A little over two months ago, my father suffered a serious stroke. Despite all odds suggesting the opposite, his stubborn will and, quite probably, his abject fear of death has kept him hanging in there. As a family, we all agreed that as long as he was up for it and so long as the VA system would continue to foot the mind bending bill, that we would allow him the best chance to beat the impossible odds.
Over the past several weeks, his mental and emotional strength has faded, while any measurable physical recovery has remained at zero. Late last week it became obvious to everyone that the end was near. Our keeping the life support going was no longer providing a chance at recovery, but was simply prolonging his misery.
It was time to take things out of the hands of modern medicine and pass it back to God and Mother Nature.
The trick at this point was how to handle the situation as I explained everything to my father. I knew that he must have certainly been aware of the situation and that the end was near. You could see it in his almost completely paralyzed face as it would show the slightest twinge of a frown, and his eyes would blink ever so slowly.
I needed to find a way to bring him comfort, though. It’s well known within our family – and probably among his closest friends – that there isn’t anything in the world that my father fears more than death; unsure of whether there is an afterlife – and unsure that if there actually was one, if it would be a better option than the alternative.
How could I possibly come up with something to say to him that would let him know that he is loved and that it’s okay to let go? His energy and attention span has been down, so not only did I need to find the words, but I needed to boil it all down to a sentence or two – a handful of words that amounted to something far bigger than the words by themselves.
While this blog post is primarily something for me to be able to get my thoughts on all of this out, I also hope that someone will take something from the following story and be able to use it in their own lives. It might be a huge fear like my father’s fear of death. It might be something smaller, but just as scary for you – like being afraid of the dark.
Whatever it is – this is not a story about death, it is a story about how to be at peace with your fears, whatever they may be. It’s a story that you can tell others that might help them work through some of their own primal fears. It is a way for all of us to look at a sad situation and learn: really, it will all be okay.
Talk To All The Pilots
As I grew up, I always assumed that the phrase “Talk to all the pilots” was commonly known. It seemed like something akin to “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Any time someone in our family was about to embark on a trip – especially a plane trip, but it would often be used as we were beginning the 4 hour drive home to Connecticut from my grandparents’ house in Maine.
It wasn’t until I was well into my adult life that I realized that this was some sort of Truslow Family heritage, unknown to everyone outside the fold. I learned this because of the blank and confused stares I would get every time I would bid someone goodbye using this term.
This knowledge drove me to seek out the origins of the phrase in our family lore. Over the years, when I would ask someone, the story would be slightly different, as is true with many family legends and bits of lore. The characters, setting, and time might change, but the basic content, meaning, and moral was always the same. I mention this because surely someone from my family will read this and say, “Hey – that’s not the right story!” And, truth be told, it’s probably not, but the truth should shine through regardless.
Everything Is Going To Be Fine
When my father was younger, he didn’t like to fly. It wasn’t the flight that scared him so much as it was the fact that someone else was in charge of his fate. Until recent years when his health began to fail, I can barely ever remember being in a car with him where he wasn’t driving. In the rare cases where he was in the passenger seat, his hand would be out on the dashboard with white knuckles. Any time someone would pass in another lane, or any time a car would pull out into traffic in front of us, he’d exclaim, “Watch out for that asshole!” in a tone reminiscent of Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda.
Thus, when getting on a plane that someone else was flying, compounded by the fact that he couldn’t see out the front window to warn of any impending doom on the horizon, he was a complete basket case. His life was in the hands of someone else, and worse – a complete stranger.
To help give him a bit of comfort, his mother suggested to my father that all he needed to do was talk to all the pilots. If he did that, then they would no longer be strangers. Plus, if he made a good impression on them, then of course the pilots would take extra care on the flight because they knew him and would have extra incentive to make sure it was a safe trip.
Though it’s obvious that talking to the pilots before a flight doesn’t actually have such a profound real impact on the pilot’s attention to the job, there is something to be said for the notion. In any situation, if we think about the fact that there are people counting on us and not just numbers or irrelevant strangers, we are more likely to care more about the task at hand – at least to some tiny degree. If you’ve ever worked for a big company that treats you like a number and can compare that experience with working for a small operation where everyone knows everyone on a personal level, you know what I’m saying, here.
In the end, though – having my father talk to all the pilots was more for him than for the pilots. It’s about his perception of the situation; the knowledge that the pilots are people just like him and knowing that it’s in their own best interest to get everyone there safely.
It’s about coming to terms with the fact that even though you are scared shitless, you don’t need to be in control of the situation to get through it. It’s about knowing that you can just go back to your seat, buckle your seat belt, and let the pilots do their job. In a few hours, you’ll be at your destination and everything will be okay.
Thus, in our family we don’t say, “Have a safe trip!” we wave and say, “Talk to all the pilots!”
How To Say “I Love You”
My father never really got over many of his fears in life. He worked through and managed many of them, but even as recently as three months ago, his white knuckles would lay planted firmly on the dashboard as I drove him to his doctor appointment. I truly believe, though, that these trips would have been even more difficult for him if he hadn’t learned to talk to all the pilots (in a real and metaphorical sense).
Yesterday, as I drove the two and a half hours to visit him at the hospital in Oklahoma City, I continued my mental rehearsal of just exactly what I was going to say. I knew that it would be the last time I ever talked to him and I knew that I realistically had only a few sentences before his mind might start to drift to other, more pressing issues in is frail, broken body.
I needed to be able to make my own peace with the reality of the situation while assuring him that, even though the end was upon us, we all love him greatly and that everything is going to be alright. On top of that, I needed to find a way to say all that and convey to him that it would be okay to face his greatest fear – his mortality.
As a picture paints one thousand words, I needed to make a handful of words to paint a thousand words. By the time I parked the car and walked into the hospital, I knew what I was going to say. I had the perfect last words to say to him. Just five words that could convey that he is loved, that everything is going to be okay, and that there is nothing to be afraid of.
In his room, I chatted with him a bit and told him a bit about what was going on at home. I passed along various messages from friends and family. The doctor came in and explained the situation – that at this point, the chance of any recovery that would bring any real quality of life was zero. All the while, I knew that the time was here. I needed to say goodbye – and I needed to make it count.The doctor left and I could see my father’s attention was starting to fade.
“Just remember, Dad,” I said, taking his swollen hand into mine. “We all love you very much.”
I felt a faint squeeze on my hand and I knew he loved me too. I squeezed back and smiled a bit through a tear that was forming in the corner of my eye.
“Make sure you talk to all the pilots.”
Note: At the time of writing this, my father is still alive in comfort care. It’s expected that he might make it a day or two at best. For updates on this situation and to be informed if any new news arises, please visit the Facebook page that I set up for him.