“For my 18th birthday I will go skydiving, and my wish is that my loving, faithful Dad would jump with me.”
So that’s how it started. This is about a month ago.
I tried ignoring the subject for as long as possible but the little tyke –strike that, my mistake– the young lady was intent upon doing this. I don’t know what exactly skydiving represented for her other than one of those hurtles she simply had to cross, a test of courage, a flight from the nest, but I do know she felt strongly about it.
I thought if I acted unaware and oblivious she might find other means for branching out but the idea proved to have staying power and the subject found its way back into her conversations over the next few weeks much more than could be expected from mere random chance. My wife’s resistance was the first to crack.
“Paul, Dear, will you take Maeve skydiving?” My Megan, who erstwhile was believed to love me, asked it innocently enough as if we’d fit it in between dropping some things off at the post office and taking another kid to the mall.
“Wouldn’t you prefer to do it yourself?” I asked, not really expecting much –not getting much, either–
“No,” she explained, “I think it’s one of those ‘Dad’ jobs.”
So be it, a “Dad-job” it is.
The Saturday morning we climbed into the mini-van and Meg drove us out an hour west on I-80, from Chi to Ottawa Illinois, to a place she’d researched and found called “Skydive Chicago.” The unreality of what we were about to try was enough that, aside from some non-specific jitters, it was pretty much a normal drive out. The sun shone lovingly, there was the occasional gentle breeze but no gusts, and inside our aluminum, terrain-based motorized vehicle that could move forward and in reverse but no side-to-side and no up-down, we chatted and laughed.
It all got real when we parked next to the hangar. Being a lovely day and also a few weeks prior to the “Skydiving World Championships” being hosted by SkyDive Chicago, the hangar was as populated and busy as an Army jump school, although there were considerably more colors exhibited in the civilian hangar than a military one would have, and far more latitude with respect to haircuts and clothing options than one might wear in a military context. Yes as you might expect it was a unique, diverse group of people assembled, no two hairstyles alike, no two outfits or tattoo patterns or skydiving gear alike, but all somehow united in their separateness. Either the common person doesn’t jump out of aircraft, or the common person does but in prepping for the occasion dresses for it with panache equal to the moment. Me I dressed my normal drab, and Maeve as her sporty, high-school self.
I could now see Meg getting a bit nervous about launching her only husband and one of her three daughters out of the fuselage of an aircraft, I could sense her reconsideration of the wisdom of such a proposal, and she said as much to me when she whispered, “Maybe I shouldn’t have arranged this?”
“I’m glad you arranged this” I lied, “it’s what life is about.” What exactly I meant with that I’m still considering.
But when we’d signed in at the front desk and went back to the hangar and identified said aircraft parked about 50 yards away there on the tarmac, Maeve and I got a bit jumpy about the event, too.
We geared up and met our jumpers and photographers (first time one jumps, hiring a photographer is simply a must) and we rehearsed the jump and walked out to the plane together. Maeve had occasional shivers on her arm, like a horse might twitch her foreleg muscles, and for me I showed my agitation by becoming unaware of the usual distance between hip joint and ground surface, making my steps and footfalls either too short or too long, as if I were blindfolded on and walking on uneven ground.
Clomp, clomp, clomp. My feet marched toward the flying machine. The propellor blades were spinning, and the familiar heat and oil-tainted air emanating from the turboprop turbines filled the space immediately about the aircraft, we stepped up and into the fuselage and sat criss-cross on the padded floor. Us first-time jumpers had a real skydiver attached to our backs, kind souls who’d ensure we would reach the ground alive and walk away from the landing zone without fractures or concussions, and i couldn’t have been happier for either us if it had been Santa and Mrs. Claus guarding our safety.
Another brief case of the shivers hit Maeve and with the sight of them her father instantaneously experienced two powerful, ambivalent sensations: I’m a good father for expanding her horizons and abilities with this; I’m the worst father ever for bringing my precious daughter to jump to her death.
She jumped first. Watching that was a brief, sheer, deeper-than-conscious terror. It was the same level of terror that I felt when during her during birth I thought her oxygen had been deprived (it hadn’t, but for a few terrible moments I thought it had). She didn’t falter at the precipice. Goodby, Maeve. Come back, Maeve!
Out she went. I thought, “Well, if she dies, I might as well die too.” I was much less nervous about my own prospects than about my daughters, but still nervous. My skydiving buddy had to readjust my posture and then off we went to the edge.
The moments preceding my own turn to jump had been surreal moments, at once beatific and nightmarish, they had been focus upon / oriented around my daughter Maeve in front of me, my wife Meg on the ground, and our other children at home; this next moment, the one where nothing else was interposed between me and the open side of that airplane, in my mind and heart it projected toward no one other than myself, just me here now and God above and the nice gentleman strapped to my back who I knew was there nevertheless I still felt alone with my destiny. It may sound hyperbolic to describe it in those terms however with the wind and the altimeter needle at 13,000 feet and the view in front and my daughter’s precipitous descent into invisibility below and it was my turn now there were people behind me so shuffle forward don’t show fear don’t balk you asked for this, it was pure and plain “no-shit” moment, now or never.
Time to drop. Willing yourself forward out of your safe spot after staring at the atmosphere’s horizon and the table of clouds underneath, looking at the firm Earth far below that, that is an equation that just doesn’t square up as if 1 + 1 = infinity or zero. You look outward, and you know it’s wrong and in opposition to your best interests but with a surge of free will you do it anyway, and then, falling out of the sky at a thousand feet per five seconds, gravity impresses the heck out of you.
You’re like your own high-school physics lab: you experience acceleration, then you’re weightless, then you feel the air resistance smushing the skin of your face into a mask or an imprint, you know you have a forward or “x” force vector given to you by the plane’s forward motion, plus a downward or “y” force vector given to you by the Earth’s gravitational pull, and then the chute comes up and you practically halt in comparison, and you do games with the ropes to twist and steer and seek out your landing zone, and you pull on the stays to slow up maximally right before you land, and you touch down on the grass and slide to a halt.
Maeve and Meg and I all hugged, we thanked our parachuting partners and our photographers (I am awful: I thought I’d remember their names forever so I didn’t record them at the time, and now I’ve forgotten them and the staff photos aren’t on their website), got in the car and drove home.
Was it worth it? Not the money I mean (it wasn’t expensive, actually) but the risk? Yes absolutely. For a moment you chuck your life away and it’s fabulous. There’s a guy strapped to your back to save it for you, but despite him there you execute the drill for yourself in the act you’ve released yourself from everything. And as the song goes, “If you love some[thing], set them free.”