Sitting in the smallest aircraft I have ever been in, strapped to a guy I just met 15 minutes before - so tightly that I could feel his heartbeat - I looked down and thought to myself, “I really should be scared right now.” Even at a cruising altitude of 11,000 feet, I find myself completely devoid of fear. Upon further reflection, I realized that I had faced down scarier things than stepping out of an airplane falling at approximately 120 miles per hour without a parachute. You see, the stranger on my back had the chute - not me.
When my godmother revealed last fall that she was considering the idea of going skydiving when she turned 100, I promised that in four years, I would join her. Leaving us shy of her 96th birthday, my second son, Noah, gave me a skydiving gift certificate for my birthday. We decided the day was here to be seized - carpe diem!
The only comparable experience I had in my possession was a previous white water rafting adventure. Before our paddles hit the water, we engaged in the obligatory training, including the viewing of videos, instructing participants on the best ways to handle the myriad of possible scenarios. I was sure there would be similar training for leaving a perfectly good airplane mid-flight. Upon arrival we were asked to sign a waiver. Seventeen pages later - with up to twenty initials per page - it seemed all the details would be covered. Instead, I was invited out to the aircraft where a jump instructor sat on the edge of the plane and quickly worked his way down a check list.
“When it is time to jump, I will say banana. We will exit the plane, and you need to put your hips forward, kick your legs back, put your head on my shoulder and hold onto the straps on your shoulders. When I tap you, put your arms out.” The quizzical look on my face must have led him to assume that all of that information may not have been absorbed. “No problem,” he says, “I’ll tell you again when we get up there.” Hmmm… not sure a repeat was going to be enough! Although, I figured he had a vested interest in this working out favorably, leaving me completely unconcerned.
As we reached the ultimate altitude, he informed me of his plan to make the harness a bit snug. An understatement at the least. My ability to feel every breath taken seemed more than snug. When I commented on it, he replied with, “You shower, so it’s OK.”
As the door opens, cold air fills the plane. The noise from the engine, already emitting a high decibel level, more than doubles once this occurs. I expect the sound to diminish upon exiting the plane; instead, it dramatically increases. Now in free fall, I am met with a tidal wave of sensations. The sound continues to increase as the cold air envelopes my body, causing my hands to feel frigid as a result. It would take six hours before the tingling in my fingers abated. There is no scale for the height so a sensation of falling is absent, replaced instead by a feeling of flying. I strangely perceive I am without peripheral vision, while discovering I am unable to speak. I can breathe, but making a sound is impossible, not that it would be heard in the cacophony of descent. Meanwhile, the heartbeat of my tandem flight instructor never changed. After more than 7,000 jumps, it must all be in a day's work.
Those twelve minutes did so much more than simply allow me to check off an item on the bucket list. Eight years ago, after the accident that left my son Samuel burned by sulfuric acid, our family felt as if we were in free fall over uncharted territory. Searching for medical professionals capable of understanding anything about chemical burns seemed like futile effort. Law enforcement officials, possessing a lack of understanding regarding local and national laws along with an inability to act, left us with a sense of injustice and distrust of the system. Navigating a school system ill-equipped to support my student and filled with dangers for which we were not prepared was utterly bewildering. Harsh judgments, criticism and lack of compassion from people we knew, only served to take our breath away. And ultimately, I believed my faith to be the sustenance relied upon during the darkest hours.
In the free fall of adversity, when my senses were on overload, it was God that held on to us. It failed to be the other way around. I possessed the illusion that in my faith, I clung to a Savior who not only provided salvation but comfort and guidance in daily living. In reality, my hands failed to make a fist to even grab ahold. When I could not see the future, much less all that was happening around me, it was not required. I simply needed to trust. In the roar of the turbulence of our lives in those days - when so much commotion of disquietude made it difficult to hear - there was golden opportunity. To lean in and feel the heartbeat of God. The pulse that never changes despite the shock and surprise perceived in the chaos life can throw our way. So when the high winds of hardship begin to gather on the horizon, I try to remember to find the steady throb of God; and, if I cannot hear, draw in close to feel. It is the one thing that will not change.
Just three weeks later the opportunity to practice the lesson presented itself in a two-thirty in the morning solo trip to the Emergency Room. Expecting a dramatically different outcome than being told the operating room was the next stop and that my life depended on it was more of a surprise. The flurry of activity, the crazy comedy of my family rushing to the scene, new acquaintances and meeting up with a client who turned out to be an Operating Room Nurse inviting all her friends to meet me in the elegance of my new found hospital attire - all made for great storytelling. Regardless of the tumult of those minutes, there was that opportunity to lean in. Beneath the noise, the people and the chaos, there was that steady cadence. Did my heartbeat change? My family will tell you how unlikely that would be, but you would have to ask those seriously keeping track. I can tell you the heartbeat of God did not. Yesterday, today and tomorrow. I am learning to count on it.