Dad’s 93rd birthday is Tuesday. We will celebrate with his favorite pie and ice cream, although he won’t remember our party the next day.
The anniversary reminds me of another special birthday which Dad won’t recall. The year he turned 80, I turned 50. He and I Separately hit on the idea of celebrating our big day by jumping out of an airplane, with a parachute of course. When we discovered that we both had happened upon the same adventure, we decided to do the big jump together.
My older daughter, 16 at the time, strongly objected to my risky endeavor.
She feared becoming an orphan on her mother’s birthday. I presumed the tandem jumper who would be attached to my back did not himself have a death wish, and so, in spite of my daughter’s anxiety, I put my life in a complete stranger’s hands that day.
Dad and I watched a brief instructional video, after which we were required to scribble our signatures on page after page, waiving our right to return to sue or haunt anyone in the event of injury or death.
We struggled into jumpsuits while our instructors talked us through, step-by-step, what to expect after we departed the plane. My parachuting partner yanked and pulled on the straps and buckles of my harness, demanding my full attention. The voices of family and the complaints of my daughter faded as my jumping buddy manipulated my body, pivoting me through a practice dance on the ground, preparing me for what to expect in the air.
He stood behind me and tugged me tight into a bear hug, clamping my crossed arms to my chest. Next, he demonstrated the deliberate tap on my back which would indicate the moment I should lift and spread my arms like wings, stabilizing the tumultuous first part of the free fall. I tried to absorb the cascade of information overflowing my limited brain bucket. I noticed my dad’s instructor demonstrating the same gestures, explaining that it isn’t possible to talk while free falling at speeds of 120 miles per hour from a height of 13,500 feet above sea level.
My instructor assured me that he would deploy the parachute after a 30-second free fall, that’s about a mile of nothing but dropping like a rock through the thin air. Once under the canopy, we would drift gracefully above the Royal Gorge and Arkansas River with panoramic views of the Rocky Mountain Range.
None of this would I see, being visually impaired, nor would I glimpse the ground coming up to greet me. The instructor assured me that he would tell me when to tuck my knees up to my chest and be poised to spring upon hitting the ground. The thought of terra firma suddenly seemed too solid for comfort.
Dad and I giggled and our hearts raced as we waved “so long” to family and friends. They applauded our mutual adventure, some of my siblings jealous that I was the one sharing this once-in -a -lifetime experience with our dear old dad, others relieved that I was the one who had volunteered.
We were led out onto the tarmac and climbed a portable set of stairs to discover the outside shell of the bright red jump plane concealed an interior stripped to the bone barely large enough for the four of us to sit back-to-back on the hard floor. Naively, I had assumed the plane would have seats, but in fact there was not even a canvas flap to close the open doorway. Dad and I backed away from the void as engines drowned out our voices and the ground disappeared. Shoulder to shoulder with my aging father, I grasped the seriousness of the situation.
My instructor commanded my focus to distract me from my heightened nervousness. Dad’s did the same. I felt my father tense as he listened to his guide. Until then, I had imagined, like in the movies, that we would maneuver toward the door attached to some sort of zip line while a commander called, “Go, go, go!”
As it was, our fellow jumpers pulled us in tight, our backs to their chests, our butts between their legs; I felt oddly familiar and trusting with my jumping partner in this intimate position, my life literally in his arms. It was then that I realized Dad’s life was also in the care of a complete stranger. I hoped he felt implicit trust as did I.
“Who goes first?” Dad’s fellow jumper asked. Not planned ahead, I quipped, “Age before beauty, right Dad?”
In an instant, Dad’s trainer shifted, inching up to the yawning exit. Dad reacted, his fingers locking like a vice grip to the door frame. The guide urged him to release his hold while prying the right hand loose. He nudged Dad further toward the gaping passage and, before I could catch my breath, they were gone.
Whoosh, I watched my father fall out of the plane. Daddy, come back, I cried in my mind, Meanwhile, I had not noticed that my guide had shifted and was pushing me toward the expanse ahead. Blink, we were falling, twisting, jerking, the force of the fall plastering my skin to my skull. My mouth opened and closed, opened and closed. I wanted to scream in jubilation, the thrill was so thrilling, but no sound came out. Time and space stood still.
A tap, then a more urgent nudge, reminded me to uncross my arms which were gripping my chest. I spread myself open like a butterfly, my hands and feet free in front of me as we plummeted. As if a switch had been flipped, the force of the fall stabilized and we continued free-falling with ease through the cold air. Time melded with eternity; with nothing relative by which to judge time or distance, the air under my feet felt infinite.
Too soon, the parachute opened, interrupting our freedom from time and space. We slowed, gliding in a controlled fashion round and round, round and round, down and down, feeling the pull of the ground.
My new best buddy assured me that my father and his partner were also drifting without distress. Laughter and relief erupted, along with disappointment that the best part, the free fall, was already over.
Reality and my family on the ground reappeared as my jumping partner and I tucked, bumped, hopped, and rolled to a stop. My glee was overshadowed only by the sounds of my Dad’s laughter and my daughter’s tears.