The full-body flight suit I wore was blue, puffy, and unflattering.
The helmet tightened over my head, the goggles beetling my eyes and straps harnessing my chest, my crotch, my waist, and my wrists.
No one said skydiving was going to be pretty. Actually, no one said it was going to be fun either. Awesome, thrilling, worth it…those were the words used to convince me. That, and my cureless, chronic FOMO with which I seem to be eternally plagued.
Through the mid-morning heat, I walked awkwardly across the tarmac, straps dangling from every limb, following my tandem jump guide. A guide I had only just met and been paired with. A guide in whose hands I was about to place my life.
It was summer in southern California, and I was home from the UK for a few months to fill my cup with sunshine, family BBQs, road trips, boat trips, and adventure.
My mother was turning 50 that July. On one uneventful Saturday morning, my little sister surprised our mom with a gift certificate to go skydiving. My sister announced this birthday gift as she burst through the front door, having just leapt out of a plane herself only hours before, the adrenaline still electrifying.
I think my accomplishments that same morning may have included a coffee and looking outside the window at a cat sitting in the yard or something.
No one knew she had this plan—which is just like my introverted little sister to do. Sits quietly. Sits back. Then bad-assing her way to the front, relishing the jaws that dropped amongst her family as in shocked excitement we praised and questioned with awe and delight.
My mom, a wringing mix of excitement and nerves, agreed to accept the adventurous birthday gift.
I, not to be outdone by the mom or the younger sister, jumped on board the idea, and a week or so later, jumped on board a small, comfortless plane with them both.
We sat side by side in the plane as if in a dream. Geared up, trained up, and caught up in the momentum of the 10-minute flight, and the 60-second free fall we had paid for. Our matching puffy flight suits, our unbecoming helmets, and pilot goggles squished our faces in tight, hiding our pre-flight jitters not at all.
What the f*ck was I doing?
The plane was small, with only straps and supplies bolted along the curving inside belly of the Twin Otter. My sister sweet-talked her way up front with the pilot, leaving my mom and me with our tandem jump guides to strap us up and strap us to them.
Our backs to their fronts. Straps secured and locked. Parachutes checked. Hearts beating hard out of our throats.
Plane doors agape, we were deafened by the close roar of turning engines. An untamable wind rushed forcefully through any open space inside the small fuselage. As we ascended to 13,000 feet, the outside views of wispy white clouds were a welcome distraction.
Our plane flew through pale petals of cloud and blueberry skies. Through the small windows, a mountainous landscape unfolded below, and a distant ocean extended beyond measure.
How spectacularly beautiful the world can look from on high.
Second after second, the ground dropped away, and the Mexican horizon came into view, simmering easily into the sparkling Pacific. We were high, and then higher and higher, and then we were ready.
That’s a lie.
We were not ready, but our tandem guides were. With each of us strapped tightly to them, they waddled to the ledge of the open door of the plane anyway.
“Guides” is used liberally here, as they weren’t so much as guiding us into our skydiving experience but rather jumping on their own with our bodies attached to them.
Mom fell first. The plane door framed their form: four arms, four legs, two heads, and flying hair freed from the helmet that the wind in their faces blew away. In a moment, they were on the ledge just a few feet in front of me, and in the next moment, they were gone.
I don’t know what I found more frightening, my own flight, or watching my mother free-fall at 13,000 feet from the door of our plane, strapped to some guy we just met, spinning as they fell, shrinking smaller and smaller as down she plunged. In a second.
There was not enough time to process what I had just witnessed happen to my mother or to freak out in panicked protest. Within that same second, my tandem guide had somehow, without my cooperation or limberness, hoisted us as one to the lip of the door and lunged into the wide-open, waiting blue sky.
And we flew, the plane rapidly rising far behind and above us only a second later.
I can’t remember if I screamed.
The ground spinning below me, the California desert carved into squares sprawling and quilting the landscape I was now hurtling toward, my chin fully caving into my chest.
That’s how I viewed the world, free-falling from that great height. Head strapped down, eyes trapped in goggles, and my chin firmly pressing into my chest.
Try it now for a second. Press your chin to your chest. (Don’t worry about neck rolls or extra chins.) Where do your eyes naturally shift? What falls within your range of vision when you do the chin-to-chest press?
Likely, your eyes gaze down. It’s probably not very comfortable, and if you’re still pressing your chin to your chest while trying to read this, then you can relax your chin now.
This is how I fell. My chin locked to my chest, eyes locked downcast to the ground. My arms were probably flailing. We may have been spinning, but my eyes took in the crisscrossed land below me, and for a while, I saw little else but the dark hard ground below.
After maybe 10 seconds or so, which is a very long time to freefall, I felt the palm of my tandem guide’s hand on my forehead as he gently lifted my head away from my chest where it had been stiffly forced into place by the pressure.
He lifted my head, and everything changed.
The entire, magical, spinning world came fully into view. The creamy blue horizon. The impossible blue of the ocean. The immense expanse of the mountains. I squinted at the shine of the golden sun wrapping around us as the wind snapped like a sheet at our faces.
And then, it felt no more like I was falling, but floating.
We were still falling. But now it was exhilarating.
Within my line of sight, I could see the skydiving cameraman also floating (falling), catching the awesome video footage of my flight (my fall). Then behind him, the breathtaking expanse of sky swooshing around my just-as-blue flight suit, the hot sun blazing yellow over the curve of us all diving down through the sky.
The plane, thousands of feet above me now, the Earth, thousands of feet below me as we dove through the atmosphere, plummeting, diving, breathing deep (screaming?). Then finally, the parachute pulled, and we floated more slowly, glided easily, and landed clumsily but safely in the dusty heat.
The video footage, now lost to time (or maybe lost in my mom’s garage) would be a gem to find. Diving so fast down through so much blue, cutting wind and piercing sun between the plane and the Earth. All that bravery and alarm wrapped up in a puffy, strapped-up suit.
Often, I remember this moment, particularly when I feel the spin and the loss-of-control-of-my-life panic. Moments when it feels like I am failing (falling).
Moments when my chin is stuck to my chest, my vision cast down and all I can see below me is the barren, dry squares of impact I am hurtling toward. Moments when the pressure has forced me into a downward gaze.
In those moments, I miss out on every bit of beauty floating around me that I’m meant to see as something awesome and thrilling. Something worth it.
But then, something helps me remember. All I need to do is lift my chin off my chest. A gentle palm to the forehead to lift my eyes and there it is: the reward for jumping in the first place beaming gorgeous blue sunshine horizons all around me.
All I needed to do was look up.