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, June 28, 2015

The day my world changed

Lauren and her new purchase
Yesterday I went to the Drop Zone to meet Lauren and see if she might be interested in buying my skydiving gear. When she walked up to me and I took a look at her, I was pretty sure it would fit her perfectly. She's a new jumper and needed to buy some good gear, and when she put this on, my heart skipped a beat because I realized it had just found a new home. Lauren has never worn a rig that fits her perfectly—until now. It looks like it was made for her. Of course, she is the same height as me and that helps a lot, but still. Good thing she likes purple.

Although we agreed on a price, the next step is for the rigger to repack the reserve and inspect the main parachute and give her the thumbs up. I left it with her, because now it's hers, although no money has yet changed hands. I also gave her my old jumpsuits because they match so perfectly and fit her also and now I have no use for them. Although there is nothing keeping me from borrowing gear and making more skydives, I really feel like I'm done. It's been percolating for awhile, but now I won't even be tempted to go out there for old time's sake. It's time.

I looked in my logbook to see what the my final tally of jumps is: 4,239 skydives over 25 years of jumping. Lauren probably wasn't even born when I made that fateful tandem jump on September 3, 1990. (I didn't ask her how old she is, but she looks impossibly young to me.) I came home from the Drop Zone with all sorts of feelings roiling around inside. When I think of my career of skydiving behind me, I am actually pretty amazed at it all. I've jumped from helicopters and hot-air balloons, gone to 23,000 feet twice for some absurdly long skydives, and taught more than a thousand students how to skydive. I served on the US Parachute Association Board of Directors for four years and met my partner for life through the skydiving world. It truly altered the trajectory of my life when I made that first tandem so long ago.

Last night each time I woke from sleep, I remembered that it's over. It feels a little bit like a missing tooth right now, but I know that as time passes that gap will be filled with life's other activities. It's not like missing a limb, which it would have been a decade ago. There was a time when I couldn't imagine my life without skydiving in it, but then again, there was a time when I couldn't imagine being in my seventies. My life is good and full and satisfying, but it's also good to realize my limitations.

It's not only that my body is more fragile than it was a decade ago, my mental processes are also nowhere near as sharp as they were. I find myself making silly mistakes and forgetting things, which is not dangerous most of the time, but when you're falling towards the ground at 120 miles an hour, there's no time for confusion. I worried about my ability to deal with a malfunction and reacting properly within the few seconds of decision time.

I remember the time when I opened my parachute and realized that it was spinning instead of gently floating above my head. Reaching for my brakes, I realized that I was already going too fast and needed to act quickly. When I reached for my emergency handles, they were not where they were supposed to be, since my harness had distorted from the forces I was experiencing. I frantically searched for the two handles, found them and pulled them in the correct order, releasing the bad parachute and deploying my reserve. I was spinning so hard that one of the disconnected risers smacked me under my chin and gave me a huge bruise. I never felt it, I was so filled with adrenaline. My reserve parachute was a beautiful sight to behold, and I landed it easily. By the time I had returned to the packing area, my main parachute and freebag had been retrieved, and I was able to get my stuff put back together before the end of the day. Although I'm not sure, I think I made another jump before the sun went down.

Just writing about that experience gives me a jolt of adrenaline, even after all these years, which must have been at least a decade ago. I've got all my logbooks and could look it up, searching through all those memories, and I might do that one of these days, but not today. Now it's time to start looking ahead, looking at what might be the next step in my journey. I can rest assured that I've made a good decision; I know I have just by the way I feel: a little pensive but not sad.

Smart Guy went with me to the Drop Zone yesterday, so he drove back home after the deed was done. In the passenger seat, I logged onto Facebook on my iPhone and posted a picture of Lauren in her new gear and wrote that it was a bittersweet farewell. During the long drive back, I kept checking my phone for the comments people made: "We'll always remember those Eloy Christmas boogie years and the many jumps with you" (from the UK). "It served you well. Seems like yesterday we met at Quincy" (East Coast). "You can always buy more gear" (West Coast). And many others, from skydivers and non-skydivers around the world. All that happened while I was sitting in my car traveling from one place to another, which is pretty darned amazing when you think about it. I think of the incredible ability we have to stay connected with dear friends instantaneously and marvel at the world we live in.

And speaking of the world we live in, wasn't it an astounding week in the US? Just like that, gay marriage has become legal in the entire country. I think of my departed friend Robert, who died of AIDS, who would have never believed it but would have been overjoyed. Times are changing, and I'm sorry for those who are unhappy over this ruling, because the world has moved on. I'm glad I got to see this and can hardly believe it myself.

On that note, I realize that it's that time again: my post is done, my tea gone, and my partner gently snoring next to me. The relentless sunshine and heat continues in my part of the world, but we'll get through it, with a little help from our friends. And air conditioning. Be well, my dear dear friends and we'll meet here again next Sunday morning.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Summer solstice and Father's Day

European Association for Astronomy Education
Today we in the Northern Hemisphere will celebrate the summer solstice, the longest day and shortest night of the year. That picture above is of the sun coming up at Stonehenge, built between 3100-1100 BC for reasons that can only be speculated. But the sun coming up between those two stones right at sunrise on the solstice draws crowds of people from all over the world. Today they'll be watching the sunrise at Stonehenge at 9:38am my time (PDT).

And I will be home, or outside enjoying another day of sunshine here, with only a few self-imposed tasks to accomplish. The first is to write this post, so here I am, with little to no idea of what I want to write today. Since it's also Father's Day, my dad has been on my mind, so I'll write a little about who he was to me.

Daddy was born April 25, 1917 in southern California. He married my mom during World War II, on November 16, 1941. I was born, the first of seven children, a year later. (One sister, Tina Maria, only lived for a few days.) I grew up with six siblings as the oldest of the bunch, with twenty years between me and my youngest sister. Daddy and Mama essentially raised two sets of kids, as my sisters Norma Jean and PJ followed me within seven years, and then when I was sixteen my parents eventually had four more, starting with my brother. My two youngest sisters were born after I had left home and become a mother myself.

I grew up while Daddy was in active duty in the Air Force, so we moved often during my early life. We did spend five years in one place in Fairfield, California, and I was also born in California, so for a long time I considered it to be home. But getting used to moving everything and going from one school to another was enough to make both Norma Jean and I learn different methods of coping. For me, I didn't mind the disruption because I am outgoing and gregarious, while she is introverted and makes friends slowly. When we talk about those years, I know that she found them to be painful, while I enjoyed the adventure of moving.

I idolized my father. He was larger than life to me in many ways. There were times when he would be on TDY (temporary duty) somewhere else, and he would be gone for months at a time. I remember those times as being difficult, because all of us geared our home life towards Daddy, including Mama, and when he was gone it was like we entered some sort of limbo. Mama often didn't prepare a dinner for us kids, but when Daddy was home we always sat down at the dinner table for a full meal. I remember many times when he was gone that we would have breakfast food (cereal or eggs) for dinner.

He was not much of a disciplinarian; he left that to Mama. But when he would get mad, I remember being scared if he were angry at something I had done wrong. He didn't allow any of us to sass my mom, so we never did that in his presence but waited until he wasn't around. Then again, he was as softhearted as anybody I have ever known. Sometimes he would read stories to us (Norma Jean and I, anyway) when he was home, and I remember him beginning to sniffle when he read us fairy tales. Yes, Daddy could be very emotional sometimes. He hated to let anybody know, however, because in those days it was not socially acceptable for men to cry for any reason at all.

Mama and Daddy loved each other, and I feel very blessed that I grew up in that environment. We were a demonstrative and affectionate family. Now that I am an adult, I realize that many of my friends didn't have such role models or grew up in a family that was dysfunctional. We may have had our problems, as all families do, but mostly we had a safe haven in our home, wherever it might be in the country.

You would think that I would have had a much better time finding a husband and settling down, after a childhood like that, but no, when I left home I was pregnant by a man I hardly knew. When Mama found out I was pregnant, she arranged a quickie marriage and I learned many years later than my father never knew. Back then it was a terrible disgrace. My, how times have changed in fifty years.

And Daddy has been gone since 1979. He was only 62 when he died of a heart attack. I remember when we would linger at the dinner table, Daddy would always finish up dishes he especially enjoyed. Although he wasn't terribly overweight, he loved to eat, and Mama fed him everything he liked. Whenever I would come home to visit, it never occurred to me that Daddy was anything but the picture of health. After he had retired from the Air Force, they bought a home on Lake Worth in Texas, and the last three kids grew up in one home, a wonderful place to live. Totally different from the life that I had with the same parents.

Mama called me one day in the summer of 1979 to tell me that Daddy had had a heart attack and was in the hospital. One by one, each of us who had left home traveled quickly back to Texas. When it first happened, nobody knew how bad the heart attack was and whether he might recover. He lived long enough for all of us to come back home to see him. He was sitting up in bed when I saw him, and I noticed that his pupils were very small, which I learned later was from the morphine that they were giving him for pain. Otherwise he didn't look much different. He knew, though.

Within a couple of days his lungs began to fill with fluid, since his damaged heart could no longer function properly. The doctors put him on a respirator, and when we saw him next he was unconscious with that machine doing his breathing for him. As we waited for news of his condition, we were all gathered in one room which the hospital had given for us to use, since there were so many of us. When we heard the "Code Blue" over the loudspeaker, we looked at each other and knew it was Daddy. They allowed us to see him one more time after they had removed all the machinery and drips. I went in with my four sisters, and we crowded around him and stroked his body while we cried. He was still warm with beads of sweat on his forehead. Oh, Daddy, we love you so much, even today I miss you as I write this.

Although he didn't live a long time, he had a very good life and dispensed plenty of love to his wife and children. We all remember him fondly and tell stories about his exploits when we get together. It's been well over thirty years now since he left, but he will always be my father, loved and cherished in memory. Happy Father's Day, Daddy!
Daddy contemplating his coffee

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Line in the sand

Me, Norma Jean, PJ, Buz, Markee, and Fia
I've been thinking quite a lot about the passage of time, nothing new here. That picture was taken of me and my siblings thirty-two years ago now. We've all changed, of course, but we will never have the chance to take another one of all of us together, since PJ died more than a year ago. She was 63 and had ill health for many years prior to her death.

What has brought on all this introspection has been the process that Smart Guy and I have been going through for a month or so now. When I went through the death doula training process, I learned about something called an "advance directive" for the end of one's life. Although back in the early 2000s we had gone to a lawyer and written out our wills, including a health directive, since then we have moved from Colorado to Washington state, and more specifically to Whatcom County, the most northwest county in the nation, right next to the Canadian border.

It's different here than in Colorado. The Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement (WAHA) has developed quite a good process to consolidate information so that if someone is suddenly taken ill or is in an accident and cannot speak for him- or herself, one's wishes can be on file and known to everyone. It all started with the two of us attending a sparsely attended seminar on the process and given some forms to peruse. A few days later, we received a followup call from one of their volunteers to offer us a private meeting with a facilitator who would help us decide how to fill out the forms. Those 7 pages are filled with difficult questions and require a good deal of thought. (You can see the forms on their website, if you're wondering what's involved.)

Last week we had an hour-and-a-half session with Karen, a volunteer facilitator, who helped us understand the need for thoughtful reflection before finally filling them out. The first thing that needed to be done is to declare another person or persons to be our Health Care Agents. We of course first chose each other, but I also listed my sister and a friend as my second and third agents, in case my first one would not be available.

Then we spent most of the time discussing our desires for life-prolonging treatments. I learned that almost half of us will not be able to make these decisions for ourselves, when the time comes. That is the reason for the extensive queries on the forms. These are all things that I've thought about, but I never considered that I might not be conscious or able to tell someone whether to stop treatment or not. And when that time might be.

Karen suggested that we think of what our own particular "line in the sand" would be. If I have a stroke and cannot communicate but am still mentally all there, what do I want to happen? If I'm in a car accident and am unconscious with severe head injuries, how long do I want them to keep me alive? It's all so confusing, so for the past week I've been going over these options in my head. Here's the kicker:
If I reach a point where my doctors feel it is reasonably certain that I will not recover my ability to interact meaningfully with myself, my family, friends, and environment, I want to stop or withhold all treatments that might be used to prolong my life.
That's pretty straightforward, and I can agree to that. But then I must define what "to interact meaningfully" means to me. That has been the hard part. I think I've finally decided that if I am not conscious, then let me go. But how long to wait for recovery? If I am in a coma, how long do I want them to wait before they stop? Some people have been in a coma for years and then recovered.

Well, I finally figured that part out, for me anyway. If I were younger, I might want to wait longer, but two weeks is enough time. It's not like I will be dying prematurely, whenever that occurs, because I'm already old. Maybe not OLD old quite yet, but that's not too far into the future. None of us knows when the time will come for each of us, but considering all these options has been eye-opening for me. I don't have to decide it for all time, but simply consider what I'd like to happen if it occurred right now, today.

In another week, we will meet once again at WAHA to have our forms witnessed by two people who are not related to us and have them notarized. WAHA then will make copies for us to distribute to everyone who needs them and puts a copy on file at the local hospital. I'll get a copy to give to my doctor when I see him next, and Karen suggested we let him know we'd like a little extra time to go over it.

I was so impressed with Karen and asked her what is entailed in becoming a facilitator. She told me that they have an extensive training program, and I asked her to sign me up. This is something I'd really like to do: help other people consider what their own "line in the sand" might be, and help other people to think about end-of-life choices. When I attended the death doula training, I  realized that much of what they do is for after a person dies, what to do with the body, arranging a vigil, that sort of thing. This might be more in line with my abilities. We'll see.

While I've been casting about, wondering what adventurous activity I might take up next, now that skydiving is fading into the past, it never occurred to me that it might not be a physical thing. After all, there is at least ONE big adventure in my future, and that's learning to leave behind mortality. Who knows what adventure might be awaiting me on the other side? One day I'll find out.

Until then, I'll continue to live my life every day, to the fullest that I can. My world is certainly wide open today. My friends, my partner, my family, my garden — all precious pieces of my life that I am able to appreciate and cherish just a little bit more because of filling out this form and thinking about what choices I will make for the end of my life.

Sorry that this post is not more uplifting, but introspection tends to make me a little less exuberant and flippant. I needed to write this all down so I could get my virtual arms around it. Done, and done. My post is finally finished, and even though it's not a fun post, I do hope you will consider these questions for yourselves. We'll all get there, one way or another.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

End of an era

Me coming in for a landing
Well, this week I finally made the decision to sell my skydiving gear and move into another era in my life. I've been skydiving now for twenty-five years (!) and have made more than 4,200 skydives during that time, so it's not like it's premature or anything. I've accumulated more than 68 hours of freefall time as well. Skydivers receive an award for every 12 hours of freefall, and I knew when I received mine for 60 hours that it would be the last one.

What has brought this on? As those of you who follow me on a regular basis, you know that it's been coming for awhile, but this week I reached the final straw when I learned that the place I love to skydive in Snohomish is phasing out their second student landing area and will require all skydivers, experienced and newbies, to land in the same place: at the airport, which is tight and surrounded by obstacles. I'm not all that great under canopy, and it's been fairly easy to be safe if I knew everybody under canopy with me and I could anticipate their movements. That will not be the situation for the remainder of this season, so I decided to stop jumping out of perfectly good airplanes.

In a way, it's a relief not to try to stay current as I move farther and farther away from the sport. I am quite aware that my body in general is less robust than it was and recovers from injuries much less quickly than it did even five years ago. I want to keep hiking and walking for as long as I can, and part of my plan is to minimize risk. All the serious injuries I've incurred during the past 25 years have been while landing my parachute.
Kevin and me (standing), Cindy, Dave and Linny July 2011
There's another reason, a big one. These good friends of mine in the picture above were some of the people I played together with in the sky. We made formations and enjoyed each other's company all day long at the Drop Zone, and I'd go home with smiles for days afterwards. Only one person, Dave, is still skydiving today. It's not much fun to jump out by myself, and I miss these friends when I'm there. Just one more reason to let go. I could go through this final season with a jump here or a jump there, but I've decided to find a new owner for my gear and then I won't even be tempted.

When I made the decision, it didn't come as a big wrench in my psyche, and I was afraid that it would be tough to do. It wasn't. It is time, and I guess I've known that ever since I made my one and only skydive this year, in February, and sprained my back while packing up my parachute. Although the skydive itself was a good one, I no longer have anyone to pack for me (my packer for the past two years has moved on) and so there you go.

It's sometimes hard for me to fathom how much this sport has changed my life. I was 47 when I made my first tandem jump, and for many years afterwards I couldn't help myself: I was out at the Drop Zone every single minute of every weekend. I spent my holidays visiting other places where I could jump with large groups of people, and I met my life partner through skydiving. He stopped jumping a few years ago, but I wasn't quite ready then. In January of this year, the Bellingham Herald published an article about my last year's record jump, which you can still read here. I've been on formations of more than a hundred, and I've taught more than a thousand students how to skydive. It's all good, but nothing lasts forever. Like I said, it's the end of an era. I'm ready to move on.

And now I wonder, to what? I love my life here in Bellingham, the garden, the friends I've made, and the routine I've developed in my day-to-day life. I've thought about buying myself a really good bicycle and taking that up, but there's not a lot of enthusiasm behind that idea. I'll think of something, and until that happens, there's no big gap in my enjoyment anyway. I enjoy writing, and the internet has given me a good outlet in these blogs I maintain, so there's no lack there. Sometimes I think about writing a book and self-publishing it, but there's not a whole lot of enthusiasm behind that, either.

The world has changed so much in the past decade that some of the long-term plans I made no longer seem relevant. I have gadgets galore and enjoy them tremendously. They open up my horizons and give me a chance to engage with the larger world in ways I couldn't have imagined at the turn of the century. Perhaps a light bulb will go off over my head and I'll move in some unexpected direction that eludes me right now. That sort of thing happens to me more often than not. That's how I got started skydiving, for example.

I've said it before and I'll probably say it again: the internet world of virtual friends I have fills me with so much gratitude and enjoyment that I cannot imagine being without you all. I follow enough blogs to see how other people all over the world live their day-to-day lives. I commiserate with you over your dilemmas and celebrate the birth of a new grandchild (most of you are close to my age, after all), and I am content. Until next week, then, be well and I hope that all good things come your way.