Last week, I did something I’d always talked about doing one day but never thought I’d actually do. I went skydiving!
Be warned, this is a longgg recap! For a complete, and perhaps too detailed, account plus pictures and video, keep reading :)
Skydiving had always been on my list of crazy adventures I hoped I’d be brave enough to do one day. But honestly I never thought I’d actually do it. I mean c’mon, I can be a bit of chicken sometimes! But after losing The Hubs, my perspective changed and I was filled with a renewed vigor to experience everything in life I could. And when I created my list of 101 things to do in 1001 days, I put skydiving on the list. I figured if I committed to doing it within a certain timeframe, maybe I actually would! But the question was how and when and with whom. That question was answered (and in the most awesome way possible!) when I received an invitation to join a group of 37 amazing widows on a TAPS Retreat in the Florida Keys. I knew it was my time. And boy was it!
After two days of meeting wonderful women, bonding, and having fun in the sun, our group of 18 climbed into our vans on Wednesday and made our way to Homestead Air Force Base to the winter training home of the US Army Golden Knights Parachute Team. On the drive there I was a little nervous but mostly excited. I mean, what better way to experience skydiving then strapped to the most elite parachute team ever and along alongside widows who are jumping for the same reasons?
When we arrived, we were ushered into a trailer that would be our ‘holding area’. We made ourselves comfortable and viewed an introductory video before being briefed by one of the members of the tandem team, JZ. I started to get a little more nervous during the briefing, especially when he asked who in the group suffered from motion sickness. Everyone pointed at me — because I had been freaking out about the possibility of throwing up on him! I do suffer from motion sickness, pretty badly actually. In fact, just the day before I got pretty queasy while parasailing…and that was after taking Dramamine! But I was assured if I took my meds and my jumper took it easy on me during the canopy ride, I should be alright. That didn’t stop my nerves though. At this point I wasn’t scared about jumping, I was scared about getting sick!
But I dosed up on meds (twice as much as I should have, oops) and anxiously awaited my turn to get suited up. My two new besties, S and my roommate M, and I were to be the 3rd group going up. This made me feel a little better as 3 is my lucky number! Silly I know, but whatever helps huh?! We found out who our jump partners were going to be and it turns out I was paired up with the guy who gave us the briefing, JZ. I reminded him (more like repeatedly freaked out) that I got motion sickness and he assured me he would take it easy on me, not doing the usual flips and turns under the canopy and instead keeping it smooth sailing. Then I did something I probably shouldn’t have. I asked him if he’d ever been thrown up on. When he said no, my nerves went through the roof! There was NO way I was going to be the first one to get sick on this guy!! He was nice, and cute! I promised him right then and there that if I got sick, I was going to sacrifice myself and throw up inside of my jumpsuit, haha! I was terrified of being helpless to my stupid weak inner ear and embarrassing myself! I took several deep breaths and tried to calm down, but I didn’t do a very good job. :P
When it was our turn, we suited up in the yellow and black Knights jumpsuits, got fitted for our helmets, and got strapped loosely into our harnesses. Let me tell you, those things are awkward haha! Imagine two thick, wide canvas straps around your legs and between your thighs, then belted around your waist and over your shoulders. Then try to walk around. More like a waddle! Aw-kward! We goofily posed for silly thumbs-up pictures then made our way outside. Side note — don’t wear black yoga pants underneath a jumpsuit and harness in a tropical climate. It wasn’t pretty after.
After watching the demo team do their practice jumps and the first group sail around the sky and land in the drop zone (where we were hanging out in chairs under a tent), it was time to climb in the van and make our way to the flightline. Before we did, we posed for an interview for our personal jump videos. I was an awkward cheesin’ fool…as you’ll see soon, hehe. JZ and my awesome videographer jumper Rich were chatting with me (trying to distract me I think!) but I was silently freaking out. I remember thinking to myself, ‘don’t let your fear of being sick ruin the excitement of the experience’. But sadly until I actually jumped, it did. At this point I was outside of myself in full on freak-out Erin mode!
Climbing out of the van, I caught my first glimpse of the plane waiting for us and it was time for my Top Gun moment. Rich filmed me as I walked toward the plane, unfortunately without the swagger I had hoped I would have and more with a ‘there is something bulky chaffing my thighs’ waddle. I climbed into the plane and JZ hooked me in. The smell of fuel and sound of jet engines took me over as I realized, holy crap. I’m going to do this!
M and S and their two dudes got all hooked in and before I knew it, we were off. JZ went over some of the things we had talked about before and smiled sympathetically (or was it pathetically? nah.) when I asked, ‘does everyone get this nervous?!’ When we reached 6,500 feet, Rich turned his camera on me and asked how I was feeling. I tried to smile through the crazy dry mouth and hammed it up for the camera. Then it was time. 13,500 feet.
I sat on JZ’s lap and he hooked me up to him. The ladies had been joking earlier in the day about sitting on a cute guy’s lap and getting strapped together…and at that moment I thought, I am entirely too sweaty to be sitting on this guys lap, haha! But once he wrenched down the straps, squishing us way closer than two strangers should be, I went from awkward to ‘thank God’ because as tight as we were, there was no way anything was happening to me! Seriously, I could barely breath. When we stood up, I felt like an oversized baby dangling from a baby carrier, haha!
And then the door opened. M was up first and before my mind could wrap around the fact that a door on a plane had just opened and we didn’t get sucked out like in the movies, she had fallen out of the hole and S was up next. JZ and I clumsily shuffled our way toward the door and then S was gone too. Then it was time. I put my toes over the edge, reminded myself to ‘Arch, Relax, and Have Fun’ (the mantra they’d told us all morning), and before I could blink I was out.
There are no words to describe the feeling of falling at 120 mph, untouched, ungrounded, uninhibited in every way. Seriously, in that moment I thought ‘why have I ever been afraid of anything, ever, in my entire life?’ It was so freeing. The sensation was unlike anything I’ve ever felt. I didn’t feel like I was falling. Instead it felt like I was floating, cushioned by gentle pressure from underneath almost as if you were laying on rushing water. Hard to explain, really. After the initial awe, I opened my eyes and realized my other fear was true — my cheeks were flapping in the wind, haha!! The force of the air combined with my nervous dry mouth kept me from being able to close my mouth, but I tried anyway (which resulted in a few hilarious pictures I will *not* be sharing!). I noticed that Rich was across from me so I smiled and waved and threw him a thumbs up.
Then I remembered my promise to myself — while I was in freefall, I wanted to take a moment to close my eyes, mindfully and completely feel all of my senses, and say a prayer. So I did. It was such a personal, spiritual, intimate moment for me. I can’t really explain in detail without going all weirdo on you, so I’ll spare it. But when I opened my eyes I was truly a changed woman. Unfortunately, I realized too late that freefall only lasts like 30 seconds, so my reflective moment had cost me the chance to goof off for the camera (hence all of the closed-eyed, somber, in-a-moment pictures you’ll see in minute). Before I knew it, JZ was spinning us around in circles (which didn’t make me queasy at all, considering maximum velocity and all that) and my ears were getting tight. I knew this meant the chute would be opening soon.
Within seconds, I felt a jerk and thankfully remembered to clear my ears. This is the moment I could talk about for ages…but considering the length this post is already, I will keep it brief. In this very moment, the literal seconds in which I went from freefall to floating, I connected with The Hubs in a way I will never be able to truly explain. This moment was unexpected and literally brought me to tears. I will be forever changed by these mere moments of my life and I am so thankful.
In that fleeting moment… going from the intense rush of every heightened sensation and weight pushing all around me…to my breath being taken away by suddenly feeling completely weightless and outside of my body… I heard very plainly in my mind, ‘this is what it must feel like.’
That is what it must feel like to die. To go from feeling the physical weight of the world on the entrapment of the body to the complete release of just your soul, weightless and free outside of everything else.
It gave me peace, it gave me comfort, it gave me connection to The Hubs. To think that what I viewed as his most painful and horrific moment was actually his most peaceful and liberating.
I wasn’t expecting to make that connection, but I am so thankful that I did. Call it what you will, but I call it his presence. I call it God’s presence. I call it divine connection and the true moment of acceptance and letting go. And I never would have had it if I hadn’t taken my leap of faith.
After that, I let out a huge breath and literally laughed out loud! JZ loosened up my straps (as he told me he would beforehand) and we began to float around. I was in awe of the view and equally in awe of the fact that I didn’t feel sick, woot!! I started chattering in excitement, saying random and embarrassingly blubbering things like ‘This is so awesome!’ and ‘I can see why you do this for a living!’ and ‘OMG squeeee!’ JZ pointed out the sights, turning us to show me the ocean (I hadn’t truly realized just how thin Key Largo was until I could see it from that perspective) and the Miami skyline. I could see the flightline below us, the squares of farmland and tiny boxes of homes, and marveled at how different it all looked than it does when looking out of the window of a plane. Everything was silent and calm and I couldn’t feel anything, literally. It was like not having any limbs (I imagine), but with the sensation of your legs dangling like a kid in kindergarten sitting in an adult’s chair. :)
At this point I got quiet again, closing my eyes to fully experience the moment and talk to God. I mean, I was that much closer to Him, I couldn’t let the chance go not acknowledging that! I don’t remember everything from my prayer but I do have a vivid memory of one line that has stuck with me — “Thank you God for this one wild and crazy life.” That is the theme I carry from this entire thing. Thank you God, for this one wild and crazy life. I may not understand it, I may not not how to live it, but I will graciously ride the waves in awe of your amazing blessing.
Moments after opening my eyes, JZ told me he was going to steer us toward a cloud. Supposedly they weren’t allowed to do that, but since my ride wasn’t going to have the flips and turns of the others, he wanted to do something special (since then I have learned a few others had the same experience…did you feed me a line, Mister? ‘splain!). As I watched the cloud approach, I was reminded of the tradition Little Man and I have — always looking into the sky and finding “Daddy’s Cloud” and talking to it. I made a note to tell Little Man that I had visited Daddy’s Cloud. And when JZ said ‘We are in a cloud, how does it feel?’ I laughed out loud, thinking to myself ‘This is what he sees.’
I also remember looking down at some point after this and seeing The Hub’s button. I had pinned a button of his picture (my favorite one) onto my jumpsuit over my heart prior to jumping, so that he could jump with me. I was a little afraid of it falling off during freefall and when I looked down and realized it was still there, it brought a huge smile to my face (as if I could pry of that cheesin’ grin!). I loved that, in whatever way possible, he was experiencing that moment with me. I truly felt closer to him in than I’ve felt in 2.5 years.
Pretty soon I realized the ground was getting really close and I could make out the figures of M and S who had already landed (since they had a much quicker and more adventurous canopy ride than me!). It was at this point that I started getting queasy…. yep, until that moment I felt perfectly fine but once we started turning and maneuvering toward the drop zone, my stomach woke up. I knew it was necessary so I didn’t say a word, but man. Within seconds, all that turning was doing a number on me. I just took deep breaths and tried to ignore my brain’s screaming of ‘okay this is enough!’. Thankfully it wasn’t long before JZ instructed me to get ready to land. I lifted my legs like we were told to do and soon we slid onto our butts and I was on the ground again.
All of the sensations of everything I had just been through hit me all at once, along with the queasiness, and instead of standing up I just laid back onto JZ! Hahahaha, in the moment I didn’t think anything of it but after looking back on it and looking at the pictures, I’m embarrassed about laying on him like that! :P But Rich was there and helped me to my feet, camera and all. I weakly took off my goggles, realizing that he was filming me but not caring. I did some half-aware smiling for the camera and then walked away on shaky legs, totally in awe of what I just did and of the peace I felt. It was like I had left half of my weight in the clouds and landed a new woman…
After shaking hands with my two dudes, I walked back toward to the tent with the Knight’s PR photographer. I think she could tell I was wobbly and wanted to walk/talk me back to reality. I spewed out who-knows-what to her and by the time we reached the rest of the group, I felt like myself again. I was met by the radiant smiles and congratulations of my amazing new friends and was overcome by a sense of wonder. I had just jumped out of a plane! I had just conquered a huge fear! I had just connected with The Hubs years after his death! I had just given a piece of myself to God unlike ever before! I was changed.
After chatting for a moment, I literally changed and went to meet up with M and S. We snacked on berries and pretzels and hummus, recounted our experiences, and connected in awe over how we had just went through an amazing experience yet life felt normal. Shouldn’t the world have stopped or been different somehow when we touched down? It was much like our moments after losing our spouses. Our world’s were changed forever, yet the collective world was still running as if nothing had happened.
All in all, this experience was absolutely amazing. There are truly no other words for it other than amazing. Bewildering, exhilarating, staggering? Perhaps awe-inducing or life-altering? I laugh to myself thinking of the amazing team of the Golden Knights, who do several of these jumps *each day* and tally a collective THOUSANDS of jumps, and how to them this is just another day. But to me, an ordinary woman, this was an extraordinary experience. And it was one I will never, EVER, forget.
Thank you to JZ, Rich, the US Army Golden Knights, Homestead Air Force Base, and TAPS for the amazing experience. I will forever be indebted to what I learned on this fantastic Wednesday.
And now… for the pictures and video! (Boy, those jumpsuits are *not* flattering, haha!)
Annnd the video! (Made by the awesome Knights… and they used one of my favorite bands, Anberlin! Awesome!)