10,000 FEET Hanging out the door of a ratty plane, the plane held together by duct tape, my eyes staring at the earth 10,000 feet away through heavy clouds – from up here, yes, I could ascertain that the world was most definitely flat. And solid. What kind of damage occurs to the physical body when it hurtles hundreds of kilometers per hour and slams into this unyielding ball of mass? This was wholly unnatural and diametrically opposed to any instinctual notion of my usually highly sensitive idiosyncratic perception of self-preservation.
Unnatural. Up here, anything I regarded as normal was completely negated. The wind forceful, the clouds foreboding. The wind whistled loudly its message: This was not a good idea. In the history of ideas, this was the worst.
Bungee jumping was never considered. I didn’t want to rely on an elastic band tied around my ankles. The CN Tower Edgewalk had not been established. The only experience I had with skydiving was atop a mountain in Germany. People spread out parachutes, ran towards and jumped off a cliff, sailing down the valley. This probably provided a great view, but seemed unnecessary since there was a perfectly functional passenger trolley traveling up and down the mountain. When choosing a death defying act, skydiving was it.
I blamed my friend Jim. It wasn’t his fault that he turned 30 but it was his fault that he wanted to skydive to commemorate this most momentous event. For once you pass the threshold of 30, there will never be an age where skydiving actually seems like a good idea.
My jumping partner Thumper nudged me towards the opened door. Through the chaos of noise, there was a calmness. From this high up, everything down on the ground moved slow, almost imperceptibly. As I momentarily recognized this calmness, I realized what was really happening, what this was really about and I gave up, obliged, resounded to my fate.
I was going to die.
STAGE ONE: DENIAL
We decided to skydive while sitting in a bar having a beer. The beers heavily factored into the bravery-quotient. The next morning, laying regretfully in bed, I displayed a tremendous amount of trepidation over this foolhardy decision. But the wheels were in motion, the empty bravery of the previous night haunted me for the two weeks leading up to the event.
Jim booked the place. I wanted nothing to do with the preparation. With death in the air, I became very annoying. We had a two-week deadline before jumping and I let everyone know this. Repeatedly. Telling friends about skydiving plans became an enjoyable pastime. Just the notion of jumping out of an airplane had a certain coolness factor to it and I was thrusted up the ladder of social status. This is the last Saturday of my life, I said. This is the last time I will eat a McDonald’s hamburger, I reminded them. This is the last time I will see you, I announced with weighted discourse. When parting, I hugged people, which if you knew me, was a strange display of affection.
Telling my parents was an entirely different thing. Although I didn’t think they would attempt to talk me out of it, I assumed they would ask me the question I was not prepared to answer: Why? Did I have some kind of death wish? Suicidal? After exploring these concepts, this wasn’t the case. I discovered it was empowering to say you were going skydiving, but a whole other thing to actually do it. If I thought too hard about why, I settled on the word ‘legacy’. What was my legacy? What would I leave behind? Not much. Should I make a will? What possessions did I possess that represented anything of value? It wasn’t so much that I was going to die, but that with so little accomplishments in my life, I would most likely be forgotten instantly.
I had never thought about dying in any real way. After all, I was in my 20s, and according to all accounts, based on no empirical evidence whatsoever, I was going to live forever. Because skydiving was a decision I imparted on myself, naturally, I had pretty much determined that I was going to die. But what a way to go. There was still a gap between the concept of dying and the actuality of it. Although I thought there was a very real chance of losing my life, the concept that I was choosing to place myself in this position enabled me to have a healthy protective force of denial.
Sure, during those two weeks between the decision and the jump, I imagined every which way I could plunge to my death. The parachute failed to open, making me into a statistic. Lightning striking me in mid-air, which was next to impossible but would at least warrant a write up in the newspaper. The parachute would open but have holes in it, rendering it useless. These were all outrageous and developed in my brain because of their improbability. Chances were that I would die in a very boring way, say, the plane crashed before we even got the opportunity to jump. I played the sympathy card with everyone and knew it. Besides, it would be the last time for a chance like this. Most people don’t know when they’ll die. I had a time and a date, so I was fully prepared to milk it for all its worth.
In the 1969 book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross outlined the now ubiquitous five stages of dying. Not everyone who experiences a life-threatening event feels all five of the responses, and not everyone who experiences them does so in the order in which they were presented. Reactions to illness, death and loss are as unique as the person experiencing them. However, according to the Kübler-Ross Model, I was right on schedule:
“Stage One: Denial. Usually only a temporary defense for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of possessions and individuals that will be left behind after death.”
Denial was evident in every hug and teary-eyed look at every ‘last’ thing. Although I knew I was going to die, said it often during those two weeks, deep down, I didn’t really believe it.
STAGE TWO: ANGER
We drove in silence out of the city. Light raindrops fell from the sky, exploding on the windshield in loud splats. The buildings became fewer and fewer, soon replaced by farms. Jim found the skydiving place on the internet. It was located out here among the cows, I assumed, so your parachute wouldn’t get tangled up in telephone wires or you wouldn’t land in someone’s backyard swimming pool.
Large, different coloured fields flew by and I thought: What a lovely day to die. Inevitably, this line of thought logically led to: What a perfect day for a funeral. The sun is inappropriate for a funeral. Rain is perfect, but not a torrential downpour. Light rain allows people to cry, if they feel the need. They can express their emotions of loss without feeling self-conscious. And stay relatively dry.
Naturally, besides it being a lovely day to die and the proper weather for a funeral, I was really concerned with the eulogy. What would people say? Who would provide the eulogy? It wasn’t like this was some long drawn out illness, and the suddenness might make for a hasty celebration. A thrown together feel. As stated above, my accomplishments up to this point were nil, my content of character not firmly established. I recently happened upon an article about accomplished young kids: A four year old who was a virtuoso on the violin, a six year old girl referred to as the next Mozart and a seven year old considered the next Picasso. Okay, I didn’t happen upon the article, I went looking for anyone under my age that had attained a certain degree of success. After finding all these prodigies, I was sure my death would be invisible.
The events described here took place while I was finishing up studying film at university. I was already working in my field and making my own films. But it was never enough. I always seemed a few steps behind where I wanted to be, never quite accomplishing all that I set out. I felt I was capable of so much more. I would say they were the problems of a 20-something year old, but I have the same fears to this day. This decision to end it all here left me with the frustrating feeling that I had not persevered enough, not pushed myself to the extent of my capabilities. Leaving behind no legacy, nothing to point to that was wholly mine.
Perhaps the Kübler-Ross Model had too much of a hold on the influence of my psyche, but I felt the tug of anger pulling me into the direction of my past, forcing me to review and reflect.
“Stage two: Anger. The individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy.”
I wasn’t so mad at voluntarily heading towards death, I was more concerned with the aftermath. I wanted my Tom Sawyer moment – to witness my own funeral – take note of those that cried, those that didn’t, types of food offered after the wake. Wait, would it be a wake or would I be cremated? Would my body be able to be re-constructed after such a fall? So many details to think about. Maybe I should have specified in my will that I wanted to be cremated, in order to avoid unpleasantries such as a disfigured corpse or low attendance. Maybe I should have made that will. As we drove down a long dirt road to our final destination, it was too late anyway.
We parked beside a makeshift camp that looked like a trailer park. Transients and skydive groupies were everywhere. People who traveled around like gypsies, jumping out of airplanes for a living. Jim turned the car off and we sat, listening to the sound of the engine receding. Without looking at each other, we decided to get out at the same time, and I realized it was probably my last ride in a car.
A large barn operated as the office. There were no animals inside but still evidence of hay and expired feces. Beside the barn, a line of sleeping trailers, all in various forms of decay. We had reached the end of civilization, the occupants of the trailers lived on the outskirts of society, off the grid and were probably going to be the new leaders after the apocalypse. Mostly made up of young people with lots of long hair and beards and vintage clothing, they mulled around in small groups, drinking homemade coffee out of dented tin cups and avoiding eye contact.
A young woman took us for a tour of the place. There wasn’t much to see. We were taken into the back of the barn where they rolled up the parachutes. Rows of parachutes lined the floor, people concentrating on meticulously folding as though handling giant multicoloured cigars. The safety method of madness was all of the jumpers rolled up random parachutes and always used different ones. They did not know who’s are who’s and could take solace in the fact that everyone had given 100% of their efforts to each individual parachute 100% of the time.
I wanted to ask, But isn’t 100% impossible to achieve? In effect, they rolled up each other’s parachute. What if someone was having a bad day? Hungover? This was not something you could do at 75% - even 99.1%. When grabbing a parachute to jump, they made a silent agreement with each other: Everyone took equal care with each roll. This was a communal level of trust never seen before. Strictly my opinion: I thought this was insane. Call my untrustworthy.
The young woman explained to us that there was an electronic device the size of a USB key hidden in the straps of the parachute that cost thousands of dollars. I never saw the device and still question its existence. She claimed that if you fell to a dangerous altitude without pulling the parachute, the device would automatically open it for you. The reason for this device was in the event that something happens to the jumper, in this case me, and you are unable to manually pull the ripcord.
This was the example she provided: Say you were jumping tandem (which we were – jumping with a more experienced person attached to you) and your partner had a heart attack, rendering them unconscious. Instead of plunging to your death, or both of your deaths (or just mine, I guess, as my partner had a heart attack), the device calculates your altitude and at the proper time, the parachute opens. Peace of mind, she said. I took no solace in placing my life into a piece of technology the size of a USB key – no matter how much faith I usually put into technology.
The final stop on the tour was the audio/visual room. Uncomfortable, multicoloured plastic chairs sat in front of an old television and VCR. The young woman pressed play and left the room. The video must have been circa 1982. The man had badly quaffed big hair and a thick Burt Reynolds mustache, explaining to us the dangers of skydiving. We were holding our lives in our hands, he claimed, and the danger of death was very real. He referred to this as a safety video, but really, all he talked about were the different ways we could die. And I was right, as he explained: Lightning, cables, parachutes not opening. Every minute that passed, I became increasingly more uncomfortable. What I didn’t need at this point was Burt Reynolds saying to me melodramatically, This could be the last stop on the train of life.
To his credit, I guess there are very little safety precautions once you are flying through the air, hurtling towards the earth, going hundreds of miles an hour. Burt was really preparing us for the insurance forms. After he was finished, the young woman reappeared and handed us release forms as thick as bibles. The basic premise of the forms was this: If we died, we would not hold the skydiving company responsible. I thought this was a stupid question, so I didn’t ask it: If we’re dead, how would we go about suing you?
Nonetheless, with the smoosh of a pen, I signed away my life.
STAGE THREE: BARGAINING
After signing on the dotted line, we went for our training. The word training was up for interpretation.
We were tandem jumping, the type where you jump with an instructor, aptly named The Tandem Master. You are attached to The Tandem Master via a harness system. You need no prior jumping experience as The Tandem Master is responsible for overseeing that everything goes according to plan. Burt Reynolds explained that The Tandem Master is certified through the Canadian Sport Parachuting Association and has hundreds, if not thousands, of jumps under his or her belt. This didn’t make me feel any better.
My Tandem Master’s name was Thumper. You can’t make something like that up. A tall, gangly fellow, long scraggly hair, curly cue beard, old t-shirt with a fading band logo, frayed cut-off jean shorts and sandals. Thumper: The man who held my life in his hands.
Thumper led us out of the barn to a makeshift replica door of the airplane. The ‘training’ took five minutes. Standing in the haul of the fake plane, Thumper instructed me to place one foot on the platform just outside of the door. Next, I crossed my arms in front of my chest, bent forward, then rocked backwards, counting to three. ONE bend forwards, TWO rock backwards, THREE fall forward out and under the plane. This was crucial: You are actually not jumping, but falling. If you jump out, the force of the wind might thrust you backwards, smashing you into the plane, rendering you unconscious. Burt Reynolds failed to mention that point.
We were given our only piece of equipment: An altitude reader that fastened to our wrist like a watch. The illusion of control. Thumper figured we could go as high as 10,000 feet. He explained that we check the altitude reader and at 8000 feet, we wave our hands in front of our face, giving the international symbol of: I am reaching for the ripcord. At 7000 feet, we pull and if everything works out, the parachute opens at this time. There are at least three other locations where The Tandem Master can access the ripcord, in the event that the jumper, in this case me, is rendered useless.
Thumper instructed us to land on our ass. If you tried to land on your feet, you’d probably break your legs. When you’re coming down, you’re going faster than it appears and unless you’re experienced, you’ll enjoy the ride only to have it all end badly. You lift your legs straight out, perpendicular to your body and slide in at an angle. Didn’t matter to me, I wasn’t going to make it that far anyway.
And that’s it, Thumper said.
After the extensive training session, we were issued our gear. A one-piece jump suit – I looked towards my butt for a poop window like in a child’s one piece pajama outfit. It wasn’t that kind of suit. It didn’t even have feet. I asked Thumper if he was planning on jumping in his shorts and sandals. You probably already know the answer.
We were given a pair of glasses and a helmet. The glasses I understood – when you’re falling at a rate of 185 kilometers per hour, you don’t want the wind to cause your eyes to tear up. The helmet was wholly unnecessary. A psychological ruse. The illusion of safety. Oh, I’ll be fine now – I’ve got a helmet! Hurtling to the earth like a falling star, what was a helmet really going to do? If that parachute does not open, I’m sure that the helmet will ease the splattering of your brains. You will still be dead, but it won’t be as messy.
Thumper wasn’t happy with the weather system coming in from the east. He put his hand to his brow, sniffed the air, narrowed his eyes at the overcast clouds approaching. Thumper suggested we wait to see if the clouds dispersed. If they didn’t, it means we’ll have to fly through the clouds to get above them – a bumpy ride. On the plus side, he said, if the clouds stay, it means we’ll be able to go higher and jump through them. This apparently made it more exciting. Thumper told us we could always come back. We’ve been trained after all, the only thing left to do was jump. At this point, I reluctantly agreed that a few thousand feet didn’t make a difference.
Rapidly progressing through the stages, I was on to the third one. “Stage three: Bargaining. This stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle.”
I was happy to wait. Get my bearings. Process and filter everything through my brain. While we waited, Thumper entertained us with jumping stories. They were less than comforting. One man went up in a plane and didn’t pull his chute. It was later revealed that he had a terminal illness and was going to die a slow and painful death in the months ahead. He opted instead to end it quickly. I wondered what he was thinking on his way down. What a way to go. Was he itching to pull the ripcord?
Another story consisted of chutes getting caught in electrical wires and lightning – this was becoming a common theme. My emotions always fit nicely on my sleeve and Thumper ceased telling death stories. Behind my back, out of the corner of my eye, Thumper made a motion to Jim with his hand like he was taking a sip of a drink. He said there was a town a few minutes away, suggested that we visit the local bar, kick our feet up, have a drink to take the edge off. The last thing I wanted to do was to jump out of an airplane after a few cocktails. If I was going to die, I was going to die sober.
I didn’t open negotiations with any higher power that day. Didn’t even think of it. I imaged that if God was up there watching, he was having a good chuckle over my pathetic anxiety-driven disposition. I’ll be seeing him soon.
STAGE FOUR: DEPRESSION
After an hour of waiting, Thumper deemed the weather appropriate for jumping. Or rather, he said: It’s now or never. If we waited any longer, we might have had to come back another day. This was not an option for me. Fine, I thought, let’s go higher, let’s jump through the clouds, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it with the maximum amount of risk.
We walked from the barn to the runway. It was really just a long patch of grass. A black speck in the sky grew larger as the plane was returning from dropping off some other victims. To say this was an actual plane referred only to the fact that it was somehow currently airborne. It shuffled from side to side like an old man walking down the street. I wondered about certifications.
The plane approached the earth, bouncing off the ground a few times before landing and rolling towards us on what looked like a flat tire. It was an old hollowed out prop plane with just enough room for the pilot, Jim, myself and our two Tandem Masters. Now that the plane was back on the ground, I was curious to see how it would get back in the air.
Jim and I had a deal. Since this whole thing was his idea, he had to jump first. I would soon learn the regretful nature of this deal. Jim and his partner were up front by the pilot. Thumper and I in the back. Thumper leaned back in his cutoffs and sprawled his long legs out, trying to present a nonchalant look.
Before we took off, Jim leaned over and whispered, Did you notice we’re the only two people without parachutes? When jumping tandem, you are hooked into your Master through your harness. After the jump, you are on the bottom, so the Tandem Master has the actual parachute on their back. But you don’t hook in until immediately before the jump when the door is opened. The pilot wore a parachute. Thumper and Jim’s Tandem Master had theirs. As the plane bumped along the field, picking up enough speed to lift into the air, Jim and I were the only two inside without parachutes.
I really could have used that poop window right at that point. At least we had our helmets.
“Stage Four: Depression. During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.”
Thumper ignored me. He opened a compartment closed up with duct tape and pulled out a book. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. Thumper: The philospher. The plane was so loud that Jim and I couldn’t talk. We were left with no words to fill our grief. Duct Tape. Rips and cracks were covered with fraying grey duct tape. The plane felt like it was coming apart at the seams.
We climbed 10,000 feet – it was slow going. Felt like we were going up a long, large ramp, turning, and then going up the next ramp. I looked out the window. The window was held together by duct tape. We closed in on the clouds. Another thing Burt Reynolds failed to mention was that it took a lot longer to go up then it did to go down. We cut through the clouds and it got louder and the plane lunged from side to side. A piece of duct tape on the ceiling ripped off and flew into the atmosphere. I clutched whatever I could grab.
It was time. Jim got into position first. He sat in the lap of his partner and they hooked in. Thumper tapped me on the shoulder and motioned for me to hook in. I sat back in his lap and he put his arms around me. I wanted to stay there: Inside this ratty plane, 10,000 feet in the air, in the arms of a grown man named Thumper. I felt safe, warm and I could process my life decisions.
The click of the latches. Now I had a parachute. At least attached to someone that had a parachute. Jim’s Tandem Master gave a nod to the pilot and he opened the small door. The sound was loud like being inside a turbine engine. If I knew what that sounded like. Jim’s Tandem Master leaned out the door, almost pulling Jim out with him. He scrambled and held on to the edge of the door. His Tandem Master gave another nod to the pilot and then to Thumper.
Jim looked at me, there was nothing left to say. Even if we had something to say, we wouldn’t be able to hear each other. He got into position, hands on his chest. ONE bend forwards, TWO rock backwards, THREE fall forward out and under the plane. You don’t jump out of the plane and you don’t fall out either. You get sucked out. Jim was at the door one second and gone the next. He disappeared.
I was shocked. Didn’t feel Thumper tapping me on the shoulder. Finally, he shook me out of my haze, motioned towards the door. I shook my head. He nodded. I shook. He nodded. Then he kind of pushed me towards the door. They really needed to provide more training. My mind was a blank. I forgot everything.
I was supposed to: Put my foot on the platform outside the door. What I did: I saw no step, only the clouds, which were see-through, and through them, the earth. Very far away. Completely flat. What I was supposed to do next: Cross my hands in front of my chest. What I did: Grabbed on to the edge of the door. Placing your hands in front of your chest created a viscerally vulnerable position. There was no way my hands were NOT going to grab the edge of the door. If Thumper asked me my name at that point, I couldn’t have answered him.
Thumper pryed my hands from the door, forced them in front of my chest. What I was supposed to do next: ONE bend forwards, TWO rock backwards, THREE fall forward out and under the plane. We only made it to ONE.
STAGE FIVE: ACCEPTANCE
I pieced the following together through my memory. While in the moment (how could you not be), my mind was driving on some kind of animalistic shock instinct.
You’re going fast. My arms and legs were flailing about. Thumper tried to get me in control. The process, remember the process. I considered myself a process-orientated person. There was no process here, only insanity. The glasses rattled against my face as tears ran from my eyes. The sound was deafening as the air whistled past. I couldn’t really see anything in front of me because of the clouds and then –
– we cut right through them. And the earth appeared. This giant mass of very hard earth we hurtled towards. A calmness did actually come over me. I finally knew, not thought, not believed, knew that I was going to die. Your life does not flash before your eyes. It was more one big blob where I saw everyone and everything all at the same time.
After you jump, the pressure of falling combined with the placement of your Tandem Master behind you, means he lies on your back. As we fell faster, I felt his weight and it started pressing down on me. After some time, the weight disappeared, as though our bodies melded into one. Thumper tapped me on the shoulder, giving me some type of signal. I was prepared to die. Thumper was on his own.
Altitude reader. Check the altitude reader. 9000 feet. Lots of time. What seemed like a few seconds later, Thumper was giving me another signal, this time more animated and more frantic. Altitude reader: We were closing in on 6000 feet. The ripcord should have been pulled at 7000 feet. Where was the USB key in all this? Thumper did what he was trained to do in situations where the person jumping has lost the ability to process a thought. He grabbed my hand, put it on the ripcord and we both yanked.
And then Thumper went away.
He must have deemed me useless and unlatched the harness. He wasn’t prepared to die. He unloaded the dead weight. I would have done the same. What a way to go.
But then I was pulled backwards and upright by my shoulders. The wind stopped whistling. The free falling motion transformed into a floating sensation. When I looked up, I saw a rainbow of colours. The parachute spread above me, a magical, living, breathing thing. The only way I could describe it is as if you were thrown into very cold and deep and dark water with no way to the surface. The shock overtakes you but you learn that you can breathe underwater. The impossible becomes possible. Magic is discovered, uncovered.
“Stage Five: Acceptance. In this last stage, individuals begin to come to terms with their mortality, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event.”
We were floating. It was so quiet. There was slack built into the harness where we were attached. The ripcord was initiated and since the parachute was on Thumper’s back, he got pulled off me, the slack between us making it feel as though he detached from me. There was a moment in time where I was falling to my death, until the harness strengthened and I was pulled back and upright under the parachute.
The earth was not the foreboding instrument of my death, but a flat horizon of possibilities. I wasn’t going to die – not today at least. Everything and everyone I knew in my life compounded and was released from me. It all let go of me. I couldn’t understand it or make sense of it. I didn’t need to. I let go of it all. For a gap in time, I had no past or future. A sense of freedom. A sense of not truly being able to understand the meaning of anything, but in losing everything, it all becomes perfectly clear. Clarity. What was so clear? Nothing. Everything. Falling, then floating. And my whole life came flooding back. My stupid, wonderful, little life.
We floated down, slid in on our asses, as we were trained to do. Thumper gave me a moment to process, then told me to collect my parachute. It was a symbol of prestige to walk back into camp with it under your arm.
I remembered very clearly the young woman standing on the field, as though she waited for us. She walked right over to me. She said: Your lips must be chapped, here. And she held out some lip balm. And she was right: My lips were chapped. The balm was electricity when it touched my lips. Jim and I collected our parachutes without talking. We marched across the field and into the camp. People who previously did not make eye contact nodded and smiled. We were now part of the club.
Thumper gave us a certificate – he actually signed it: Thumper. He held up his hand in front of our faces. It was shaking. I’ve jumped thousands of times, he said. And I know the day that my hand isn’t shaking when I get back, that’s the day I quit.
I didn’t know what he meant until we were on our way. Since jumping, it was the first time I would drive in a car. Everything after that was the first time. Driving back to the city, my hands rested in my lap. They would go on to shake all night. I hoped they never stopped shaking.
I was alive.