Test pilots are a rare breed. Their training indoctrinates them in the tangible, in the three-dimensional world. It teaches them to trust only what can be seen, touched, and then measured. If it cannot be measured, it is simply irrelevant, something to be ignored, a source of distraction that could result in sudden death. It is that training that allows the test pilot, in an emergency, to push away all extraneous factors, and to concentrate on the Now, on the immediate moment at hand. Years of training demands that the test pilot focus intensely only on the present moment, to address not “what if”, and not “I’m scared out of my mind”, but to address “this is what is happening Now, and this is what I must do.” Test pilots are trained to make an absolute servant of adrenalin. They know that unchecked adrenalin brings on deadly fear and panic, spinning their minds into irrational reactions based on sheer dread of past incidents and on what terrible things might happen if the wrong decision is made. Test pilots are trained to use adrenalin as a tool to focus only on the present moment, to move into that entrenched mode of training, a place almost without thought, a place where everything but training and the present evaporates from the mind.
I once knew a test pilot, who flew numerous bombing missions in World War II and survived to tell about them. He was a man of few words, so his harrowing stories had to be pried from him, and he told them without flourish or drama. Just the basics. Just the facts. His stories were punctuated with periods, rather than exclamation marks. After the war, he became a test pilot for Boeing, the kind of pilot who climbs into a plane and propels it, hurtling through the air, to determine if it’s airworthy, or if it will plummet in an uncontrolled, downward spiral from 50,000 feet in the clear blue yonder, pitching into the hard earth, exploding in a blast of aviation fuel, unrecognizable shards of debris scattered for miles, and not a trace left of the human being who was once a test pilot. He went on to become an airline pilot, and a fine pilot he was. His passengers were safe, because he knew well how to remain in the present, to take care only of the issues at hand, the factors that would lift the plane into the air, keep it flying, then bring it to a safe, smooth touchdown on a runway.
Fred was his name. He was retired. And he was human, which meant that he, too, despite all his training as a pilot, would someday die. But Fred didn’t think of that. Because death was some future event that would distract from his present life. It would distract from what is, right now. It would take away from savoring this very moment, it would cause death to his Now. So, until he died, Fred stayed in the here and Now. He didn’t speculate about what might be, he rarely discussed what once was, unless someone asked. He drank in the Now, and the Now, and the Now. It seemed to be a waste of the present to spend it dwelling upon what was or upon what might be. Like flying a plane, it was important to Fred to remain focused only in the present, to immerse himself in all around him, to be a part of Now. To be drawn away into the past or into the future could mean veering off the present course, and that could be disastrous. At the very least, he would miss something happening, Now. Besides, the past and future couldn’t be measured, there were no defining parameters, hence it was a waste of time to spend energy in either of those places.
Which is not to say that Fred didn’t have fun! Fred could revel in the moment, with laughter and joy. Fred liked people, largely because he had an almost-magical way of pushing away those things about a person that really didn’t matter, focusing only on those things that were that person. If you didn’t say it, it wasn’t there, and if you said it, Fred believed you–unless of course, the observed facts contradicted what you said. In that case, Fred ignored it, giving it no power. And he wasted no time worrying about those inconsistencies he observed in people. Fred was who he was, and he knew that was the only thing he could do anything about.
One day, Fred’s doctor told him he had pancreatic cancer. It was incurable. But Fred didn’t hear the part about the cancer being incurable, because there was nothing he could do about that. So he went for radiation, and he listened to his doctors, carefully filtering out what couldn’t be changed from what could be changed. And he focused only on what could be changed. He took his medications, tried to eat a well-balanced diet, despite his lack of appetite. He asked few questions. Every day that he woke, was another day of living for Fred. Living in the present.
Fred was my father-in-law. My husband and I went to visit him during the last month of his life. His family asked me if I would tell him that his cancer was not curable, because he seemed not to be aware of this. He knew he was becoming weaker, was losing weight, and found it more and more difficult to eat. An out-of-character question started coming from him: “What do we do next about this problem?” He hadn’t let some future maybe interfere with his present-moment way of living. Until now.
So I sat with Fred on the living room couch, while the family waited in another room. Fred had a quizzical sort of look on his face, as he tilted his head toward me. He slung one arm lazily across the back of the couch and waited.
“Fred,” I began, hesitantly. “Your family asked me if I would talk to you about your cancer.” I knew that Fred was not one who responded well to vagueness. Fred liked directness, Fred expected directness.
“Unh,” Fred grunted.
“The cancer you have is not curable, Fred.” I waited for a reaction, but his facial expression remained stoic. He didn’t speak.
“Do you understand what I’m saying, Fred?” My heart thumped in my chest so loudly that I was sure he could hear it. I could feel my pulse throbbing in my face and neck. I hoped he understood the meaning, but sensed I was committing the sin of vagueness.
Fred shrugged his shoulders. “Not really,” he said, and his words fell like a thud on my heart.
I took a deep breath, and scanned the room, the carpet, the ceiling, hoping to find something written there that would choose my next words for me. “Your family wants me to tell you that you’re dying, Fred. This cancer will end your life, and it will happen soon.” There. It was said.
For the first time, Fred’s eyes broke away from my face, and he looked at the floor, then back at me. “Well, pissers,” were his only words. He spoke no further.
I sat with him for many minutes, wordless truth surrounding us. It wasn’t uncomfortable, it just was. I sensed gratitude, relief from Fred, that the facts of the situation had been spoken. Fred did well with facts. He did not do well with innuendo. And now he had facts, and he could deal with that. Speculation was like a foreign country to Fred. Facts were friends that would guide him.
It took only a short time to render Fred bed bound. He continued to lose weight, and spent more and more of his time in a netherworld, known only to him. Fred drifted back and forth between this world and his somewhere else. In a crystal clear, lucid moment, Fred the test pilot uttered the most amazing thing. This man who believed only what he could see, touch and then measure, looked at his son, Scott, and said, “There are people here, sometimes.”
Scott, my husband, said, “We’re all here, Dad. Mom’s out in the garden, and sis and I are here. Janet’s here.”
Fred shook his head, “No, there are other people here.” He looked at Scott. “Sometimes they are here.” Fred stared at the in-between airspace in front of him. He laughed lightly. “That’s kind of crazy, isn’t it?”
Scott left the room, and I remained by Fred’s side. I took his hand in mine. “Do you know those people, Fred?’
Fred shook his head, “no”.
“Do they frighten you?” I asked.
I just sat and held Fred’s hand for a while. He slept. I wondered what his test-pilot mind made of this other world. No doubt, he was trying to measure those things he saw, trying to make sense of them. I left the room soon after.
Fred died days later. Fred had no use for the past or the future, and I imagined he would be happy in his new world, where he was most comfortable, in that realm where there is no time and space, only Presence, only the eternal Now.
©Janet Mitchell, June 2012