As far as we know, humans are the only species on Earth whose members carry the knowledge of their own mortality. We all have the experience as a kid when it strikes us that everybody dies—including us. Of course, a six-year old isn’t usually debilitated by this knowledge. She takes it in, ponders for a second, and then gets back to life.
As we get older the “ponder” part of the process stretches out a bit and the undeniable fact of our own death starts to loom larger. Of course, I am speaking in generalities here. Not everyone lingers on thoughts of their own death—but certainly everyone is aware that, as Hank Williams sang, “no matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive.”
Some people react by buying a Miata or having an affair or drinking too much or getting a tattoo. Others suppress, suppress, suppress. Whatever it takes, you know? The utter annihilation of our very essence is kind of a big deal.
Not only do we know beyond a doubt that we will die, we also know that the people we love will all die, too. My wife will die. My daughter will die. My mom will die. A good friend and mentor did die recently. My father died, just last summer out of the blue. Everybody we know and love will one day cease to be. And we know it—even if we refuse to think much about it. Deep in our hearts we know it.
For me, (as I suspect for many), the rational course of action seems to be to acknowledge the fact of death, and then mostly live as if it were not true. As Isabel goes off to school in the morning I don’t want to constantly be thinking, “That might be the last time I see her,” because, you know, that is just morbid.
But for the past six years I have been having that very feeling about Erica way more than a person should. Erica is my wife of 19 years and in 2009 she started skydiving. I will say right up front that skydiving is a very safe sport. There are many activities that we all engage in that are far more dangerous, statistically—things like taking a shower, driving a car, or discussing politics at Thanksgiving. Worldwide, very few skydivers die each year—roughly sixty a year since 2004. In the United States, more people die from lightning strikes than from skydiving.
I know the numbers and they are somewhat reassuring.
But then once a month, like clockwork, that damned Parachutist magazine comes and I do what everyone who gets it does—I turn immediately to the Incident Report page and read about the most recent fatality. The reports go into a lot of detail and always end with advice for jumpers on how the incident could have been avoided. The Reports are meant to serve as an in-your-face reminder of why you should never make a low, hard turn without time enough to level off before contact with the ground or why you should never, ever lose altitude awareness.
And maybe that is just what these Reports do for actual skydivers. But I am not an actual skydiver. (I do not even play one on TV.) Instead, I am the spouse of a skydiver, and what they do for me is nothing quite so technical. What they do for me is make me worry about Erica. The very worst thing I can imagine in the entire world is the death of my wife or my daughter. And when I read those freakin’ Incident Reports, that is exactly what I imagine.
So, I quickly change the channel in my head away from the Horrible Death by Skydiving Channel (HDS) and on to something less soul crushing, like puppies, or our little patch in the Community Garden. These things make me feel better. They help me manage my terror at that utterly banal and utterly human realization that everybody dies.
During the long stretch of days from late April through mid-October Erica goes skydiving every weekend day that she can. Just last weekend she managed 14 jumps in three days. So at least once every weekend for this six month stretch a thought comes unbidden at some point during the day: This could be the day Erica dies. On particularly bad days, a scene plays itself out in my head where I get a phone call and it is obvious right away that something terrible has happened. I shut these mental forays down right away, but they are no fun.
So, here are some things I have learned from skydiving:
- If Erica and I are at a dinner party or other social gathering and my natural inclination to avoid people and conversation comes on, all I have to do is drop into conversation that Erica skydives and suddenly nobody wants to talk to me any more—they all want to talk with Erica about skydiving. It is great.
- Drop zones are one of the most boring places in the entire world, (if you don’t skydive.) It seems weird that this might be true, but it is undeniably true. You would think that being at a place where people are free-falling at terminal velocity and then piloting relatively small bits of cloth down to a safe landing would be anything BUT boring. But you would be wrong. It’s nothing but inside jokes, camaraderie between jumpers, and talk of four-ways and burbles and snivels. To Erica and most other jumpers it is the best place in the world. To me—boring.
- My wife is not an adrenaline junkie. She is more of an adrenaline casual user. The biggest thing she gets out of skydiving is not the risk-taking rush of the junkie. Instead, it is a place and a moment where everything else in the world disappears. There are no thoughts of bills to pay, work to be done, conversations that need be had. The world goes away and there is nothing but laser beam focus on the activity at hand. And it has to be this way because anything else could get you killed. It is like meditation for clearing the mind, only at 7,000 feet and terminal velocity.
- Most skydivers are either married to other skydivers or else they are not in a serious relationship. This one is fairly obvious—who else but a skydiver would put up with a skydiver?
- Skydivers, as a group, are some of the funniest, friendliest, most welcoming people there are. If Isabel and I ever do overcome the sure knowledge of stifling boredom and make ourselves go and hang out at the drop zone with Erica, we are made to feel like honored guests and treated so well, it almost makes me feel bad about how boring I find the place.
- And lastly, skydiving has taught me that human beings are brave. Every single one of us. Knowing full well that we will die and, even worse, that the people we love will die, still we choose to love people. To me, this is both the stupidest and bravest thing there is.