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.
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.