I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Home again

After I learned a week ago today that Emily was gone, I purchased tickets to travel back to Boulder. Because it was Christmas week, the best fares I could find were to travel on the 21st and return on Christmas Day. Any other days would have ratcheted up the cost too much. Smart Guy got up with me at 4:30am on Tuesday and drove me to catch the airport shuttle taking me 100 miles south to the SeaTac Airport. My flight to Denver was uneventful, and I stayed with Sarah and Josh, two skydiving friends who were the bests hosts anybody could have asked for. They have a small menagerie of animals: three cats, a dog, three parrots, and numerous fish tanks. I wrote about their home on my other blog here.

On the day of the memorial service, we were all three of us in a pretty emotional state as we traveled to Mile-Hi Skydiving, where Emily died, and where almost six hundred people had gathered to honor her. If it had not been Christmas week, there would have been more, but although three hundred chairs were set up in the enormous airplane hangar, there were literally hundreds standing in the back, on the sides, trying to find a place to hear her huge extended family tell funny and poignant stories about their beloved cousin, sister, niece. The skydivers were given a chance at a later time to read or tell their own tributes to Emily.

One of our skydiving colleagues does lighting and sound for professional musicians, and he did an incredible job of setting up a fantastic enormous flat screen and creating rotating pictures of Emily's life. He also compiled and edited a beautiful video tribute to her. Much more happened that I documented on my other blog, but here I want to talk about how the experience impacted me, the whole five days out of my life that felt like being in another world.

So many of my old skydiving friends and students were there, all grown up in the sport, and as we hugged and cried together, I kept hearing how much I have been missed. It was gratifying to hear, but the truth of it is that I have changed: Boulder and that Drop Zone are no longer my home. As wonderful as it was to see everyone again, the circumstances made it almost unendurable. I felt every one of my 68 years. Emily's mother Terry is five years younger than me! I left that part of my life behind when I moved here and I never looked back. Now I am a retired senior who makes a few skydives a year, around 50, instead of 250-400 I made each year for fifteen years. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy it just as much, but I am no longer an instructor and like it that way. Emily many times told me she was going to take my place, take care of young skydivers and especially young women, like I did. She surpassed anything I had accomplished in everything except the length of time she taught.

The day after the memorial, Christmas Eve Day, Sarah drove me to my old boss' home in Boulder, where I stayed with them, Mickey and Karen, and got to see their beautiful grandchildren, Samal and Danesh, who have changed incredibly in the three years since I saw them last. Mica, their mother, married a man from Kazakhstan, Sayat, and the children are two of the smartest, most accomplished six- and four-year-olds on the planet. Really. Walking into their home where I had been many times felt very comfortable, and they went out of their way to accommodate me.

On Christmas Day, Mickey drove me to the airport in Denver and I had an uneventful flight home. Smart Guy was waiting for me when I got off the plane, and he drove me those 100 miles north to our home in Bellingham. I was too tired to do much other than eat dinner, sit in a chair and doze, and went to bed at 7:00pm. I slept like a log for the first time since Emily died.

And now I am home, with a week of traumatic and joyous memories behind me, and I can pick up my own life again and thank God for all my blessings, which are numerous. I had no idea how foreign Boulder would feel to me, after only three years away. I had lived there for almost forty years, after all! The brilliant sunshine was lovely, but I missed my home environment every day. My skin felt shriveled after only five days in the extremely low humidity, and although I loved the sunshine, I found myself moving away from so much direct sunlight. Everyone has their comfort zone, and I understand why it's hard for some people to have all the grey days and rain of this part of Washington, but for me at this time of my life it feels just right.

As we dropped down through the clouds and circled Seattle, I could see the Space Needle and downtown, snow-capped mountains in the distance, and I knew I had come home, to the place where I belong.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Goodbye Emily

This is not at all what I had in mind to write about today, but yesterday evening I got a call from a friend in Boulder, who wanted me to know that Emily, pictured above with me in 2004 on her graduation jump from student status, was in critical condition. Emily grew up in the years since this was taken, becoming proficient in every single aspect of the sport of skydiving. Thousands of jumps later, an instructor herself, she had far surpassed anything I had accomplished in skydiving.

It was in 2003 when she got a job in the office at Mile Hi Skydiving, a non-jumper herself, and quickly became fascinated with the sport and the people she met. She went through the First Jump Course with several other people and made her first jump with me and another instructor. She was very nervous and readily admitted that she was "high maintenance" and appreciated the extra attention that we gave her. In the plane on that first jump, she balked at climbing into the door, so we sat her down and talked with her as the pilot brought the plane around again. We figured if we gave her another chance and she didn't go, we wouldn't try again. She showed every indication of doing the same thing, but at the very last second, she got into position and we all three floated out the door. I can still see her face in my mind during that skydive.

I went to many parties and gatherings at Emily's home in Denver, which she shared with her husband Lee (a New Zealander usually called Kiwi) and her numerous rescue dogs. Other than the time she spent studying for the bar exam, every moment of every day became devoted to her passion for the sport. She and Kiwi planned and executed a wonderful going-away party for us when we left Colorado.

Emily became a beacon to many timid souls who wanted to skydive but had fears that she easily understood. She told me she wanted to be a caring instructor like me, which flattered me and made me realize how important it is to treat each person with compassion, rather than seeing them simply as generic students. When she received her instructor rating, she called me and cried tears of happiness as she told me of her determination to pass the course.

She already had received a "pro" rating for canopy control and was learning to make more and more aggressive maneuvers under her canopy. I had noticed on her Facebook page that she had traded her docile canopy for a more high-performance one. I learned yesterday that she was making a "swoop" into the landing area when she miscalculated her distance from the ground and hit very very hard. Apparently she had severe head and neck trauma, along with both femurs broken. She was taken to the hospital and flown to a trauma center in Denver.

I read in an email when I woke this morning that her family, Kiwi and her parents, have learned that she is brain dead. They are keeping her body alive until suitable donors for her 38-year-old organs can be found. She is gone and I find myself almost unable to comprehend the loss. She leaves a huge hole that can only be filled by the passage of time.
I snagged this picture of Kiwi and Emily, taken a few days ago at a holiday party, that she had posted along with a hundred others on her Facebook page. I had studied every picture, looking at my old friends and remembering when I was there with them too. This one shows what a beautiful spirit she had. I cannot imagine how Kiwi and her parents are holding up. I know from experience that it's just one breath at a time, one step at a time through the haze of pain and longing.

When I know the details, I will be heading back to Boulder for the first time since I left, to attend the funeral or memorial service or whatever is arranged to honor Emily. It will be bittersweet to be there under such circumstances, but I must go, since she is family in my heart.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The ghosts of Christmas Past

My first Christmas with Mama and Daddy
This picture was taken in 1943, and it's not really my very first Christmas but the first one where I wasn't just a few weeks old. One thing I love about this picture are my parents in the upper left. Mama is wearing a lacy apron and must be opening something from Daddy, who is leaning forward in anticipation. I sit in the middle of the picture, oblivious to everything but the shiny object in my hands.

I don't know who took the picture, but I suspect it was my aunt or grandmother, since I think we are in their home. It was such a long time ago, but it began my childhood appreciation of Christmastime. And here we are again, as the planet moves around the sun and completes the journey to the winter solstice once more. Four years since I retired and we moved to the Pacific Northwest; how time flies.

Last year at this time I got the news about my dear friend Emily, that she was severely injured from a parachuting accident gone bad. Then I learned that she died. A year ago today I was on the phone getting reservations to fly back to Colorado for the first time since I left. I spent less than a week there and came back home on Christmas Day. It was a terribly hard time, but I saw so many of my friends again and realized with amazement how much I had changed in just a few short years. I had transferred my affections for my previous home town, Boulder, to my new home seamlessly. There is nothing more for me in Colorado, except for the friends of my heart who will always be part of me.

If I were in Texas visiting my siblings and their incredibly huge families, I'd be enveloped in the flurry of visits, parties, Christmas trees, presents, shopping. But since I'm here in Bellingham with my partner who feels as I do, a quiet enjoyment of the season is enough. We don't have to be part of the craziness unless we want to, and we are happy to have a nice Christmas dinner together and buy ourselves anything we might desire. I ordered a new fluffy bathrobe for myself and am wearing it now, my Christmas present to myself. I will give gifts of food to my neighbors, and we have already attended the one party we wouldn't miss. It's enough.

But oh, how I remember the Christmas wishing of my childhood! I would sit and ponder what I wanted to receive from Santa, what desires might be fulfilled. I know I wanted a bride doll one year, and when I would look at her in the window of the store, I was filled with longing. Norma Jean and I actually crept into our parents' closet one year and found our Christmas presents. We stealthily opened them to see what we were getting before wrapping them back up. I think I was the instigator, being the older sister. Since I did that, I well remember the pretty dress I would receive. It's one of the few I recall.

I don't remember at all what I might have bought for other people. When I was young, it was all about the getting, not the giving of Christmas. Now that I am older, that has turned around completely. The enjoyment I receive these days is all from giving things to others, little things that show appreciation and love. Yesterday I finally sent off a pair of my earrings that Norma Jean admired one day on iChat. They just weren't "me" so I was happy to pass them on to her. She loves earrings.

My closet is filled with clothes that I don't wear any more, and I'd like to get those passed along to the right people. I had hoped to do it before Christmas, but it's only a week away now, and I'm not sure I'll get it done before then. I recently gave away some silk scarves I don't wear any more, and that was really fun, making me happy and bringing cheer to other people too.

At the party the other day, one of my friends told me she's got a tree in a pot that she brings in every year to decorate, but a chickadee has built a bird's nest in it that she doesn't want to disturb, so that it can be used again in the springtime. She always has live trees, she told me, because one of the things that bothers her about Christmas is the murder of so many trees. When I was a kid, though, one of my favorite things to do at Christmas time was to lie on my back with my head under the tree, looking up at the sparkling lights, the ornaments glinting, and let the incredible smell of the tree fill me with delight. That smell, along with the smell of gingerbread, takes me back to Christmases past.

Now that I am older, it seems that acquiring things has become more of a burden than a pleasure. Since I don't lack for much, and I seem to have plenty of food and warm clothes to wear, there's not much to wish for any more. My last big purchase was a raincoat that will hopefully keep me dry when hiking in the hills and mountains around town. Next Sunday will be Christmas Day, and until then, I'll reminisce about Christmases gone by while enjoying the present moment.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


At this moment, early in the morning before the sun, I am listening to the sound of the rain falling. It's been doing that all night, since we are in the middle of a Pineapple Express. The picture shows what is called an "atmospheric river" bringing warm rain from Hawaii, and as you can see in the picture, it's aimed right for the Pacific Northwest. Yesterday SeaTac had the all-time record rainfall for the date, and they expect the same to happen today. North of Seattle, it's supposed to be wet and warm, but most of the serious flooding problems will be south of us.

This kind of rain hits our part of the world every few years, and it inevitably causes flooding, which I suspect has already started. But that is not what I wanted to post about today.

Yesterday I went by myself to see the movie 127 Hours. If you haven't heard, it's an autobiographical movie about the guy who cut off his own arm after becoming trapped in a Utah desert. For five days. Last night as I began to slip into sleep, I thought about one part of the movie that keeps coming back to me: his hallucinations about the rock that pinned his arm, that the rock and he were intertwined from the beginning of time to meet at that moment.

The concept of destiny intrigues me, as I consider some of the accidents I've had in my life. In 1981 I was bicycling down Boulder Canyon on the first day of summer. It's a 17-mile-long descent and I was really enjoying myself as I sped down the canyon. I was sharing the road with cars, of course, so I moved as far to the right as I could as they made their way around me. Bicycles are common on this road and most of us know how to share.

There is a tunnel through the rock towards the end of the descent, and I would usually ride right through it, but the traffic seemed a little heavy and I worried about not being visible, so I slowed to a stop and waited for a break in the traffic. I got back up onto my bike and started through the tunnel, not moving very fast at the beginning. I was standing on my pedals trying to pick up speed when I was struck from behind by a truck.
Here is a picture of the tunnel. You can see it's not very long, but everything converged just right for me to be invisible to the driver, eyes not adjusted to the dark yet (when my accident happened, there were no lights at the top of the tunnel). I was thrown free of my bike up into the air and landed a few feet away. The driver saw me just before impact but was unable to stop before hitting me. He did, however, stop immediately when he realized what had happened.

I lay there unable to move and knew I was hurt, with no idea how bad it might be. I remember that my first instinct was to wiggle my toes, and I felt them all moving, so I knew that I was not paralyzed. The driver stopped traffic in both directions and somehow (they had cell phones back then, I guess) within fifteen minutes an ambulance arrived. The details are hazy now, but I remember a woman giving me a shot of morphine in the back of my hand, which seemed to calm things down quite a bit. When I was moved to the backboard, even with the shot I was in a lot of pain.

Next thing I knew, I was in a hospital bed, flat on my back, and x-rays showed a fracture of the last thoracic vertebrae. It was amazing to see shards of bone pushed into the tissue. I was very lucky, there was no damage to the spinal column and they left the bone fragments to be absorbed by the body. I remember the incredible pain a few days later when they tried to get me to sit on the side of the bed. I fainted. But they got me fitted for a back brace and within a few weeks I was back at work while wearing the brace. It kept me upright and out of pain; I was only in discomfort when I tried to wean myself away from it.

I had no permanent damage, other than a misshapen vertebrae. That particular place in your back, T-12, is not needed for carrying weight on your back and is not involved in the pelvic region, which would have meant quite a different story for walking. Since there was no permanent injury, I received a small settlement and many visits from the concerned driver of the truck. My bike was pulled completely under the truck and demolished. When I saw it, I was horrified to think how it would have crushed me! I would not be writing this, obviously.

So here I sit, listening still to the rain, and thinking about destiny. I was fortunate, but so many different elements had to align for this accident to happen. And more than that, for it to end up being a positive, rather than a negative, experience. I was able to buy camping equipment and take a six-week-long trip to Peru that fall, hiking in the Andes, having wonderful experiences that I could not have afforded before the accident.

When I was watching the movie yesterday, I remember actually feeling a huge sense of relief when Aron Ralston had finally freed himself from the rock, minus his arm. He wasn't home free yet; he had to rappel down a cliff face to reach possible rescue. With one arm! I was mesmerized by the fortitude of this young man and will head down to the bookstore today to get his book. I'm not quite ready to stop thinking and experiencing what he went through. His destiny changed completely with that experience. Since I was in Boulder when it happened in 2003, I remember well reading stories about him becoming an inspirational speaker and writing a book the next year. He had hallucinations about a son during his experience, or a premonition that he would have one, and this year his son Leo was born. He met his wife two years after the accident.

The convergence of circumstance changes lives every single day. Sometimes it is tragic and horrible, and sometimes it is sublime. And sometimes it's both.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The art of compromise

Last night I woke to the sound of a car alarm. I peeked at the clock and saw it was after 1:00am and I had been fast asleep. Once whoever's alarm had turned off, I lay awake for awhile, thinking about this post, wondering what to write about. I thought about my dear life partner lying asleep next to me and wondered if he woke from the alarm. No stirring, so I went back to my own thoughts.

We sleep with the bedroom window open a little to allow fresh air to circulate in the bedroom. We always do that, we even did it in Colorado when it was below zero degrees in the winter. The bedroom door is closed so that only one room cools way down. I have a nice down comforter that keeps me warm in all but the most extreme weather, and Smart Guy has his own setup. We sleep in the same bed but with different coverings. It works great for us, and it doesn't keep us from snuggling together if we feel like it. Usually we don't, however. I have never liked to be wrapped together with someone while sleeping; it makes me quite uncomfortable.

When we first got together twenty years ago, we slept in a double bed with covers like everyone else. I'd never experienced another sleeper who tugged as hard on the covers as I did, and one or the other of us was constantly being "outed" to the cold air. We came up with our solution because of the times we spent in a tent together, when we both noticed that we liked having our own sleeping bag because we could be in charge of the covers. It was many years ago that we decided to sleep together in the same bed but with our own coverings. The wonderfulness of having my own comforter that is not going to be disturbed by his nighttime tossing and turning has made our sleeping together a delight, rather than a battle.

When it is very cold, we have another cover that goes over both of our little burrows, but usually it's just two separate sets of coverings next to each other. It looks a little weird to the uninitiated eye, but it's certainly made us both very happy, and now it seems like it's always been that way.

Sometimes I think back to previous bed partners and remember some of the habits that would drive me crazy today. A lover way back in the eighties, Jamie, loved to snuggle, and I would tolerate it until he went to sleep and then creep away so I could also go to sleep. He was a small person and never hogged the covers, but I must say I would wake sometimes in the morning and find that I had taken them all away from him! We never thought of the obvious solution that Smart Guy and I came up with, because we never saw it done before.

Compromise and accommodation are the hallmarks of a good relationship. However, I had to learn to find out what I really wanted before I could compromise, because I thought if I just allowed the other person to have their way, I could live with it. This is a bad idea, because I always harbored thoughts that somehow he should have known something I never shared truthfully! One thing I have learned in this relationship is how powerful it is to talk with and share with another person. I was cursed with the Ozzy and Harriet idea of marriage: the wife is the helpmeet to the important husband and takes care of all his needs without thought of her own. Yeah, right!

Smart Guy wouldn't allow me to get away with it. The early part of our relationship was very stormy because we were so different, and we were both almost fifty with ingrained habits and expectations. But we managed to find common ground through talking, compromise and creative arrangements, with neither of us "giving in" to the other. Sometimes I look at him while he's busy steaming and preparing our vegetables in the kitchen and I'm amazed that we worked it all out. He's the main cook and prepares our food in bursts, rather than daily. The prepared veggies go into the fridge, mine in containers cooked a little more than his, and when it's dinnertime we both prepare ourselves a plate just the way we like it and put it into the microwave. Sometimes when I'm tired from a hike, he will fix a plate for me at my request, and he always makes it much more elegant and lovely than I make for myself. He mixes colors and textures just right.

We do get in the way of each other if we are both in the kitchen, but I'm extremely happy to cede that domain to him, as long as I get fed in the manner to which I've become accustomed. On my other blog I wrote a post showing a picture of my usual dinner. (I called it "Gratitude" for obvious reasons.) I also wrote another post last April showing what the inside of my fridge looks like, in response to another blogger's queries. I named that one "Our Food Choices" and talked a little about how our menu changed when we moved from Colorado to Washington.

The main reason for this post is to remark to myself at how much I've changed in response to my partnership. Neither of us is the same person we were before we met (or, as he said more than once, before we collided). I don't think I could ever have imagined the life we share. If we had done it the way I thought it should be done, we would have separated long ago. But today, I cannot imagine my life without him.