount going to safely be enough? (side note; I have occasionally “discussed” the fuel load with our dispatchers over the years, and I’m glad to say that the term “Pilot in Command” is still very much alive and well.) Do I deviate 200 miles to the north of the squall line or 300 miles to the south? Should I ask Air Traffic Control for a climb to escape the dreadful turbulence, or a descent ? Do I have the upset, rowdy passenger removed, or counsel less drastic actions? I have spent a career laying my head on the pillow and critiquing the decisions I’ve proffered for that day, and for the most part I have been satisfied. But like all humans, occasionally I’ve had second thoughts. The good news, however, is that I have (mostly) learned valuable lessons from those days filled with “less than perfect” flights.
(Sunrise over the Pacific. Singapore bound for Tokyo.)
I’ve made an untold number of those decisions spanning the last 4 1/2 decades, and have gladly accepted it as an integral part of the job description. But now I’m facing a new issue, a paradigm of control as it were, where I would love to be at the helm, but hence, I simply am not. I find myself in the infant stages of comprehending the ramifications of all of this, and just how incredibly difficult it will be. What this mostly means, is that I have no idea what to do, or if I can impact this issue enough to make the nightmare better. As stated before, I feel like I’m devoid of options whereby control is most certainly not mine, for I am merely reacting, without the option to be proactive. At the risk of sounding like a “male chauvinist pig”, here goes: as a man, as a husband, and as a close confidant and dear friend, I don’t like it… I don’t like it one single bit. I’m not even sure if what little I’m doing is the right thing. As a professional aviator, I’m not used to occupying this confusing role…the role of being the scared passenger on the flight that is my life.
You see, the dearest, most special, most sacred person in my life is sick…really sick. Her diagnosis was unexpected and as of yet, has been unexplained. It was like the crash of Thor’s hammer against our collective lives. I’m not sure if she can prevail against this foe, but if anyone can, it’s most assuredly her. She’s small in frame and stature, but towers far above me in strength and fortitude. Her level of courage, coupled with her tenacity and shear will to “get it done” have left me in awe for the last 2 1/2 decades. I’ve told her many times over the years, that had things been different in her life, I could easily see her carrying the shield of a law enforcement hero, or even wearing the honored trident of a Navy SEAL…a tougher person I’ve never met. She has no understanding of the phrase “I quit”, or it’s homely cousin, “I can’t”. She’s rock solid in her mental toughness, and until very recently, was the same in physical being.
(One of the many glorious sunsets she and I have marveled at looking west from Palau.)
Will she be able to conquer and live out her days with this medical issue? Every fiber of my being says that she will, but I fear it could be a tough battle, and a long journey. True to her nature (and upbringing), she has not complained, not whined, and definitely NOT adopted the “victim” moniker; and I know she never will. Could one say the same of this old, road-worn “four-striper”? Nope. I’ve bitched, I’ve whined, I’ve questioned, and I’ve had more than a few angry conversations with my Maker. But I’ve also bent knee to pray and thank that same magnificent God for Him gracing my life with her love and companionship. I’ve promised Him that I will do everything in my power to help in my role as her care-giver. She was there for me 18 years ago in the hell of the Mayo Clinic Chemotherapy Ward. She kept me going, kept our family going, and generally held my proverbial hand through that dark, lost year. The majority of my memories of that black tunnel void of time, are full of needles, X-ray machines, stone-face doctors, smiling nurses and her…my angel, my rock.
I now find myself as the trusted “right-seater” in the cockpit of life. The by-gone years I logged in the First Officer’s seat of the venerable Boeing 727 and the graceful McDonnel-Douglas DC10 taught me a vast number of important lessons. Those years taught me humility, honesty, integrity, loyalty, and most of all, how to just be there…be in the moment…and to be as much help for the person riding next to me as I can possibly be. I’m there again. I only hope that I’m up to the task.
My dear Dad once told me that there is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole, and to the depths of my soul I know he was right. I know that courage comes in a million versions and flavors. It was there shivering at the campfires of Valley Forge, the Chosin Reservoir and the battered hamlet of Bastogne. It was blinded by the powder flashes at Little Round Top and in the parapets of New Orleans. It was trembling in the dark forests of the Argonne and the Hurtgen. It was bone tired and sweating on Mt. Suribachi and in the trenches of Khe Sanh, and it was surely standing tall in the urban hell of Fallujah and the vortex of the Helmond Province. But in my six decades, I’ve also seen that unbelievable courage in the mere “combat” we call our daily lives.
In the last several months, I’ve seen it in spades in the beautiful faces of the warriors in the Heart Failure waiting room of Abbott Northwestern Hospital. I promise my dear Debie to give her my all, “in sickness and in health”, and I promise you…my readers…to keep you in the loop.
(Myself, my amazing wife Debora, and “Digger”…one of my all time favorite First Officers sharing a great layover in Tokyo [he’s now a Captain in our New York domicile].)
The journey continues…please never forget…prayers are always welcome.
’till next time…