The last quarter of an inch

The morning of my first and last skydive, someone emailed me a quote: “It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop at the end.” My instructor put it another way: “It doesn’t hurt ‘til that last quarter of an inch.”

It’ll be seven years this October since I jumped, but I can remember each second of it like a dream from which I have just awoken, and my heart pumps in helium fits to my head.

I’m reliving the jump now as I sit in a stranger’s apartment that I will call my home for three months. It is my fifth day of a new life in New York City, and the world – seriously, the whole world – teems outside my window, draining my bank account, taunting me with better writers and prettier apartments, bloodying my feet no matter which shoes I wear. But I showed up. I showed up like I did the morning of my 30th birthday and put my sneakers on the lip of the plane’s open hatch and grinned at the camera and jumped. I was jumping because I had done something terrifying and crazy and brave by breaking up with someone on whom I’d been deeply codependent for three years. I jumped because I needed something bigger than that to happen, even if it was going splat in a field in the middle of Texas.

I jumped because not jumping was unacceptable.

I won’t tell you if you should or shouldn’t skydive. Statistics (and a company’s solid credentials) will almost guarantee you have nothing to lose but a little bit of pee, and it does empower you. It helps you emerge from your murky fears and decide what to wash off and what to keep, it lets you draw the fears you have chosen in patterns on your skin, to make those fears belong to you rather than to belong to them.

Skydiving will teach you what it means to be brave, which looks a lot like being terrified. That’s because you cannot be brave unless you are terrified. It’s the going ahead with it that makes you brave. Bravery isn’t good posture and a placid expression, either. This is something I’m learning even years after the dive. I always thought handling a divorce, cancer, or a loss bravely would look like Katherine Hepburn as the ice queen Tracie Lord in “The Philadelphia Story”, all draping gowns and shoulder pads and set jaw.

But bravery can be clumsy and look like this: the morning of your appointment, you nervously jabber with friends, taking small comfort in the fact that, if someone else is doing it with you, it must not be that nuts of an idea. You wobble your way through the disclaimers and orientation, you try to think about other things while slipping on the jumpsuit, and laugh too loudly when the instructors try to calm you with jokes about duct tape. You flare your eyes at your friends in an expression of “what are we doing?” and your breathing gets faster and makes you light-headed. This is good. Light-headed people don’t make executive decisions like “turn this plane around”. Light-headed people get on the plane and hold their friends’ hands and make squealing noises and put on displays of bravado for the video camera.

If you skydive, make sure you pay extra for the video. You will want to relive this moment when you have become too timid in your life, and a camera makes you feign courage.

At about 10,000 feet, you may be above a few puffy, sheepy clouds. The sky around you is twelve shades of blue. The fields and farmlands below look like miniature models. These ridiculously clement conditions are perfect for imagining that perhaps, yes, gravity will not work this time and you will fly into a child’s tale or a dollhouse. You will reach a tipping point of light-headedness where you feel an impatience, a “let’s get on with this!” because you cannot go back now, could never live out your life knowing you turned back at that crucial moment, and besides, Wonderland may very well be out there, and has anyone lived to tell about this? oh of course they have, but you might be that statistic and this might be your last act in life but you’re crouched at the open door refusing to look over your toes and your cameraman flies off like he’s been shot out of a cannon with a wave and a grin and your instructor is strapped to your back shouting in your ear that he will tap you on the arm and that’s when you arch your back and do something else – what did he say? – god man just get on with it I’m ready to die, ready to see, ready for Wonderland, ready for anything, ready. Ready.

Rock back, rock forward, rock back, and you’re out.

This is what that moment looked like for me:

oh holy shit!













Note the mouth forming the “O” of “Holy shit”.

Your instructor, if he is good, will say Yeah! and Woo! and encourage you to do the same, and will grab your hands and stretch them out like you are Peter Pan, and in doing so will remind you: we are having fun. We are enjoying life.

Also, he has done this about 10,000 times, which makes your left brain feel just comfortable enough to get out of the way for a minute and trust whatever it is your stupid right brain has gotten you into this time.

But this is what I remember most. Fuck it.

That’s what my brain said as we fell at 120 miles per hour, which doesn’t feel like falling at all. It feels like a giant fan is blowing up from the ground and keeping you aloft, so enjoy the view: look out and not down. Looking down is giving in to what you have done and thinking about it. Too late. Fuck it. Look out over the tops of those clouds, to the horizons that you are stretching your hands out to, to the bowl of the sky as it goes from baby blue to deepest marine and back again, thinking to yourself that you are the only one seeing this right now, the only one inhabiting this space in which there is no room for fear or hope or questions or worst-case scenarios. Because you’ve done it and now you have to live with it and so you take your way you have chosen to live – or die – you take it up and you hold it like a proud chief holds a warhammer, chin up, defiant.

Remember the Skateway? Whatever your town called it, it was a dark rink with carpet-padded walls, a DJ booth perched above and a dizzying eddy of rushing skaters. And you, you were so small and uncertain; all knees and hands clutching at that nubby rug railing. Do you remember the moment you plunged into the fast and free center? The breath that you took and held and the way your skates carried you so wonderfully fast and how you coasted and leaned ever so slightly and rounded the corner like a champion and felt the pretzel and Icee-scented air in your hair and like you could do anything? That’s living. That’s what freefalling feels like.

After the chute opens, things slow to a meandering 1,000 ft./min. drop. You have about 5 minutes to feel the straps stressing with your weight, to understand how badly the ground wants you. You grip your instructor’s arms (which he said you could do) and you ask nervous, silly questions:

Have you ever hit a bird?
Has anyone ever peed on you?
How do you turn?
Okay, stop turning this is making me freak out.

But this isn’t the part that counts – not even the landing, although that is a miracle in its own way. The seconds that burn themselves into you happen during that freefall, when you have taken your brain, blood, eyes, mouth, dreams, fingernails, fears, loves, bones, guts, past, present, and future confidently in one direction at their combined maximum velocity.

You have more than blown your trumpet at the gates of dullness; you have announced your will to live.

The consequences? That’s all just the last quarter-inch.

holy mothereffing a!