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Last Word: Taking Wing

Wrap legs under the plane. Lean back. Roll out. Bend knees. Spread arms. I repeat these instructions over and over again in my head. It’s the sequence given to me by the ex-Navy SEAL strapped to my back as I ready myself to take my first tandem skydiving jump. I feel like I’m in a movie that begins with an intense action scene and then flashes to the past to explain the backstory.

This is my backstory. At the beginning of his senior year of high school, my oldest child, Leo, asks my husband and me to skydive with him to celebrate his graduation before he leaves for college. We agree. It’s a long time away and it seems like an abstraction. There are several hurdles to get over as well. For Leo and my husband, Matthew, it’s the 230 lb. weight limit, and for me it’s my pathological fear of heights. Weight can be lost but there is no diet for fear. In January Leo is half way to his goal, Matthew is hovering at the 230 lb. mark and my fear is in full bloom. Before I know it, August is here. Leo is at 220 lb., Matthew is still hovering, and I’m opting out. We have three younger children. I rationalize that only one parent should jump in case “something” happens.

So how did I end up in my very own action scene? Jump day comes and our family and Leo’s two friends caravan to the Skydive Temple. I’m along to applaud their bravery and take pictures. There is a glitch. When it comes time to weigh in, Matthew is hovering on the wrong side of 230 and is grounded. All spring and summer I’ve said that I will be the jumping parent if Matthew doesn’t make the cut. When I get the news, I hesitate, but then do the unimaginable and agree. I suit up as Matthew changes into lighter clothes and begs for mercy for the few pounds he is over. The manager grants his request, but it’s too late for me to turn back now. I’m going through with this. It’s decided that Leo will jump twice, first with Matthew and then with me. Different planes, one surviving parent.

Back again to the scene on the plane. I’m sitting on the edge of the open door, legs wrapped as told. Leo jumps first. I’m too stunned by what I’m about to do to assimilate the fact that I just watched my son tumble out of an airplane. A strange determination comes over me. It’s as if there is no another choice but to roll out. Before I can think again, I’m free falling from 12,000 feet at 125 miles per hour. The astonishing part is that I’m not scared. There is none of the crippling fear that comes to me at the edge of a high balcony or a cliff. Apparently the
brain cannot calibrate for distance when skydiving. In 60 seconds the chute goes up and the deafening rush of the free fall is replaced by the purest quiet I’ve ever experienced. At that point, the ex-Navy SEAL points out where Leo is coming down. It’s the first time I think about him since we were on the plane. He looks so far away. He lands and greets me as I touch down. He beams as he hugs me. He never thought I could do it.

Forward to my movie’s epilogue. The weekend after our jump, Leo and I fly out of state to drop him off for his freshman year of college. There are no parachutes or ex-Navy SEALs this time but it’s as big of a jump for both of us. For him it’s easy. He is ready to free fall into his future and the thrill of young adulthood. Leo does not need the weight of my hugs, tears, and gargantuan parental love to ground him. He needs me to watch him float through this transition from afar.

For me, rolling out of an airplane is easier than driving out of the university campus without him. This is not a tandem event. I have earned this solo emotional jump with nine months of pregnancy and 18 years of parenting. We spend my last night on campus walking, laughing, and talking. He gives me my instructions, lets me know it’s time to jump. He is going first and I will follow. Unfortunately the heart can calibrate for the distance. I trust that we will both land softly on the same earth at different places. We will be very proud of each other. I never thought I could do it.

—by Elizabeth Burford Breston '87
—Illustration by Junyi Wu