Searching real hard for the right metaphor.
I have never been too much of a physical risk taker, but today I did a tandem sky dive here on the Outer Banks. The challenge was a Fathers Day gift from my family, so I have had a couple of months to contemplate the choices.
Basically what happened is that after signing a sheaf of legal forms, I was harnessed to my instructor Sven who then demonstrated the basic skills I would need to succeed – mainly being able to lift my legs out of the way on landing. Not so easy with my weakened leg muscles. I should mention that Sven was wearing a parachute – or at least I think he was because I could not see what is behind me and was strapped so tightly I could not turn my head.
Then Sven and I and another similarly hooked couple climbed into a small airplane with no seats (except for the young pilot) – and no real door. Sven demonstrated how I was to swing my legs out the opening and rest them on a small platform — seemed easy while on the ground. That was to be the exit strategy.
So we all get settled on the floor of the little airplane, bounce down the taxiway and runway, and soon are airborne. We noisily climb and circle over the beautiful panorama of the ocean, beach, sound and dunes. Great views of the whole area, including clear pictures of rip tides at the beach.
After about 20 minutes we are at 9000 feet, Sven opens the makeshift door, and cool air at 120 miles an hour comes rushing in. He says it’s time, asks me if I am still ready. I nod yes and show “thumbs up”. He swings one leg out the door and tells me to move my left foot out to the small platform. Its much harder at altitude and speed – felt my foot(the weak one) would be blown off its small resting spot. Then he told me to swing my other foot to the platform and to shift my weight to be facing out the door. I clumsily do it, braving the wind and growing doubts of the wisdom of this whole adventure. Then Sven asks am I ready? I have little time to really decide but reflexively give him “thumbs up”. And so he literally lifts me up with his legs (I am essentially sitting on him now) and pushes us off the platform and into the vastness of the cold sky.
It’s an incredible rush. I remember the position I was taught on the ground, arched my back, spread my arms, and was flying. Free fall is not like any other experience I have ever had. Its fast, turbulent, cold, breath-challenging, and absolutely soul-freeing. We spin around, do a flip, and really feel the freedom of just soaring without physical restraint. It was exhilarating. Powerful. Mind-bending.
After what I now judge was too short a time, there was a sharp tug as the chute deployed and Sven and I began the more gentle journey earthward under the big orange canopy. He steered us around in a big circle, heading toward the landing zone. We dipped and soared and laughed and just took in the quiet and gentleness of this chute-assisted descent. Sven asked me to practice the legs up position for landing. I felt strong and ready.
As we made our final circle to the landing I really thought we were coming in too fast (see – already an expert). Sven told me “legs out”. I concentrated and held them steady, and we came in for a terrific welcome back to Mother Earth – both Sven and I safe and sound. Family cheering! Me beaming from ear to ear. Sven unhooked me from the harness and helped me stand. My legs felt strong as I walked to where the family was waiting. Roz ran out to hug me. (One thing that feels better than free fall!!).
I had done it!
So what’s the appropriate metaphor and lesson from this experience?
After thinking (and dreaming) about it this afternoon I think its about trust. I trusted my family to support whatever decision I made about flying. I trusted the parachute to perform. I trusted Sven to make the right decisions. I trusted my instinct to trust. I cast doubt aside.
I think I knew from the day I was given the opportunity to have this adventure that I would do it. There were doubts gnawing away at me, especially about whether my weakness would make the jump too dangerous. But with the reassurance of a very capable Sven, I felt confident we would have fun and be safe.
Now I know that my ALS future does not include a smooth landing. But I trust the ride will be exhilarating. With my loving family and friends cheering me on, and with dedicated and compassionate professionals guiding my care, I am confident that the months ahead will be an adventure I am well-prepared to navigate.