4
min

Jump 63

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The lie that I was telling in those days was that I wasn’t afraid. I channeled my nervous energy into trying to convince my instructors that skydiving evoked no fear in me. I sold it well – slipping casualness into my gate as we approached the plane, telling jokes at as we climbed to altitude, and ironing out the tension in my cheeks until my face resembled what that I imagined to be the expression worn by meditating monks.

I have no idea if anyone bought it, but most had the good manners not to challenge me. There was one instructor that repeatedly insisted that I take it more seriously – “you’re going to die if you keep at this,” he said. And I would laugh, pat him on the shoulder, and say something evoking Tom Cruise in, well, every movie in which he’s starred. “I’ve got this,” I would say, inserting a wink and a slow, wide, grin.

I didn’t have it. I was 63 jumps in to my skydiving career and the fear was still a monster with whom I secretly wrestled during each of my seven or eight daily jumps. My monster would first assault me when I heard my load called over the PA. “Load seven, 10 minutes, this is your gear call.” He would squeeze my gut with a relentless vice, threatening to pop my insides.

"Go away," I would say to him. "I’m still 25 minutes from exiting. We have too much time to go dark right now." And he would tatter off back into my subconscious and to await further instruction. He would reappear as I boarded the plane, rushing my thoughts through a rollercoaster of everything that could go wrong on this jump. "Some one could hit you and knock you out, your parachute could malfunction or open too hard and break your back, another skydiver could run into you causing a fatal canopy wrap, you could land in a dust devil and break all of your bones, also did you do a FULL gear check or might you have missed something omg why are we doing this?!"

I would take a long, slow breath and say to him: "still early, dude, we have plenty of time and if you stay this will be a long ride." Obliging, he’d fade again, but this time he’d sit on my shoulders awaiting his big moment. He knew it was coming.

As the plane climbed to altitude I took intentional deep breaths, placating him with an abundance of oxygen.

And then the plane would level off, signifying the start of jump run. He would envelop me. "DON’T DO THIS!" He would scream, sending adrenaline and cortisol bursting out of my gut like a geyser. "PLEASE" he would beg. Skin wet, hair on end, intestines turned to mush, I would choose each time to ignore him. I would will myself into a state of denial, pretending that I didn’t hear him in hopes that he would go away.

On that 63rd jump, however, it would all change.

Four of us crawled into our exit positions, griping one another’s wrists. Our jump organizer gave the count. On three, we leapt, turning our bodies into the relative wind. The free fall was uneventful. We made several formations, practicing for the next day’s competition. We must have completed four or five formations before our altimeters sent us scurrying away from one another like flying squirrels.

I tracked far from my group, waived my arms to signify to anyone above me that I was about to open, and then I pulled. Bam. Smack. Twist. More twists. I looked up but up wasn’t where it was supposed to be. I was horizontal, spinning, spinning, spinning towards the earth. I wrestled the canopy, trying to will it into submission, to muscle it upright. I suspected what had happened – one of my brake lines had released early, sending me into a diving spin. It was the result of a packing error. I knew that it was possible to fix this particular malfunction if I could . . . just . . . stop . . . the spin.

But the spinning only increased, thus did the speed at which I approached the ground. I checked my altimeter. 2,300 feet. I remembered the instructor’s warning during ground school: "if you don’t have a straight-flying canopy above your head at 2,000 feet, you must initiate emergency procedures." The phrase ‘emergency procedures’ is a sanitized way of saying that you must abandon the parachute over your head – cutting it away – and hope that your reserve parachute will open straight so that it can return you safely to the earth.

And then, 2,000 feet. I was at decision point. My parachute was failing. It was time.

And there he was. My monster. His arms surrounded me me, calming me, holding me, whispering, "you’ve got this." I became utterly calm. I was safe. He froze time for me, allowing me to process seconds of information in what felt like minutes.

I released my main parachute and felt it flutter off of my back and into the sky. I was thrust back into free fall, approaching terminal velocity.

I tugged at my reserve handle and returned to the arch position with my arms out, to increase the chances that my reserve canopy would come out straight and soft. It did not come out. I continued racing toward the ground. 1,100 feet. 7 seconds from death. And still, I was calm. "This will not be your death," he whispered.

I felt no fear. My monster absorbed it all, a willing pincushion for my terror. "I’ll take care of that, you get that reserve out," he said.

I was wearing gear cut for men and could not see whether I had pulled the handle or whether the handle was dangling under my left boob, still attached. If I had pulled it all the way the first time, then I was out of options; if it was still there, I could pull it again, harder. I reached for it , patting around my rib cage. THERE IT WAS! It was still hanging, partially nestled into my gear. I still had hope.

I ripped at it as hard as I could. Pop, swoosh, and there it was, a beautiful red parachute flying softly overhead. I glanced at the altimeter on my left arm: 800 feet, 200 feet late for my usual landing pattern but I could make it work. The world became so suddenly quiet that I allowed myself a moment of peace and a quivering deep breath before beginning my pattern. I stared up in gladness at the canopy above me, strong and stable, carrying me softly to the ground. I landed gently on my feet with no fanfare. My monster embraced me, told me he loved me, gazed at me with glad eyes, and whisked himself away.

I sank to my knees, already missing his strength.

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