Four years ago, much of my life as I knew it was disintegrating. I’d been diagnosed with a handful of chronic, serious illnesses; my marriage was ending, my kids were grown and gone and I felt like I had little control over the direction my life was heading. I was terrified.
I don’t typically indulge that four-letter word fear, but I had been afraid of a lot lately. Fearful my kids would resent me or my husband for the irreparably cracked marriage. Scared we’d never be a family again. Terrified of being sick. Anxious I’d be too ill to support myself. Apprehensive that no one would ever want me again. Nervous of dying alone. Dreading leaving my dry cleaner. (The struggle was real. I frickin’ loved my dry cleaner.) I was a bundle of tears and fears, desperately looking for a way to feel like I had my feet planted firmly on the ground.
I was getting ready to turn 50 and decided that I didn’t want to be afraid of anything anymore. Life’s too short for that. So, then I began to think about what frightened me more than what was going on in my life.
What brought me to my knees?
I’ve been petrified of heights since I was a little girl. Bridges, tall buildings, open stairwells, ferris wheels, roller coasters…all of them made my tooty tingle and left me panicked and breathless. I’ve had lifelong nightmares that consisted of me falling from each one of them. The greater the stress in my life, the higher the fall when I closed my eyes.
I decided to go skydiving.
The thought of it gave me the pit sweats. Once I committed to the jump (Groupon’s a bitch, the land of no refunds) the bad dreams accelerated. The first step scared me the most. I kept picturing how it would be. I could readily imagine me hurling into a paper bag, but I could not imagine hurling myself out of a perfectly good airplane.
I arrived at the skydiving center with a friend of mine, her kids, and an old friend from high school. We were all jumping for various reasons and our inner demons were preparing for a 14,500-foot free-fall.
We watched the required video, signed the doom and gloom forms and I met the instructor I’d be tandem with. He was as hot as the summer sun. I’m not going to lie. It helped. A lot.
I watched him pack our parachutes (hoping there was an heir and a spare) as rotely as a mom packs a lunch. All I remember were steely blue eyes and blah, blah, blah. I was in the zone. I paced as I waited for our time. My gaze turned skyward. I watched strangers fall from the sky – invisible at first, and then a dot, then a line, and then suddenly arms, legs, and a glorious, life-saving parachute. I felt the wind on my face. The same wind that would carry me gently down to earth, I prayed. It was a time for reverence. Reflection. Tremendous focus. Determination. I had to pee. Badly.
And then our group was called. I would have to pee in the afterlife. As we walked across the tarmac, I was pretty sure I heard the Top Gun theme song playing. I felt bad-ass, and I never feel bad-ass. We were the last to climb aboard. Once in, I noticed that all of the seats were taken except for a narrow bench by the open door. My Tandem sat us there and bound us together with his legs spread and my butt and back leaning into his chest. We were strapped so tightly you couldn’t get a nickel between us. This could be worse, I thought. And then he took another strap and chained us to a bar on the plane. So we don’t get sucked out, he said. And that’s when it got worse.
The door to the plane never closed. That doesn’t happen when I fly Southwest. The plane took off and the October air turned into December the higher we climbed. I strained to look at my friends sitting comfortably in their seats, wondering how they would get past us to make their leap from the plane. It didn’t seem possible. And then I realized, it wasn’t. My Tandem and I would have to be the first to go.
I had a strong feeling of inevitability. The houses and trees on the ground looked like a children’s drawing of tiny squares and green lines. My partner nudged me to stand up. We took tiny, conjoined steps to the edge of the plane. He screamed that I should hang my toes over the edge, hold onto the bar (which he had unhooked us from) and that we would “go” on the count of three. I could feel my Tandem, but I couldn’t see him. I didn’t like this one bit. I stared into the abyss with a death grip on the bar, my toes curled over the edge of the plane. I would either make it, or I wouldn’t. The sun was shining, the wind was wicked. I’ve never been more frightened in my entire life.
But, that was the point, wasn’t it?
I don’t remember my Tandem counting to one or two. But, I clearly remember what happened as he said “three.” We were on the plane, and then we weren’t. I’m pretty sure Edvard Munch got his inspiration for “The Scream” from someone skydiving. Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” went through my head though I could barely hear it over the noise. Why is air so deafening? I felt like a ping-pong ball suspended over a blast of air. I didn’t realize we were plummeting to the earth at 120 mph. There’s a reason they don’t put that in the brochure.
After a minute or so, Tandem pulled the drop cord and the parachute opened. Instead of plummeting towards the earth we catapulted up into the clear blue sky. And then there was quiet. The quietest quiet I have ever not heard. And just like that, I forgot what I’d ever been afraid of. The world suddenly all made sense. Perspective.
I stuck a perfect landing. I’m proud of very little in my life, but I was the Nadia Comaneci of parachute landings. I couldn’t see a thing. Laden with water and steam, my goggles took the brunt of my emotion the entire way down. I pulled them off and wiped the tears from my face. I bounced up and down. “I did it. I did it,” I screamed to no one in particular.
Someone asked me what my favorite part of the jump was.
Without hesitation, I realized that the best part was the first step. The one I had been the most afraid of.
That’s how I look at life. We are all afraid of something. Often, it’s that first step, the beginning, that stymies us and paralyzes us. But, what if we all made a choice to grab fear by the balls? (You can grab fear by the pigtails if you require a PG-13 version of grabbing.) What if fear was something that we consciously decided to face head on? What if when we feel the most out of control that we do the least logical thing of all and surrender control?
I learned a lot about myself that day. I learned that it’s okay to be afraid and that we can all survive really scary things. I learned to trust what we can’t see and that sometimes quiet is all we need to make sense of our internal free fall. And most of all, I know now that sometimes we just have to hang our toes over the edge and take a leap of faith.