80: Spontaneous Spirit

80: Spontaneous Spirit

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Spontaneous Spirit

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

~Nelson Mandela

Anyone going to an amusement park might have seen the likes of me. I was the gray-haired lady with sensible shoes. I held purses, cellphones and sunglasses while my loved ones hurled themselves through space on roller coasters. Afterward, flushed with excitement, they’d pose for selfies to celebrate their latest flirtation with the Grim Reaper.

I admired their bravery, but refused to challenge my own limitations. Sitting it out worked for me, and that’s exactly what I had planned to do on that pleasant spring morning twelve years ago.

To celebrate my husband’s sixty-fifth birthday, we’d driven an hour south to Skydive Miami in Homestead, Florida. As a young man in the Army, Joe had logged hundreds of jumps with round parachutes, and he wanted a closer look at the newer wing style. Watching those young people swoosh in to a perfect, stand-up landing reignited memories of his youth.

“Sure looks like fun,” he hinted.

“Like the best birthday gift ever?”

His eyes twinkled with mischief. “Exactly like that.”

“So much for the new tie,” I laughed.

We high-fived and headed for the skydiving office. My mind was racing. I visualized Joe suited up on the tarmac. I would shoot video as the plane took off. Then I’d rush over to the drop zone to capture the landing.

Knowing my adrenaline-junkie husband, I wondered if this might become a recurring event. I saw our weekends planned out for the next few years. Joe would skydive while I took pictures. He would struggle to describe the sensation of flying, and my imagination would strain to fill in the gaps. If fear kept me sidelined, I’d never fully understand.

Not this time, I decided. I didn’t want to hear about it. I wanted to see and feel it for myself. When he approached the sign-up window for an application, I squeezed his arm.

“Why not make it two?”

“You’re kidding,” he grinned. “You’d do that?”

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime offer. I want to share this with you.”

Chuckling in disbelief, he held up two fingers. We filled out paperwork and signed liability releases. Joe paid extra for a video of my first jump.

After zipping ourselves into electric-blue jumpsuits, we filed into the training room. Using a mock-up of an airplane door, we learned to roll out, maintain a stable free-fall position, and lift our feet at landing. In the tiny, windowless classroom, everything seemed easy. I repeated the steps with my instructor, Pete. Joe beamed with pride at his remarkably confident wife. Our trainers dispensed altimeters, helmets and goggles, and strapped us into heavy black tandem harnesses. My videographer taped a pre-flight interview in which I laughed with ease.

When our flight was called, we boarded the small Caravan airplane where we sat cross-legged in pairs on the floor, instructors directly behind their students. Pete clipped his harness to mine as the plane roared down the runway. Through the clear, roll-up door, I watched the treetops fall away.

My stomach lurched as two realities hit me: This was actually happening, and I’d made a terrible mistake.

My mouth was dry as the Sahara, my palms sweaty. I couldn’t do this. What was I thinking? I belonged on the ground taking pictures, not in the center of the action. I glanced at Joe, who was chatting away with his instructor. The animated look on his face did not calm my nerves. My husband was afraid of nothing. He’d done this hundreds of times without an experienced jumper strapped to his back. Crazy fool probably wanted to go solo.

At 13,500 feet, the jumpmaster gave a thumbs-up, and to my horror, the clear door slid up like a roll-top desk. This could not be right. Flying with an open door was dangerous! Didn’t they realize someone could fall out?

Oh, yeah. That’s why we were here.

On cue, Joe and his instructor shuffled like chain-gang prisoners toward the deadly aperture. I watched in disbelief as they nodded three times in unison and tumbled out. There are things in life we can prepare for, but seeing one’s husband fall out of an airplane is not one of them. My heart was in my throat.

I was reeling with shock when Pete lifted me to my knees and nudged me toward the gaping hole. To steady myself, I clung to a metal bar overhead. Pete tried to pull my hands away, but I refused to let go of the one solid object between me and certain death.

As impatient jumpers piled up behind us, I realized I had a choice. I could refuse to jump and ride back with the pilot. I played it out quickly in my head. The waste of non-refundable money. Joe’s face watching my instructor land without me. My shame at letting fear win out once again.

No way! That was not going to happen. I took a deep breath and released my death grip on the bar. Following our pre-flight instructions, I crossed my arms over my chest and arched my back. Pete rolled us out of the plane.

The sense of falling lasted only seconds until we achieved the welcome stability of terminal velocity. Pete tapped my shoulder, the signal to spread my arms like wings. Just as Joe had described, the wind resistance at 120 mph was so powerful, it felt like a cushion of air supporting us. The noise was deafening, and G-forces assaulted my face, making my smile feel more like a grimace. I remembered to make eye contact with the videographer flying directly in front of me, documenting my final moments for the next of kin. “Hi, Mom!” I mouthed, although in space, as they say, no one can hear you scream.

Pete checked his altimeter at about sixty seconds and then waved off the videographer. He reached back to deploy the parachute, and our free fall came to an abrupt end. Our bodies jackknifed from horizontal to vertical, legs flying out in front like two rag dolls as the harness held tight and the chute flared open. It was peaceful then. Quiet enough to talk. We drifted through the air like a giant butterfly. Pete pointed out landmarks on the horizon, and I admired the beautiful patchwork of the surrounding farmland. As we soared gently toward the earth, my only regret was that we couldn’t stay up longer.

Skidding into the drop zone, I lifted my feet and let Pete nail the landing. When he uncoupled our gear, I ran into Joe’s arms. Our celebratory embrace was captured by the videographer. The look of admiration on my husband’s face said it all. On the way home, we both had stories to share.

Years later, reliving the memory still makes my heart race. When faced with an opportunity that scares me, I remember that open door on the airplane. “Why take a chance?” my doubting voice says. “Why jump out of a perfectly good airplane?”

“Because I can,” my adventurous voice replies. It’s my choice — sit it out or try it out. I choose to push through the fear and seize the adventure that lies beyond.

~Linda Barbosa

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