Last Flight Out: Living, Loving & Leaving

How do you live the rest of your life when your doctor says, “You have Lou Gehrig’s disease, you probably have six months to live. Go out and have fun, do all the things you’ve wanted to do while you still can and prepare to die?”

Americans continue to fear death and dying. Comedian Woody Allen said, “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  Phyllis Langton’s memoir, Last Flight Out: Living, Loving, & Leaving, is a passionate love story, one that deepens as she and her husband George Thomas live their way into the experience of ALS, its unremitting losses and its surprising gifts, with dignity, keen humor, a fighter pilot’s courage and a nurse’s unsentimental pragmatism. “I know what’s going to be on my death certificate. That’s more than you can say,” George tells her after receiving his diagnosis. How they are going to live the time that remains to them as a couple is also not in question, for they are equally committed to savoring every minute, respecting George Thomas's choices about what makes for a meaningful life, a meaningful death.  Supporting her husband's wishes is a moral as well as emotional choice on Langton's part, and definitely not always an easy one.  As a medical sociologist, she invites her readers into an open discussion of some of these choices through a thoughtful discussion guide.

Advance Praise for Last Flight Out

"Phyllis Langton has had as illustrious a career as anyone in academia, but she has taken infinite pains now to write a different kind of book. Her story of her husband's life with and death from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) yields many a valuable lesson, but this lesson above all: that dying, whatever its pains, can be both a negative and a positive experience. Here love and mortality, laughter and sorrow are all but inseparable, and their inseparability may help lessen a reader's fear of death and dying. Anyone who enjoys a deeply moving story will want to read this wondrous, indispensable book, and anybody who faces adversity, that is to say everybody, will need to read it."
Jeffery Paine––author of Father India, Re-enchantment, Adventures with the Buddha, and Tales of Wonder (with Huston Smith). Judge for the Pulitzer Prize and former vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

"Like many others, I've not been comfortable with the subject of death––the death of my loved ones or myself. How lucky we humans are to have Phyllis Langton's story as part of our lives. This moving book has allowed me to look death in the eye, and even find a way to laugh about it. Langton shows us that deep love and laughter make the sorrow and loss bearable, paving the way for this ultimate journey and beyond. . . ."
Jill Breckenridge––author of The Gravity of Flesh and Miss Priss and the Con Man.

I couldn't put Last Flight Out down. I wanted it to go on so I could learn more about Phyllis and George and their story about facing ALS together. George had a terminal disease and he and Phyllis chose to live and love to the fullest! What an incredible message to read especially with a disease that takes and takes.
Sharon J. Matland, R.N., M.B.A.––Vice-President of Patient Services, The ALS Association

Who would have thought that disease can be a page-turner? But Phyllis Langton's bittersweet memoir of her fighter-pilot husband's last years shows that a good marriage can be as joyous in sickness as it is in health. Last Flight Out is a vivid, sparkling story about facing death with grace and high spirits.
Mark Weston—author of Giants of Japan and Prophets and Princes: Saudi Arabia From Muhammad to the Present.

Last Flight Out really touched my heart. As the hospice physician who cared for George, I found the description of the denial of his symptoms extremely compelling and riveting and it taught me to appreciate more deeply the psychological defenses which patients use to protect themselves against the perception of their own vulnerabilities. In addition, this memoir reminds all who read it of the paramount need to honor and respect a patient's wishes to control the conditions of care and medical treatment. George achieved a wonderful peace of mind as his disease relentlessly progressed. Everyone should be so fortunate to have such a resourceful and loving advocate for their partner.
Dr. Henry Willner––Hospice Physician and Palliative Care Consultant, Capital Hospice.

Excerpts from Last Flight Out


"I know what's going to be on my death certificate. That's more than you can say."

On Wednesday morning, eleven months earlier—October 11, 2000—the neurologist, Dr. Noble, entered the waiting room that faintly smelled of Pine-Sol and human traffic. He resembled my husband, George, in many ways: medium height and build, the same full-bodied gray hair, and wearing the same style of rimless glasses over his sapphire blue eyes—eyes the color of George's. I liked him right away.

"Mr. Thomas?" he said, smiling as he introduced himself to us. His handshake felt firm, but not aggressive. George had difficulty extending his hand, and I suspected the doctor noted this. I held George's arm as we walked to the doctor's office. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Dr. Noble watching George walk.

As we sat in his office, looking through floor-length windows with views of the fiery red fall colors of the large maple trees, Dr. Noble told us that the reports from the referring doctors had not been sent. He had talked on the phone with one of the doctors to get his interpretations of some of the tests. "I would like to repeat some of the EMG tests to measure the strength of a few of your arm and leg muscles to confirm for myself what is going on," Dr. Noble added.

"I've had all these tests and now you want more?"George grumbled. "These tests wear me out. I'm too tired to have any more needles stuck in my muscles."

"I'm sorry," the doctor replied. "I can understand why you're upset. I just need to test two or three muscles to know whether these muscle twitches in your face and hands are a result of misfiring of the nerve cells." Dr. Noble added, "I won't repeat the entire test. I need to review the original films from your MRI tests, and readings from the EMGs and interpret what I see, independent of what others have done."

George's head jerked up. "Thank you for explaining this to me. I've been told very little about what is being done and why. How long will your test take?"

"Not very long. I'd like to test two muscles in your arms and legs today. Given the potential gravity of any diagnosis, we need to be as sure as possible before we begin to talk about treatment and any other options."

While they went to the examining room, I found the ladies' room, sat on the toilet, and wept. Where were the reports? This meant another delay in knowing what was happening to him, another painful trip to a doctor's office, more tests. After washing my hands, I gripped the counter, practiced my meditation, and counted to fifty to...


"Phyllis, you are the craziest person I know, and the dearest!"

On any given day, after months of caring for someone, you find yourself not knowing what day it is, and wrestling with your own spiritual loneliness. Suddenly you want to make the dying hurry up so you don't have to constantly witness the pain. It was hard to watch George struggle so valiantly, to watch death happen every day, and to not yearn to die with him or for him.

One evening after dinner, when we'd finished watching the Wimbledon tennis finals in the family room, George grew quiet. Feeling a little weepy, we joked about the fact that I still played for him in his men's group, using his god-awful heavy racket, so that he could still be 'on the court' with his friends.

As I finished cleaning up the kitchen, I asked him to tell me about his greatest frustrations so far on this journey. He didn't answer. I wondered if he'd heard me since he didn't wear his hearing aid anymore. Perhaps he was asleep.

Finally, he said, "I'm tired of waiting."

"Waiting? For what?" I asked.

"That could take all night. There's just too much to say."

"Well, I have all night. Let's talk about it."

I prepared his hot toddy, and a glass of pinot noir for me. Then we talked for more than an hour, with our eyes tearing up in pain and tender laughter. It was the first time George shared what it meant to him to wait for each moment of living—and dying. This began many hours of sharing. Over many months, these were some of the things that George told me were hard or meant a lot to him:
"When I wake up, I wait to see if my eyes are getting worse. They are.

"I wait to feel if I can move my head, my arms or legs. Each day I can move less.

"I wait to see if I can still whistle. I worry that if I lose my whistle, I won't be able to call you when I need you. I love our joke that this is the only time I can whistle for you without getting a shoe thrown at me.

"I wait for your smile.

"I wait for you to get me out of bed into the wheelchair, lift me out of the wheelchair onto the bidet, and close the bathroom door and let me sit alone for a few minutes. I love that you tell me it's time for bowel movements with Beethoven, and then you turn on the Bose music system. You always say that you'd love to smell...