Ritual: Skydiving


We jerked up and then leveled, the plane slowing to a hover. Before any of us had properly registered that it was time, one of the instructors threw himself sideways out of the open door. For an instant, we watched his body tumble in the air; I was reminded distinctly of the way farmers hurl barrels of hay onto a truckbed. The pairs quickly followed suit: first David, celebrating his 55th birthday, eyes closed tight, head glued to his instructor; a few more, including the woman in her 40s whose look of steely misery had not changed in the last two hours. 

There were only six of us left: a blond college-student, whom I’d seen kissing his girlfriend goodbye and his tandem instructor, Lindsey, me, and Eddie and Zak, the two men in whom we were about to entrust our lives. The plane climbed higher. 

I’d been talking about wanting to skydive for years, mostly in that let’s-make-plans-without-really-making-plans way. I’d emailed a dozen friends on a whim earlier in the week, a few days before my birthday. I was due to take an overnight to Boston the following night, and to spend the first day of my twenty-eighth year facilitating an all-day meeting with a group of Harvard researchers. Skydiving, at the time, seemed like the most logical way to pre-empt the certain self-pity fest that would ensue if I let the day pass by in total obscurity. 

Skydiving appealed to a daredevilish streak in me that’s grown more pronounced over the years—born in part, I suppose, out of a hunger to test limits. Like so many of us who’ve been to funerals, I pay real heed to “carpe diem” and its associated clichés.

But there was something more worrying than that behind it, too: a kind of macabre fantasy common among sixteen-year-olds who believe great artists are only remembered as such in death; an irrational thought experiment, designed to test who’d show up were it all to end. 

I stopped wearing a seatbelt a few years ago. I don’t recall the first time I elected not to bother. It must’ve been shortly after I’d moved to LA, after my brother and I had driven my grandmother’s silver Hyundai—then six-years-old, with 14,000 miles on it—from Raleigh to LA. Friends would occasionally visit and scold me, and each time, I’d feign that I’d simply forgotten, buckling it quickly before moving the conversation on. I never attempted to explain it—afraid that by somehow putting words to it, even silently, I’d give something away, reveal a chink in the armor I’d worked so carefully to build.  

For days before the trip, I kept going back to a passage in The Rules of Inheritance, in which Claire makes her way to a remote island in Indonesia to go scuba-diving with sharks. She makes it as far as jumping in the water at dawn in her wetsuit, only to call off the dive at the last second, realizing that she was looking for someone and something that couldn’t be found—that her mom wasn’t going to intervene.

Was I doing the same?

The first 13,000 feet had taken an eternity, but it felt like mere seconds before we reached 18,000. Blonde-guy-with-girlfriend went first. Lindsey and Eddie were next. 

Eddie was the state-wide certifier; he’d personally approved every tandem instructor at the facility. We’d bantered nervously in the hangar for 20 minutes before take-off. He had that effortless way of making a joke that comes of knowing exactly how to put a person at ease. 

Zak wore a bright yellow full-body suit, and called himself the bumblebee. He’d been jumping for 17 years, and would jump 8-10 times before the day was over. He was goofy without betraying a lack of competence; confident and gentle when I developed a temporary stutter a minute into the flight. I was instantly in love. 

I curled my toes over the edge of the plane, and peered down at the golden, brown, and green squares marking the farmland below. As instructed, I threw my head against Zak’s chest and looked up. I yelled and gave a tiny tug.  

Weirdly, all fear vanished the moment we left the plane. I hadn’t slept the night before, had been terrified of this moment right up until the instant it was happening, and then: gone. We hurtled down at 120mph, my arms spread out in a perfect T, the wind shrieking so loudly that Zak’s voice and my own screams and repeated shrieks of “Oh my God” sounded like they were coming from somewhere far in the distance. 

There was no time for profound thoughts, for bursts of insight of any kind, no to-do lists, no distractions, no hint of self-consciousness. For more than 90 seconds, we simply fell. I assume that practiced meditators know the feeling of emptiness I had for those 90 seconds, but having always sucked at meditation, I can’t be sure. 

At just over 5,000 ft., Zak pulled the parachute cord. We went from 120mph to 10 in just two seconds, and spent the next four minutes gently gliding down. Zak pointed out the country’s longest airstrip, built for a space shuttle landing that never happened, and the ocean away in the distance. He pulled a cord and we made a loop, legs outstretched and feeling the same way you do while riding the swings at the fair, only with nothing there to tether us. 

We floated down toward a field, watching the parachuters ahead of us come in for a landing. I stretched out my legs and we stumbled to the ground, landing on two feet. 

Somewhere between the two hours we spent waiting in the hangar and this moment – feet on the ground, adrenaline still coursing through my body, smiling uncontrollably – I rediscovered what it feels like to be wholly in love with being alive. 

I started wearing a seatbelt again. 



Posted on August 12, 2013 and filed under Rituals.