A fortieth birthday is a big deal, but my sister’s cancer had aggressively returned after several years in remission. So Mary Pat’s 40th was both a milestone and a bittersweet celebration.
All she wanted to do was jump out of an airplane, high above her home in Denver. She couldn’t find the courage to do it alone, and secretly signed me up to jump with her. A few months after her May birthday, I flew to Denver, peering out the window on my flight, thinking she was crazy. Had the cancer spread to her brain already?
My only memory of skydiving had been a summer in the late 70’s when I was a counselor in LaSalle-Peru, Illinois at Camp Claretknoll. The campers during the session that included the 4th of July were severely mentally handicapped. We went by bus to watch the town’s fireworks and concert in a huge park. While everyone picnicked, a huge X was placed in a clearing and several men jumped from a plane with US flags trailing them. One parachute didn’t open, and the man quickly landed not far from our group, creating a sizable divot in the earth. The whole town gasped and cried, but the campers jumped up and clapped and screamed in joy, understanding the spectacle as entertainment. We got everyone on the bus immediately and I never thought about jumping myself, ever.
My parents were already in Denver playing nurse for a few weeks. We all drove out to a small airport. Mary Pat and I signed our release forms and she commented, “So what if my chute doesn’t open?”, which made me even more nervous. We squeezed into teal jumpsuits, and harnesses were stretched across our backs, torsos, and groins. I was very uncomfortable, so I knew she must’ve been in pain…her body hurt even while she slept, let alone in tackle and gear.
She was so alive that day – so excited – so ready. After a quick practice on how to do a sit-down landing, our parents hugged us and we took off in the old plane.
With no destination other than higher, our flight path would’ve looked like a slinky outstretched from the earth to the clouds.
Twenty minutes of heavy, fast breathing. Mild sweating. Frigid cold. Then, mercifully, only a ten-second warning and the door opens, and she is at the edge and gone.
And I’m at the edge and gone.
It’s breathtaking, even through the goggles. I hear her uncontrollably cursing and then laughing and finally the silence of awe. We see her mountains to the west like the eagles see. The only thing standing in the way of total appreciation is wishing it would last longer.
When the cord is pulled it’s like being punched in the gut. Wishing for the fall to last longer is granted as we first rise higher and then our descent slows and softens. The largest thing I see is her chute below me, a colorful, spinning circle with a pattern like the flower of life in red and blue. Three jumpers below her have chutes in other colors that open like blooms in time-lapse video. To the east of Denver are the circles of crops shaped by center-pivot irrigation systems in the arid landscape. Above me, the largest circle…safely spinning me back to earth.