Our Christmas morning wasn’t what it should have been: we got a call early on that my ex-brother-in-law had just unexpectedly died. He was only two years older than I am and a health freak. The net effect on me was stronger than I would have expected. It was as if the concept of mortality suddenly became real and I began looking at my life with a different eye. I thought back on that this morning, as I strapped in to fly, and a thought clicked through my mind that was as bright as a neon sign, “Someday you’re going to fly for the last time. Is this that time?”
There’s an old, rather macabre saying that the only thing worse than knowing the next flight will be the last is NOT knowing that it’ll the last one. Frankly, I think not knowing would be a blessing of sorts. I can’t imagine going through the boarding dance and the strapping-it-on ritual knowing for a fact that will be the last time I ever taste flight while at the controls. As I’m sitting here typing this, part of my brain is refusing to wrap itself around the inevitability of that thought.
This puts me in mind of the conversations I’ve had with former military pilots, especially fighter/attack types. They may have disliked the BS so often attached to a military existence, but they lived for getting the gear in the wells. They loved the flying and dearly miss the “squadron feeling” of being with kindred souls. Each of those guys knew ahead of time when they were prepping for the last time that they would be astraddle a high-Mach column of fire, a Nomex-clad Zeus who was master of the heavens. You’ll not talk to one of them, no matter how old, who says they don’t miss it. Unfortunately, there’s a last time for everything, both aeronautical and otherwise.
I so clearly remember the last time I hugged my Mom. She didn’t really recognize me but, in the midst of the hug, she pushed back, looked me squarely in the eyes and the lights came on for a fraction of a second, as she said, “You know I love you, right?” and smiled that impish, almost devilish grin of hers. Then the lights went out and the veil of dementia was once again smothering the brilliant woman who had raised me. That was the last time we truly connected and I still get choked up thinking about it.
When you’re young, the concept of a final anything exists only as an existential, theoretical understanding, not an emotional one that connects with every fiber of your being. When you’re young, the concept of time is meaningless because there’s so much of it out there in front of you. When you go blazing through middle age, the reality of time nibbles at the edge of your consciousness, but it doesn’t do much more than tiptoe into your thoughts now and then. However, on Christmas morning the limits time places on us suddenly vaulted over the barriers I had erected around my thoughts and every minor movement during my days since then has been seen in a different light.
I now actually grin a little in anticipation, as I push the hangar door open for the first flight of the day. The low morning sun paints my little fabric-covered friend the color of wet lipstick and I can’t adequately explain how that makes me feel: it feels so good, it’s almost silly! It’s a wonderfully clean portrait not only of flight, but of a segment of life that I wish could go on forever. But, I know it can’t. On the one hand, that flat pisses me off, but, at the same time, it makes me more appreciative of the moment.
Then, there is that magical instant, when, amidst the thunder that fills the cockpit, I feel the Earth give up its grasp allowing me and my mechanical friend to leap free. And believe me, my friend knows how to leap much better than most. It’s not so much a takeoff as it is a release, a step through an invisible portal into another world where we are king and gravity is only a temporary inconvenience.
If it’s an early-morning takeoff, I’m blessed with a golden sunrise much earlier than those below. Many are still sleeping and others are just arousing to a day that is still hidden in Earth’s shadow. Climbing up into a sunrise is a moment only pilots know and I sometimes feel sorry for those who don’t experience it.
The bottom line is that time respects no man. We clearly know when our time began, but we don’t have a clue when it’ll run out. Worse, we never know when time will begin to erode the person that we have been. Regardless, a last flight is a foregone conclusion. The key is to enjoy every flight as if it’ll be the last and take nothing for granted. Time is our friend at the beginning, but slowly turns into an aggressive enemy. For that reason alone, I’ve always lived by the mantra, “When you’re running as fast as you possibly can, it does no good to look at your watch.” So, just keep running. You’ll get more done and it makes you a moving target.