Greg Lawrence, a 68-year-old Sarasota resident, has overcome many challenges to continue his passion of flying.
Greg Lawrence was 16 years old the first time he saw the world from a small airplane. His father, a Marine drill sergeant, paid for the brief jaunt over Dayton, Ohio, with a coupon torn from a magazine.
Lawrence immediately became obsessed. In fact, he even stopped eating. He took the lunch money he was given for school each day and used it on flying lessons instead.
He soon received a job at the airport fueling big planes, and he would put on a headset and listen as best he could to the loud banter between the pilots and air traffic controllers. He did this for 10 hours a day and it went on for years until he knew the jargon cold.
When it was finally time to take the test for his license in 1966, there was no question he had the skill and knowledge. All that was left was a verbal interview and medical clearance, which the FAA doctors granted without hesitation.
He had fooled them, all right. They had no idea he was, for all intents and purposes, deaf. He faked his way through the interview by reading the doctors’ lips through the reflection in a window, and since he was able to speak relatively normal they had no idea of his deficiency.
In fact, very few people ever knew he had only 12 percent hearing in his left ear and less than 30 in his right. He didn’t get hearing aids until he was 30, didn’t learn sign language until he was 44. He adapted so well he says his first wife still doesn’t believe he is deaf.
He worked many years as an accountant, was married three times, had three children and eventually moved to Sarasota, where he lived on a boat for a while.
Then, around 2004, Jenny the service dog came into his life.
Jenny was a rescue about to be killed. She was trained to alert him to a ringing phone, a knock on the door, a fire alarm buzzer. She never left his side, even went flying with him, though truth be told she didn’t really like it. By December 2014, Jenny was diagnosed with cancer and was receiving morphine three times a week.
Jenny was in the backseat of Lawrence’s Saturn on May 8, 2014. They were driving up Interstate 75, on their way to a day of flying in Zephyrhills, when Lawrence struck a tree. He was trying to avoid a speeding car near the Fruitville Road exit in Sarasota. He was airlifted to Blake Hospital in Bradenton with serious brain trauma, punctured lungs and broken ribs. He was unconscious for five weeks. The driver of the other car has never been identified.
Drifting through the clouds
He says while in the hospital he “went to the other side" and met a group of “loving and caring" beings who “knew me better than I knew myself." He told them he didn’t want to go back to his body, he was too tired, and he wanted to die. They responded that he had something left to do.
Jenny the service dog was at his bedside each day he was unconscious. Jenny, he thinks, was hanging on to see him one last time.
That happened on June 28, 2014, when a planned goodbye ceremony took place in the hospital room. With soft music in the background, Lawrence held Jenny in his arms, and just as she was licking him she died.
One month later Lawrence was released from the hospital, and one week after that he did the only thing he possibly could — he went flying.
Today, he no longer has his pilot’s license — he couldn’t fool them again — but he is allowed to fly gliders. He goes up every week with his new dog, Tee, and she loves it. He now has a cochlear implant that gives him 98 percent hearing in his left ear and is contemplating getting the procedure in his right.
He’s still trying to understand his purpose, why he’s alive when he shouldn’t be. He flew to Georgia recently and brought a rescue dog back to Tampa to be trained as part of the Pilots N Paws program. He still thinks of Jenny often, so maybe this is his calling.
In the fall he plans on going to Ohio. His best friend’s wife is succumbing to cancer, and he wants to tell her about what he saw when he was unconscious, that he believes there is something on the other side. Maybe he will begin going to hospices and reassuring people before they pass. Maybe this is his calling. He doesn’t know yet.
All he knows is this: There’s no better feeling in the world than being in his glider, drifting through the clouds, hearing the wind in ways he never has before, seeing his new dog’s nose pressed up against the window and smiling, a 68-year-old deaf man still trying to find out.