The Last Six Seconds of My Life

There are few experiences I can think of that are more surreal than sitting three thousand feet in the air looking down at a patchwork quilt made of farmland, with three men sitting between my legs, and an oversized bed sheet tied to my back – unless I count the last six seconds of my life.

What could I have possibly been thinking when I agreed to this? Of course, I thought we would never go through with it. I thought someone would call a halt to the whole damn thing. I thought one of us had more brains than to let all of us risk our very lives to go through with a bet made in a bar over a few jugs of beer. Sure we were drunk when we made the deal. But we were sober as priests when we sat together in that plane. Hell, if the eight waivers they made us sign before they’d even let us up there didn’t wake us up, climbing into an aircraft that had no door should have been a good sign that this was not the most intelligent decision we had ever made.

I was last. I didn’t have to go. No one was left to laugh at me. Even after I saw Steve lose his balance and get sucked right out of the plane, I found myself sitting on the brink of disaster, the edge of the earth, my feet blowing in the hundred-and-twenty mile an hour wind, my cheeks flapping like flags in a hurricane. I felt the slap on my back and I jumped.

They said it would take six seconds for the parachute to open. I was supposed to count to six and look up. If there was no canopy, then I was to pull the reserve chute on my front. “Be sure to pull the handle and not the cable to the altimeter,” the trainer had said. “Or you’ll be pulling on the cable for the rest of your life – all thirteen seconds of it.”

But I didn’t count to six. I didn’t count at all. I prayed.

I prayed like I have never prayed before. I asked God, “What have I done?”

I swear I heard laughter. The wind was roaring in my head. No one had warned me of the sound that would drown out every other sense I had. My eyes were probably locked shut, but I couldn’t see. I’m sure I was falling, but I felt no sense of movement. I heard nothing but the sound of the little voice inside my head over the thunder of the wind past my ears. I even lost my sense of common: forgot all about counting and began watching as thoughts played on the screens inside my eyelids.

I remembered a dream I had had as a child. My mom had sent me to find my sister for dinner, and I discovered her down the street at a neighbour’s where someone was trying to cut her forehead with a razor blade. I put her in a doll buggy and took her home. I hadn’t seen her for a few days; I hoped she was all right.

I wondered what my parents were going to say about all of this. They would never have expected me to do this: my sister, maybe, but not me. I was twenty-six years old, and I figured if the fall didn’t kill me, my father would.

I wondered if I was ever going to get married and have kids. I remembered going through school, being teased for being too smart. Ironic.

At some point I promised God that, if I survived this, I would try to think of a way to repay Him. I confessed that I wasn’t going to start promising things now because I knew that if I did survive, I was more likely to renege than pay up and secretly hoped He’d give me credit for being honest.

I remembered the training we’d had to be able to do this. How many times had I jumped from the loft in the barn, spread eagle, face first into the six-foot deep pile of foam below, counting to six? How long had we hung from the rafters by the crotch and some seatbelt straps, learning how to steer a canopy chute. I had jumped from a platform eight feet up, backwards, hands in the air, legs clenched together, over and over trying to keep from losing the pieces of paper between my knees and ankles in proper landing formation, until the guys had had to lift me back up to try again because my legs had given out completely. They had cheered me on. Encouraged me. And they were proud of me when I finally did it, whooping like a bunch of big brothers looking out for their little sister.

Suddenly I wasn’t so grateful for their help.

I was the last one out of the plane. I could have easily chickened out and landed safely with the pilot. What was I thinking?

Was I trying to make up for not taking chances before? No. I had moved to Quebec at eighteen, by myself, learned to speak French, taught English, grew up. I had conquered school after being the star student as a kid, and flunking out of University three times. I had survived two house fires, Mom and Dad’s pizzeria, and one despicable trip to Mexico. I had good and bad relationships with friends, with men. All character-building experiences.

Was I trying to prove something? What? That I was an idiot? That I had some kind of uncommon courage? I don’t think so.

Was I trying to kill myself? If I was, I sure changed my mind pretty darn quick. Too late, maybe, but still, within the first tenth of a second at the most.

No. I was defending my Ego. My pride. I said I would do it. So I did. It was that simple. And now I had six seconds to live and another thirteen to die.

Yes, I would say my life flashed before my eyes. All of it. Even parts of it I hadn’t lived yet. It was like watching it on television, yet somehow becoming a part of the show. I remembered the smell of melting snow, the feel of the sun on my face, and the sound of wind chimes on a cool summer night.

I remembered lying to the Jump Master about my weight when he was getting me a parachute. I wondered if that was going to be a problem.

I wondered if Steve was still alive. My last glimpse of his face was as comical as it was grisly. He had no idea he was on his way out. It was like a hand had reached into the plane and plucked him out by his shorts. His mouth was open, overfilled with rushing air, stretching his lips into a distorted hole in his head. His eyes were open, too open, the wind pushing his eyelids beyond their sockets. Then he was gone. I might have screamed out loud as I tried to reach for him, but I was still pinned under the dashboard of the plane with three more men between my feet.

Norm jumped. He looked eager. Confident. Aggressive. Stupid.

The fifth jumper on our plane, a stranger, some guy doing this by himself without the peer pressure of three moronic friends, jumped. We would never know his name.

Then Matt turned to look at me. His face was white. He didn’t look so good. “We don’t have to do this, you know,” I saw him yell.

“I know,” I hollered back.

He mouthed, “Do you want to bail out?”

“Yes,” I yelled, thrilled with the thought of being half of a team of cowards.

He exhaled, looked defeated, and jumped out. I glanced around the empty plane thinking, “Bad choice of words, Matt.”

The Jump Master pointed at me and curled his finger. Come on, Honey, his eyes said, daring me to let the boys out-do me. My Ego dragged my numb behind across the floor of the plane, and I watched helplessly as it overpowered my will to live and let my legs dangle out of the edge of the doorway. I focused on the camera on the wing. And I smiled. I didn’t want the last picture everyone would ever see of my to express the sheer stupidity I was experiencing. Let them think me an idiot, but don’t give them the proof.

I scooted onto one cheek as I had been instructed, with hands on the doorway in front and behind, the other cheek and both legs being supported by nothing but wind. When the Jump Master slapped my backpack, I simply leaned forward and let go.

I never experienced a sense of weightlessness. In fact I felt the weight of the world on me. I had laughed at the gift of life. I had taken the only life I would ever have and thrown it away. In one reckless and casual moment, I had risked the most valuable thing I owned. I never left my car unlocked, was always careful with my purse and belongings, and always went back twice to check the front door. I had so many things that were too valuable to lose because they were too hard to replace. In fact, I am absolutely certain that I would never throw my wallet out of a plane.

Except, I guess, if it was in my pocket at the time.

Of course God was laughing at me. Shaking His head at me like a parent whose child has just fallen out of a tree, with a serves-you-right kind of look on His face. That’s when you know that you’re expected to find the lesson in all of this. You’re supposed to think about what you’ve done, figure out what went wrong, and learn from the experience so that, next time, you act more appropriately.

Okay, I learned that I will never go drinking with Steve, Norm, and Matt again. That’s it. That’s what started all of this. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be falling from the sky right now, like a giant rain drop on its way to becoming a puddle on the ground. I wouldn’t be having this conversation with the Lord. I wouldn’t be debating the tampons versus pads issue. I wouldn’t be worried about the second helping of pancakes I’d had for breakfast this morning. This was all their fault.

The laughter changed. It became more of an accusation. It was saying, “That’s what they said, too. They’re blaming you…”

Well, of course they were. They were men. They had male Egos. Every one of them had had no choice to jump so long as I was there. How could any of them possibly have backed out if the woman was going through with it. A man can’t be beaten by the gentler sex.

Oh, God. You’re saying I could have stayed in the plane and laughed at them all? They really only jumped because of me. Not jumping was never an option for them, but in the end I didn’t have to go. They had an excuse to try to kill themselves. Their hands were tied. They’d had no choice because of me.
But I had all the choice in the world.

And this is what I picked?

Again I was back to why. Why did I go through with this?

No answer came.

No answer could come. There was no answer.

Yet.

There was no way I could have known how this one experience would change my life. Assuming of course that I would still have one. There was no way to know that conquering this monumental challenge would have an affect on me forever. How could I possibly know that I would spend the rest of my life looking at challenges, fearing them, remembering that I had cheated fear and failure and death one day, and know that I could do it again. That taking charge and pushing forward, playing offense and thinking proactive would become a part of my life forever.

That when the real challenges of my life started to come along, I would know in my heart that I have what it takes to make it, to win, to survive, to try.

Six seconds can be the longest time of your life. It can be time enough to assess yourself and find yourself lacking. It can be time enough to tally up the undone, the failures, the regrets. It can be enough time to see yourself as clearly as is possible, through the eyes of the One who created you, not as you see yourself through a mirror. Not even as others see you. But to see yourself as you were intended to be. Six seconds is long enough to imprint the plan in your mind and in your heart.

But it is not long enough to understand the full meaning of it. It is not long enough to understand that you will spend the rest of your life making decisions based on something that happened once upon a time, that took six seconds.

It is only time that will measure the full impact that one-tenth of a minute can have on your life. A blink of a day. A star in the sky. The ripples of a drop in the ocean.

A lot can happen in six seconds. It’s a measure of time. It’s a measure of me.

My Life After Death

It’s not right that my sister still blames me for the delays, the misunderstandings, and the near-death experience we endured on that cold April morning so many Thursdays ago. At the time, I did what I thought I was supposed to be doing. I reacted as I was conditioned to react. Everything worked out in the end.
And she knows I don’t make my best decisions while I am asleep.

Yet she still thinks I should have done things differently. How, I don’t know.

I didn’t ask to be ‘the’ contact. I said I would, but I never really thought they’d call. How many false alarms had we had? How many times had the Home called and said that she’d had this or that happen and was in the hospital? We’d go to see her and she’d throw food at us. How was I supposed to know that this was the call I was supposed to take seriously?  It was anybody’s guess.

I was having a great dream, looking forward to an extra-long Easter weekend when the phone rang. It was five o’clock in the morning; hadn’t I just gone to bed? They told me she fell. Or maybe she had a stroke. Or maybe she had a stroke and then she fell. They didn’t know. But she’d banged her head and needed stitches. That wouldn’t make her a very co-operative patient, was my first thought. A headache would only increase her distance with the jello. I asked if they were sure she had to go to the hospital; they’d never been hit with dry toast. They said yes. I went out on a limb and asked them to have the doctor from the hospital call me when they had more details. Sleep came easy, and I continued on with my dream.

I dreamt my sister was yapping at me about a phone call. She was ordering me to get up and get going. She was telling me to phone him. I remember thinking, she can drive, she can dial a phone, she’ll look great in applesauce.

A ringing telephone woke me again. I only answered because I vaguely recalled a reason to do so. It was Doctor Somebody from the General, and she was looking after my grandmother.

I rolled over, wrapping myself in the cord. She seemed to understand my mumbling because she said that yes, I absolutely had to wake up for this.
I sat up on the side of my bed looking out the window at a still dark city and told her to go ahead. She explained that she wasn’t sure whether it had been a stroke and a fall or a fall and a stroke, but that it wasn’t good. My grandmother had been, and still was, unconscious and there was an order to do no more than keep her comfortable. She wanted me to confirm that.

I told her, yes, she was to let my Baba die. And to let her know I’d be right there.

I dressed in three steps as I crossed my bedroom floor and found my sister at the door, listening. She was angry that I hadn’t called Dad earlier. She was worried he would miss her. I told her to phone him if she wanted, but I was gone.

I left with my shoes in my hand.

When I arrived at the Emergency Department ten minutes later, it was still dark and quiet outside. I found a group of doctors and nurses having coffee and playing on wheeled office chairs, talking about the Easter Bunny. They saw me and fell silent. I guess I looked healthy enough, and I was the only expected visitor. A doctor approached me, introduced herself, and asked me to follow her. As we passed empty room after empty room, I became aware of a painfully laboured sound, a drawing in of breath that seemed to take an unimaginable effort. We entered a room and I wondered why.

The person laid out on the table was not my grandmother. It was some ancient shell of a body that I didn’t recognize. The hair was white and the skin gray. They had removed her dentures, allowing her face to fall into an unfamiliar, melting shape. She was covered in a plain white sheet, starched, clean, and a stark, unwrinkled contrast to the worn soul it covered. I watched as another deafening breath filled the room and the hallway and had to ask if she was in any pain.

As the doctor answered that she wasn’t, the noise of the breathing beside us suddenly stopped. The doctor leaned over my grandmother, gently holding her hand, listening to her heart.

“Is she?”

She shook her head and smiled at me. “She’s unconscious, but she knows you’re here. She’s much calmer now.”

“How long?”

“I don’t know. But not very. I’ll leave you here with her.”

I sat in the chair on the other side of the table and held Baba’s hand. In that moment her life flashed before me. I remembered those hands. These were the hands that taught me how to make perogies at five-years-old so I could find a husband. These were the hands that sewed matching dresses for us, and made peaches for us, and always had 7-Up for us. These hands tried desperately to get me to write with my right hand. Their nails were always neatly trimmed, never with a pair of clippers, but oddly, with an ancient pair of sewing scissors. And they were soft and smooth. For all the work these hands had done in their life, they were always so smooth.

And there were her wedding rings. I had seen those rings my whole life, though the man who gave them to her died three days before I was born.

I held her hand, and I told her I loved her. I thanked her for all she had taught me. I told her I was okay and that she could leave now if she needed to go.
She breathed on, and I wondered at the strength of her.

I sat with her for a lifetime in the ten minutes that it took for my sister to arrive. I still don’t know why we didn’t come together. She came in and sat on the other side of Baba.

She asked me the same questions I had asked the doctor. I told her what I knew. She seemed satisfied with that. She had called Dad, and we figured he’d be there in about an hour. Then we sat. And waited.

And waited.

Waiting felt as inappropriate as it sounds.

Every once in a while, her breath would seem to catch, and her tongue would jump as if it had fallen in the way. At first this was startling, as we were waiting very quietly. Then we began to watch for these episodes as signs of life. Our vigil turned wary. I began to doubt our purpose there and questioned my sister about that.

“Do you think she knows we’re here?”

“Yeah.”

“Are we supposed to be saying something?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know.”

“What does her hand feel like?”

“Cold,” I answered without thinking. Then upon thinking, I quickly, but gently, put it down.

We both examined her closely.

“How do we know when… You know.”

“I don’t know. How would I know?”

“I don’t know. But she hasn’t done that tongue thing for a while.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.

We waited some more, watching closely.

“Stick your finger under her nose,” my loving sister suggested.

“I’m not sticking my finger under her nose. You do it.”

“You’re older.”

“So?”

She shrugged.

“Get a mirror,” I suggested.

She began looking around the room for a small mirror.

“Don’t you have one in your purse?”

“No. You?”

“No.”

We looked around the room for something shiny. Laying eyes on the bedpan under the table at the same time, we looked at each other and simply shook our heads.

“What do we do?”

“I don’t think poking her would help.”

“No.”

“Go get the doctor,” I decided.

“You go get the doctor.”
“You.”

She looked at me with that look that carried years of  ‘I hate you when you do this.’

She opened the door and peeked out politely.

“Excuse me,” she said cautiously to the group of chatting experts in the hall.

Our doctor immediately put on her professional face and came right over.

“How do we know? Um?”

“When she’s passed?” she helped.

“Yeah,” we both said, relieved.

The doctor leaned carefully over Baba’s body and listened to her heart. She listened for a long time, finally explaining that the heart doesn’t just stop, it slows down until, well…

At last she stopped listening and simply said, “It’s stopped. I’m sorry.”

We looked at her, and I felt myself shrug my shoulders and nod my head. I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t feel right. I felt like someone should take me and tell me what to do next.

Someone did. A nurse came for us and led us down the hall to a small crying room. I sat there with my sister feeling quite surprised that Baba had actually died this time. In my lifetime, every invitation – to weddings, Christmas, graduations, Sunday dinner – that had ever been offered to Baba had been answered with, “If I’m still here.”

And now she wasn’t.

“You’re going to have to tell Dad.”

“I will,” I promised.

“You should have called him earlier, you know.”

I looked at my little sister. In her entire lifetime, she had fought for Baba’s attention and never received any that she deserved. Even as a young woman, she would visit the Home regularly, more faithful than any of us. Even long after Baba could remember who she was. And yet…

“She waited for you.”

“Dad should have been here.”

“He wouldn’t have made it. Her biggest fear was to die alone. When I got here, she calmed down, but she didn’t die. She didn’t go until you got here. She waited for you.”

I don’t think that realization ever did sink in.

We waited forever for my parents to arrive, and when they did, I steeled myself to tell my Dad the news.

I looked at him, his face, not knowing yet that his mom had finally died and simply said, “She’s gone, Dad.”

He blinked at me and replied, “What? They sent her back up to the Home already?”

I laughed.  “No, Dad. She died. About an hour or so ago.”

His body seemed to melt a couple of inches then. His hands were in the pockets of his jacket. He shook his head. “Really?”

I smiled at him and nodded.

“You were there?”

“Yeah. We both were.”

“Then everything’s okay.”

“Yeah,” I told him.

We made the funeral arrangements, and said our goodbyes.

Baba lives on in our hearts and my children’s hearts. We tell stories about her and her life. I don’t sew, but the kids and I still make perogies using Baba’s old pots and ladle. My husband married me even though he hates perogies.

And my sister and I still laugh about the morning Baba died and we made such fools of ourselves. We are sure that her spirit left her body long before we realized it and hung around long enough to watch us and our antics. I know that Baba died laughing. And probably shaking her head wondering how we would ever get by being as incompetent as she left us.

My first and only close brush with death left me knowing that every little laugh along the way, is something you get to take with you. Every time I smile, or hear my children laugh, I know that Baba enjoys us, too. Even if we are a little too stupid for our own good!