The anniversary of our plane crash comes every year, and each year the weeks leading up to November 2nd are a little heavy and slightly bipolar. It’s a little more heavy this year with the closing of our home dropzone, the DZ that change the way I live and experience life. The DZ that’s responsible for so many friendships, heartaches, laughs, tears and ultimately the reason I met my husband at all.
I started skydiving because of a bad breakup. After being in the sport for five years, and hundreds and hundreds of jumps around the country later, I have found my experience on my first skydive was not unique. Most people come to the adrenaline and thrill of hucking themselves out of a plane by way of needing to experience something that will challenge their mind but also free it at the same time. I remember thinking about how irresponsible I was on my first skydive. A single mom and I’m going to challenge death. But then I remembered that the guy I was going to be strapped to had thousands of jumps over the years, and he was still smiling… he was still alive, and jumping, and if he had the will to live, he was going to make sure I would, too. It was with that thought that trusted my life to a complete stranger.
I’ve told my story a hundred times. Moreso, my story has been told for me more than a couple of million times thanks to YouTube, Dateline, the Today Show, the Weather Channel and probably hundreds of other news outlets that have played and replayed our skydive. My 490th jump. I remember plotting on the way up on how I was going to hit 500 the next day. Dan saying something along the lines of “if anyone can, it’s you.”
We were also talking about the crash in Belgium two weeks prior. Why 11 people with parachutes on them couldn’t get out of the plane that they knew was crashing to the ground. I remember thinking “there is nothing in the world that would hold me back from getting out of the door to see my baby again…” We guessed it had something to do with the spin pinning everyone. Even if they got to the door, they wouldn’t have been able to get it open. That was our guess anyway. We would later receive an email from the DZO saying their eleven will live on through our eleven… It resonates with me every single day.
I have our videos memorized. I can narrate them to a point with second by second detail… I know exactly – word for word – the thoughts that were going through my head at every single part of that jump. I remember the jumps before it, the unbelievable weather northern Minnesota and Wisconsin was having for an early November day. I remember making fun of Matt in the plane on our jumps, giving him shit and him dishing it right back. I remember some amazing track dives, and I remember filming a tandem video and having to come right back down as fast as possible to pack and make it on the sunset formation load. Those were my favorite. I loved being shoved into the back of the chase plane and having to work my ass off to get to the formation, being one of the last ones out. I loved flying hard and fast. I loved challenging my body and the split-second problem solving it took to make things work or change the plan mid-air.
The planes felt like magnets – it was so smooth, it was eerie… We weren’t supposed to be that close, and then realizing that it was wrong and then really realizing that this was it. Watching the plane hit Sarah and then explode in our faces. Crouching down behind Blake at first and then remembering the skydivers in Belgium. As Blake screamed for us to go, I had to get out before I got pinned. And with every ounce of mama-bear strength I had, I flung myself out of the door. Fight or flight? More like fight to fly.
I remember being confused when I got out of the plane, thinking I had to get as far away as possible… This strange movie-like scene playing out in my head while I was in freefall of me opening my parachute and a prop chopping my legs off or something. As I tracked away, I could see Johnny on my left and it felt like we were over the lake. I remember thinking I had to get far enough away that it was safe to open, but not too far that I wouldn’t make it back to the DZ. I remember questioning whether to pull high and allow myself more altitude to get back, or pull lower to get to the ground faster. I remember thinking that I might have broken my leg on exit, and I could taste blood in my mouth… I wondered if I still had my front teeth. I wouldn’t try to stand up my landing, I slid in just in case something was wrong and I just sobbed. What the fuck just happened? I also remember taking off my helmet and no matter how many times I had used my GoPro before that, I was so in shock I couldn’t remember how to shut it off. I just stared at it, confused (and looking like the poster child of something out of The Walking Dead). I am aware that three years later, I still can get choked up over it, my heart still races when I see the first few seconds of our video, and I’m still challenged everyday by how my mind was changed forever by those few seconds.
I think I’ve been fairly open with my struggles with mental health over the last few years… If nothing else, to get more awareness or to show people that it’s okay to have these struggles. That authenticity is important. This plane crash has been a blessing and a curse. Not everyone experiences something that challenges their life in a way that forces them to see the finality of it, and that can be a beautiful and an ugly thing at the same time. When you’re challenged to a point that within a few split-seconds you’re not sure if you are going to live, if you just watched your friends die (you’re pretty certain you did), you aren’t sure if your future husband got out behind you, and you have to make sure that the next few seconds are quickly and carefully calculated to make sure that nothing else goes wrong… That stays with you. That forces you to experience life differently. That puts a sense of urgency in almost everything you do from that point on. Ha, a literal “fire under your butt” in every sense of the phrase.
It’s hard to explain how the last three years has been a transformation. Each year is different. Each year is growth. Each year is strength and change in different ways. Each year I let go of some blame, and each year I find more ways to experience life and try to inspire other s to do the same. I still have post-trauma stress symptoms, I still experience anxiety, depression, and less often but still sometimes, panic. I still have a little devil on one shoulder telling me everything that could or will go wrong with every single little situation, but I also have that angel on the other side reminding me that life is for living, not just existing. And then she bitch-slaps that devil and tells her to shut up.
I didn’t really know I was going to write a blog about this… Last night I was contemplating deleting all social media, including this blog, and just simplifying everything for a while. I felt compelled this morning to write, so I started writing. No direction, just words.
At my height, I was making 50 skydives a month. In the last year and a half I think I’ve made less than 10 total. I can pick out a few over the years that mean a lot to me out of the 627 that I’ve completed. Skimming the mountains on the way up to altitude on my 30th birthday in Ogden, Utah – my first jump back from the crash. Taking friends and family on tandems over the years… Some who insisted they would never jump out of a perfectly good plane (good thing our planes are far from perfect!). Meeting and flying with Micah – who if you have ever met him has the most contagious passion for life and love of almost anyone I have met. The first time Chad kissed me in freefall. Pulling my parachute at 12,000 feet and skimming clouds the entire way down. Driving almost 6 hours round trip to make 2 skydives and soaking in every ounce of it 2 weeks ago at Skydive OC, which could be one of the most beautiful DZs in the world. A 3 Cessna, 13 way track dive at Pumpkin Toss when they threw me in the chase plane and laughed that I didn’t have a jumpsuit on, but I burned them all out of the plane and beat them to the jump to watch Chad surf DQ’s chest. My wedding jump, especially Mark Grace in a 3 piece corduroy suit.
I don’t know what skydiving is to me at present. I know we don’t get to jump a lot, and that was a hard pill to swallow when we moved away from home. Taking something that is so passionate and forcing it on a shelf to collect dust – at least for now – wasn’t what I expected, and didn’t fit my plans. I’ve found other things to fill that void for now… Other passions to explore for the time being. Perhaps there’s a place for us in the sky again in the future… perhaps not.