Skydiving: A Yearly Bucket List Continues

The end was near. For a week I had been mentally preparing myself to say goodbye to my friends and family. How long would it be until they were able to move on with life, to cope with the reality that I had left them and this earth behind and moved on to the great beyond? As the time crept nearer I cuddled my dogs closer and gave them extra treats, wondering how long it would be before they forgot about me completely. At work I settled my affairs and organized my office in a way that would make it easier for whoever took over after I was gone. The night before my ultimate demise I planned my last meal. If I was going to go out, I at least wanted to do it with a satisfied stomach full of sirloin steak.

I looked at my fridge, at the handwritten list scrawled out on a bar napkin. This was the list that got me into this mess. There was still time to back out, maybe I could cancel the whole ordeal. To say I was sick wouldn’t have been an understatement; I did after all feel pretty sick to my stomach. No. I had to do this. The list kept staring back at me. The ‘37 List’. The one-year bucket list that my friend Holly and I had written out and promised we would finish by the time we turned 38. Sitting at the top of that list in the #1 spot was the word Skydiving. I went to bed, cuddled my dogs like it was the last time I’d ever have the chance and fell asleep hoping I’d make it safely back into the same spot 24 hours later.

The morning of the big day I woke up feeling surprisingly calm. An odd feeling considering for the whole previous week my fight or flight instincts were in high gear and I was sure I was going to die. I was so on edge for a week that I could barely walk around the office without fighting the urge to scream and run away from everyone I encountered. What was this surprising calm coming over me? Who cares! I went with it.

It was Milt’s birthday. If you have been following my blog, you will remember Milt as Holly’s fiance, whom she met at the fateful Avett Brother’s concert that forever changed the course of our lives. Milt is a skydiving champ, and has dived solo countless times. Milt’s best friend Will, who was with us as well, had jumped tandem once or twice before. Holly and myself were about to throw ourselves out of a plane for the first time ever. Still, as we filled out the fifteen page form stating our families couldn’t sue if we fell to our likely death, I was surprisingly calm. Apparently settling my affairs and mentally preparing myself had a positive effect.As we waitied for our plane we were escorted to a room with a safety video and were fitted into harnesses. The video ended and I felt like I hadn’t learned anything from a safety standpoint at all, although we were reminded countless times that we had signed a waiver and if we died we couldn’t sue. Got it. This is when I met my tandem “instructor” Peter, who didn’t instruct me so much as just tell me not to touch anything once I was all harnessed up.

It seemed as though that was all the instruction we were going to get, since they let us loose to go back outside and watch other groups of divers as they landed. It was a beautiful sunny day, warm with a slight breeze. Perfect for skydiving. Holly and I took the opportunity to take some pictures and selfies, while Milt was getting an actual lesson from his solo instructor. At least I would be strapped to someone who jumps out of airplanes multiple times per day, I thought. If anyone should be nervous it was Milt, and he wasn’t. So the sense of calm continued.After about twenty minutes our plane was ready. Peter found me and tested my harness. He seemed annoyed that I had tightened it, although I don’t remember tightening it. Then he accused me of lying about tightening it. This was going to be an awkward..
We boarded the plane and crammed in like sardines. Peter and I were in the very back of the plane, which meant I would get to watch all my friends get sucked out of the hatch before me. The ride was about 15 minutes, and halfway up Peter finally gave me some instructions that seemed to be important. DON’T hold onto the plane, he said. Put my head back, hold onto my shoulder harness straps and let my feet fall back naturally as we leave the plane (as if anything is natural about jumping out of a plane).  Once we cleared the plane he would tap me on my shoulders when I could let go of my harness and extend my arms. Piece of cake.Fearless, Milt went first. Then a few strangers, then Will then Holly. Peter and I were up next! As we scooted across the floor of the plane towards the open door I could feel the great rush of air and it became hard to hear anything. As Peter went to sit in the opening, I was already dangling out of the plane and trying to hold on to the sides to keep from falling. After he slapped my hands a few times I got the point… oh yeah, DON’T hold onto the plane, hold on to my shoulder straps. Got it. Maybe if we heard the instructions on the ground instead of multiple warnings about how we could die but not sue, I would have remembered.

Peter pushed my head to his shoulder, counted to three and we were off!! WOW, we were FLYING!!! Peter tapped me on my shoulders and I let my arms stretch out. The feeling was unlike any other I have ever had, or probably will ever have again. There were no butterflies in my stomach, no feeling of falling. Just a serene, amazing feeling of flying. Since we were so high up in the air the landscape wasn’t rushing by us like it does when you go down a big hill on a roller coaster, so it didn’t feel like we were falling at all. As I tried to take it all in, I could see Holly and the others below me as their parachutes started opening one by one. I was glad they were all going to survive.

There was a sharp tug and the sound of fabric rustling, then we were instantly slowed down by our chute. The breath came out of me for a second then I just hung there, laughing and yelling about how alive I felt. At this point I was allowed to take my goggles off and really get a look around. Everything was beautiful. I could see nothing but farmland and tiny houses for miles. What a feeling, to see everything from above knowing that to the people below we were just a dot in the sky and most of them didn’t even know we were up there, floating around in a harness attached by some cords to nothing but a thin piece of fabric.

We caught up to Holly and her instructor and were able to wave and say hi for a second until they disappeared again. Then Peter let me steer the chute, which I didn’t like. I felt like I had made it so far, why tempt fate by trying to do tricks in the air?! So I just let him do it himself but was secretly happy when he stopped.

As objects on the ground became bigger and it was clear we were going to land soon, Peter decided it was a good time to give me my landing instructions. I think Peter needs to work on his timing a bit, but who am I to judge. He told me that once we were close to the ground he would pull down on the chute really hard, which would make it go up for a second. It was at that point I was supposed to stick my legs straight out in front of me, so we could land in a seated position. He finished telling me this right as he was pulling down on the chute. I quickly stuck my legs out and it was all over. We had a smooth landing, I was back on earth and I was ALIVE!

My legs a bit shakey, I helped Peter gather the chute and pull it off of the landing zone. This was when I found my group and learned that Milt had landed in the cornfield and was still untangling his chute. I couldn’t wait to hear that story. I turned to say thank you to Peter but he was already gone. What a nice fella. At least he made sure I didn’t die, and for that I am grateful.I hadn’t yet told my parents about my skydiving plans, partly because I didn’t want to make them as nervous as I was but mostly because I didn’t want them to talk me out of it. In my fragile state the week before, it would have been easy for them to change my mind. I had also stopped telling people my plans at work after they kept telling me horror stories about how chutes don’t open all the time and whatnot. So it was after we landed, and after I had a beer in me that I decided to tell them what I did that day. It was better being able to say I went skydiving, it is over and I’m alive! I can’t remember exactly what they said but it was something along the lines of “you are awesome, there isn’t anything you wouldn’t do, and thanks for waiting to tell us”.

After lunch and a well-deserved drink we decided to go back to Milt’s house to have a water balloon fight and throw axes at wooden targets. Because, why not? As the day progressed we ended up playing Extreme UNO, which is a version of UNO that Milt and Holly concocted with rules that can easily make the game more intense than skydiving. After a big thunderstorm rolled in and we played in the rain for a while, I decided I had probably tested my luck enough and it was time to call it a day.

As I crawled into bed that night I cuddled my dogs extra close, feeling grateful that I had made it back to my bed 24 hours after I was so worried I might not.  At work the next day life seemed a little less dull, yet now I had a nagging feeling of unrest. I had pushed my limits and accomplished something that truly scared me and seemed impossible.  How would I continue my routine life now that I jumped out of that plane and saw the world from a new perspective?  What do I do now that I am armed with the knowledge that I can do anything I put my mind to?  Well my friends, only time will tell.  And the sky is the limit..