Time is our Only Asset

This guy was as game as they come. As we arced towards the runway in a curving approach, everything was against him. A gusty crosswind boiled across the runway making it nearly impossible to hold the right arc. The desert heat would alternattely suck him down, then spit him back up on the tip of a thermal forcing him to make a correction in the other direction.

The elements wouldn't leave him alone. Still he fought to put the airplane right on the numbers. The slip was a little un-even. He was having trouble visualizing centerline and he'd alternate between being too far left and too far right. But "...too far..." was a matter of maybe three feet. Five at most. Most pilots would have been happy to come even that close in those conditions.

He was out there trying to do something many pilots would hate. It was too much work. Too humbling. Too hot. And to some, too dangerous. But he wouldn't give up and, as we went round and round the pattern, richochetting off the runway like a well-thrown stone skimming a glassy pond, he was determined to get it right. He wouldn't let that cantankerous little biplane get the best of him.

He didn't have to be doing this. He had plenty of money. He was successful. He had made his mark. This was a totally unnecessary masochistic endeavor. He could have been satisfied to drone around in a nice new Baron. But, it wasn't enough.

Other than a couple of bemused tower controllers, no one was watching us. No one was judging him. There was no one out there he had to impress. There was only one person he felt he had to satisfy: himself.

He had set a goal and being able to handle the airplane in any situation and in any kind of wind was one of those goals. If I didn't know his background, I'd say he was a driven individual. A little obessive. Extremely determined.

Yes, that was it. He was determined. Damned determined!

He was determined to live his life by cheating his death. And he knew the race was going to be close, although it had nothing to do with the airplane.

Cancer was slowly eating him away and it was probably going to win. But, he wasn't going to let it cut his life short. He had too many things left to do. To learn. To live.

Cancer, that cruel joke of runaway growth which nature plays on so many of us, was going to shorten the number of years he had left to live. But, it wasn't going to shorten his life. His plan was obvious: He would do and be those things he had always held up as being worthwhile and unobtainable. In so doing, when the end came, he'd be so far ahead of death, he could turn and look at the years behind him and see them as a completed lifetime. A short liftime, but a complete one.

He wasn't lamenting what he wouldn't do or see in the future. He wasn't concerned in the slightest with what wouldn't be. He was concerned only with checking items off that list of achievements he felt would make a satisfactory life. His focus was on what he had done and what he could do, not what wouldn't be done.

I had to admire the man. How could I not? He could carry on a conversation about the technical aspects of the disease as casually as if he was discussing the problems of keeping a battery charged. Or changing the brakes on his car. It was a problem. A technical problem that was attacking the machine in which he lived, his body, but that's all it was. A problem. As with all problems, it had edges and somewhere out there, it had finite limits. That, however, is the cruelest part of nature's joke: It doesn't let you know where those limits lay. He could have ten years. He could have two. He didn't know. And he didn't care.

To him, the exact amount of time left made no difference. The vague nature of his future only meant he could let no time pass without it being invested in one of those many endeavors he judged as being necessary ingredients for a full life. He wasn't looking at his watch because when you're running as fast as you can, it makes no difference what time it is. Wide open is wide open.

I learned so much just being around him, I felt as if I should be paying him, rather than the other way around. I was passing on my paltry experiences in cheating gravity. He was passing on enormous information and energy about cheating death and living life.

Like everyone else, he prob ably had unresolved issues about his impending demise, but they weren't visible from the outside. As far as that goes, there may be no unresolved issues for him. Maybe that's the reason he appeared so in control of a life that was being taken away from him by tiny bits of his body that were out of control. He had faced the problem, placed its logical consequences against the background of his life, and made the bad dovetail with the good until everything averaged out.

He eventually hammered the airplane into line. The approaches weren't perfect. Neither were the landings. But each was better than the last. And he could have been proud of any of them.

As we parted at the end of the week, I could see his pride. He felt as if he had made solid progress. And he had. He knew he was a better man than when he came, even though during that time a little more of him had silently died. He didn't seem to care about that. The only thing which mattered was that he had accomplished his goal. He had made himself a better pilot. And that made his life, regardless of how long or how short it may be, fuller and richer.

There's a lesson to be learned here and I hope I've learned it. It has to do with the value of time and how we must invest each moment wisely for the maximum personal return. It's a lesson that's never too late to be learned.