The Last Moment: 14 July 2021 Deck’s last jump
I am a creature who lives stretched across time. I can remember vividly things that took place decades ago – down to conversations, the tone of voice in which they were had, the sound of remembered laughter. I am forever projecting into the future – my “panic now it saves time later” mantra has been the subject of much gentle mockery by all too many people who know me. The one thing I never mastered properly was arguably the most difficult one of all, the grasping of a single moment of existence and living in it fully and completely, in a way that makes that moment all that there is, was, ever will be. The most important sliver of time that could exist, the one that surrounds you RIGHT NOW, that matters RIGHT NOW, that is here now and never was here before or will be (or could be) ever again.
My beloved used to smile at me and say, “I know why I was put on this earth. It’s to teach you how to treasure the moment.” Because he was someone who could. He could hold time like a raindrop in his hand, rapt in its beauty, watching it sparkle and glow in the light, appreciate the act of its existence and of his act of sharing in that existence.
He never did succeed in the task that he claimed he was put here to accomplish. I never really learned that untrammeled joy of being, unburdened by regrets (because if you lived the moment right you could not have any to haunt you) or any kind of dread (because if you lived the moment right there was nothing coming down the pike that could hurt you). That was him, that was his light, that was the light in which I happily curled, safe and protected in its bubble. He didn’t teach me how to do it – I don’t think it’s teachable. But its protection was wrapped around me like angel’s wings for twenty years, and for twenty years he held the moment, and kept me there beside him, holding on.
Right until it cracked wide open. And the raindrop shivered and found the crack and melted through it and was gone.
We had not spoken much about the “Aftermath” of things, as it were – but there was a conversation or two. The “what do you want me to do with you, after” conversation. And he said he didn’t much care, really; and I said, I am going to find somebody to throw you into the sky. And he said, that would be nice. It wasn’t so much of a firm promise, but it was a sort of silent vow. I was not going to put this bright spirit into the ground, because he was of the air, you see.
Deck did his first skydive more than half a century ago, as a reporter for the Palm Beach Times who got told about this jumping-out-of-a-perfectly-good-airplane thing by a neighbor of his, and saw only the potential of a story for his paper – but initially that was all it was, a story, and, as he put it, “It would make a good photo feature for my paper. I certainly had no intention of pulling such an idiotic stunt myself.”
He carries on to say, in the story that he did write for his paper (I have the original, a TYPED original, this was way before computers and word processing…), in his own words :
“My sense of high adventure is to go out in the rain without an umbrella. And, as a colleague unkindly but accurately pointed out, among the New Frontiersmen I more accurately resemble Pierre Salinger than Bobby Kennedy.
But, in attempting to gather material for a story I continually ran into a stumbling block… Every time I asked a skydiver why he did it, a dreamy look would come into his eyes, he’d mumble incoherently for a moment and then sigh helplessly, ‘You can’t explain it. You’ll just have to try it yourself.’
After hearing this several times I finally decided – with all the enthusiasm of a soldier volunteering for a suicide mission – that that was exactly what I was going to have to do.
I began training after convincing Brad Marshall, president of the local club, that my reason for jumping was a legitimate one. He had his doubts about a reporter jumping just to write a story, not realizing that for a reporter the best reason in the world for doing anything is to get a story out of it.
It was when we got to emergency procedures that I had second thoughts about what I was about to do. Talk about what to do if your main chute doesn’t open, or if you are landing in water, a tree, or a power lines is nothing likely to encourage a novice jumper.
Marshall, who has had plenty of experience in training new jumpers (he once aided in training one of the stunt jumpers on the TV show Ripcord), helped me out with my equipment the day of the jump.
Another student static line jumper and the jumpmaster of the flight, Nelson Parrish, and I crammed our way into the small four-passenger plane and were taken up to 2400 feet where a wind streamer was released.
At 2800 feet the other student jumped out and I completed the intricate maneuver of changing places within the confined quarters, an operation so difficult that I had vague hopes of having my jump cancelled because I couldn’t get into position.
Up until that point I believed myself quite calm. Perhaps I was. But if so, it’s strange that I remember so little about getting out of the plane.
When the command came to go I remember moving my feet cautiously out of the door of the plane and feeling them whipped back by the wind. I reached for the strut of the plane to pull myself out and the next thing I knew I was falling. The jumpmaster swears he didn’t push and the pilot contends he didn’t roll the plane. I have a horrible suspicion that I didn’t jump but simply fell.
I had received careful instruction on how to fall so as to remain stable, face to ground. To no avail. I felt myself turning over on my side and flailed my arms helplessly.
It was at that point that I felt the light tug and then the heavy jar as the static line did its job of pulling open my chute. I just hung there for a moment in stunned disbelief that it had all actually happened.
I looked up at the chute seemingly miles above my head and it was the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen in my life… except the sides kept on folding in and out. That scared me so much I never looked up again.
I finally remembered to look for the DZ (drop zone) and its white target and found it a half mile or so southwest of me – and a thousand miles straight down. I reached cautiously up the risers and found the control line that allowed me some steerability and headed towards the target. I was amazed at how easily they moved the chute and I began oscillating as I turned too fast. For a moment I was afraid I was going to get seasick.
The rest of the ride down was uneventful… except I was off target, it happened too fast, and I landed in a heavy patch of palmettos. After landing surprisingly gently I picked myself up and just stood there in something of a daze until Marshall found me.
Though a first jump is like no other and static line parachuting cannot be compared to the free fall of real skydiving, I found a little of what keeps a sky diver coming back.
When the chute first opens you hang suspended in a world that is completely insulated from the humdrum of ordinary existence. The world below has a virginal beauty that disappears upon closer examination. But it is the silence that grips you, a silence so perfect, so rare and so ethereal that you hug it to yourself in a futile attempt to keep it forever.
For a brief moment you enter a world whose existence only the poets before you had discovered and which only the poets can describe.
I only wanted a story. But if it’s a nice weekend I’m going to make my second jump.
Well, like we said… you just can’t explain it. You’ll just have to try it yourself.”
That… was a beginning. A beginning of a love affair with the sky, with flight, that lasted his whole life. He went on to make many jumps, after and told me story after story about it. Like the time he landed on a watermelon. SQUARELY. It shattered, of course, and he wore Watermelon Bottom all the way as he trudged back to base, after – followed by a squadron of curious bees who were taking rather too close an interest in his butt.
Or the time he landed on the “wrong” side of a canal bisecting a field – the base camp was across the canal and maybe a ten-minute walk across the field. Alas, the canal was deep, so it could not be waded but had to be swum, and just wide enough that it couldn’t be leaped over, it had to be swum. This was a problem in that the water that had to be swum in… contained water moccasins. Hubs elected to walk the long way around, rather than chance the encounter with a snake which took exception to his invasion of its habitat.
Or the time he and his friend went up to do a jump that would prove just how “safe” skydiving was, to the parents of an 18-year-old girl who wanted to try it. Unfortunately his pal saw, as he was coming in to land, that he was about to land squarely on a cow skull complete (somehow) with horns – either way, not a good place to hit the ground. He twisted sideways to avoid it, and landed on the wrong ankle, badly, so came limping back to the aforementioned parents with assurances that he was absolutely fine but grimacing with the pain. Hubs had issues with his main parachute, and then realized that his emergency chute cord had tangled itself around his leg – but he had no choice but to pull that, and as a consequence garroted his knee with it, so HE came limping back to base assuring the parents that yeah this was REALLY safe. I can’t say I would have believe those two wrecks, if I had been that girl’s parents…
Or the time he landed on the tarmac, with his hip and thigh leading – when he showed the purple hip-to-knee bruise to his friend, afterwards, the friend CALLED HIS WIFE and made hubs drop trou to reveal the spectacular size and colour of it to the woman.
There’s more. He had a lifetime of these stories. And he loved every moment of it, he would tell me in great sensual detail what it felt like to fly through the bright air before the chute kicked in, the sounds, the sight, the touch of the sky as he fell through it down towards the waiting earth.
Every moment. Every moment.
Every second he spent in the blue was a lived one, a treasured one. The sky belonged to him, and he to it.
Putting that free spirit into the ground would have been a crime. I had not made a promise, as such, but I knew that I had made a promise nonetheless. He would have his last jump. From the instant that his ashes arrived back into his home, I knew that this would have to be the send-off that he would have wanted, that he deserved. There would be no ‘funeral’. Just a last flight.
I looked at options – perhaps there could be a way I could hire someone to fly me up in a small plane or a helicopter and I could pour out his ashes up there myself. Or maybe I could go up in hot air balloon ride, and likewise. But I always knew that the best way – the way that would most honour him, and his memory – would be if I could find a skydiving club with someone willing to make that jump – to share the last jump that Deck would make – to scatter his ashes up there for me while coming back down to earth in that silence that he once wrote about (so uncharacteristically eloquently – he was a reporter, not a poet, and such language did not come easily to him).
When I first contacted the Snohomish Skydive club about this, I spoke to a woman with whom I shared some of those stories (she laughed and laughed at the watermelon tale…) and she asked me perfectly sincerely, not knowing me and what I was, whether I had considered “writing these down somewhere to share with people”. But she took my details and she said one of the club’s officers would be in touch with me. One of them did, phoning me back to tell me that that they did do this sort of thing occasionally and that they would be honoured to participate in sending a brother skydiver to his final rest. That was in April. I said I wanted to arrange for this to happen as close to July 13th as possible – because that would have been our 21st wedding anniversary. I was told that this could be arranged, and that I should phone back closer to the time to nail down arrangements.
I called back when summer came knocking, and spoke to a different person at the club – and it was with him that I made the final disposition of events. They wouldn’t be doing any jumping on the 13th – but the 14th would be a go, with the proviso that I should phone on the day of the jump just to make sure that the weather would cooperate.
I did. The weather did. I picked up Deck’s skydiving credentials – that typewritten account that he wrote of his first jump, a newspaper clipping from one of the times he landed in trouble from a jump, and one surviving ass-over-teakettle photo which may have been of that first jump showing a human figure barreling down head first with legs in a frantic V and his rear pointed at the heavens – and gathered up the urn with his ashes which had been sitting on his desk in the downstairs office, behind me, since it came home back in February – and he left home for the last time.
I talked to him, all the way. I locked the door and stepped out to the car and turned, with the urn in hand, and told him to look at his house one last time, to say his farewells. I got into the car and drove out the back way through the woods, the road he loved, and across the bridge that they had taken a year to rebuild when the old one became too unsafe for traffic – and asked him if he remembered that mess, and to wave goodbye to the (now not so new) bridge as we drove over it. I turned onto the road which I drove while he was at the Sedro Woolley hospital facility, which was supposed to take me to Hwy 9 which I would take all the way to Snohomish – but my driving instructions from the computer and my GPS had different ideas (the GPS insisted on the I-5…) and I took a wrong turning or three somewhere, ended up driving straight past that hospital facility (which I hadn’t intended to do – but told him about it, and told him to wave goodbye to that, too, because that was the place where he “died” first, where they resuscitated him back on December 7, before sending him off to Bellingham’s main hospital where his journey to the end began. And then after another wrong turn I gave up and let the GPS take me to the freeway, and just drove down to Snohomish directly, fast, without the scenic “back road” option I had planned on taking.
The sky was blue. Very blue. I was so aware of it as I was driving. The sky part of which he would soon become. I told him over and over again how blue the sky was today. His urn sat on the passenger seat, where he would have been sitting if he’d been traveling with me – silent presence – I complained at it that he was napping again, as he was wont to do on lengthy drives when I really wanted him to chirp up and talk at me and keep me entertained while I drove. But this sleep was deeper. He did not wake. He could not wake. He would never talk again.
Because I had allowed for more time (anticipating the back roads) I got to my destination sooner than I had planned – but my friend Mir, who had known both Deck and me for decades and whom I had called for moral support, was already there to meet me. Conversations with the club people had already been had – everyone was waiting for me. Mir asked if assistance was required with carrying either the folder I had all the ephemera in or the urn with the ashes, but I hung onto both. Today was not a day I wanted to let go of Deck, not before I had to, not until they had to take him out back where they would decant the ashes into several canisters which could be taken aloft and from which the ashes could be safely poured. I met Tyson, the guy I’d arranged all this with over the phone, and he told me how things would go – the flight that would take up Brent, the skydiver who was going to do the jump, would go aloft sometime between 3 and 3:15, and several other hops carrying student skydivers would precede it, and I could watch those jumps as they happened to give me an idea – but when Deck’s flight went up someone would come out to the shaded observation area to help point out where to look when Brent jumped.
Mir wanted to know when was the last time I’d had any water and I admitted to not being properly hydrated.
“You’re wobbling,” Mir said. “You need to drink water. You need to keep drinking water.”
A water bottle was procured, with the Snohomish Skydiver logo. I was instructed to keep chugging from it and to refill when necessary.
Brent, the skydiver who would do the jump, came out to meet me, and I gave him a copy of one of my books (the “Untranslatable” collection of stories) and a copy of that first-jump article that Deck wrote. He sat down and read it, clearly affected by it.
“Is there anything you want me to say, up there?” he asked.
“I’ll write it down for you,” I said, and on a piece of paper I tore from a notebook in my bag I wrote Delenn’s words from Babylon 5: “If I do not see you again here, I will see you once more in that place where no shadows fall.” It was a show Deck and I both loved. He would know the line. He would know exactly where it came from. It was a final shared word in a shared world. It would be released in the sky with him, halfway to the stars that we both loved.
And then it was a matter of waiting. And then the plane that would take him up taxied up to the observation area. I took a couple of photos, of the plane, of the jumper carrying the canisters which were all that remained of Deck, and I took a video of the plane taxiing out, gaining speed on the runway of the airfield, taking to the skies. And then someone came out to us.
“You’re here for the ash dive?”
“He’ll come out first, before the rest of them – right above.”
I looked up into the blue, blue sky. Brent’s chute was called, appropriately, “Infinity” (I took a photo of THAT, while he was waiting to go up) and it was blue, like the sky, and when someone first called out, “there it is”, and pointed at the sky at first I could not see anything at all except that all-encompassing blue – and then a speck of sky separated out and became a discrete thing, and I could see the blue chute starting to descend.
Brent emptied the first canister way high – at 8000 feet – and we did not see that. But the two he poured out lower down – we could see the ash scatter, we could see the silver arc of it follow him across the sky as he spiraled down towards us.
I was amazingly calm. I was clear-eyed. I was not crying, although there was a silence inside of me, that silence that Deck spoke of in his account, the silence of the jump which I now shared with him as he became part of air and brightness all around me. Brent came down, and I took a video of that. And then he collected the sky blue parachute and came back into the club.
He’d taken video. They’d send it to me. They took my email address. I said thank you. Again. And again. And again. The tears were waiting, but they did not really come. Not yet. They were an ocean deep within me.
Mir and I walked away from the club, past what I said were “stables” for airplanes – structures which housed parked small planes, Cessnas and Piper Cubs, some with ‘blindfolds’ over their cockpit windows, staked down. Small planes, Deck’s delight, ever since the Stinson he briefly owned and flew himself – he was always in love with air, with wings.
“He would have LOVED this,” I said, my voice catching a little, looking at the planes which he would have taken such joy in. “I can almost see his eyes shining…”
“They are,” Mir said.
And in a way that was perfectly true. Deck was right there – everywhere – beside me, around me, above me – and yes, those eyes were shining. He might not have been a bona fide haint, a ghost drifting along in my wake, but he was present, his joy was present, the shine in those eyes was there. This was one of those things, one of those beloved MOMENTS he held so beloved.
That, I could give him. The last thing I could give him. The sky. The joy. That last moment.
It was making good on a promise I had made in my heart.
Mir insisted I eat something before I started back – and again, I was preternaturally calm. The way I described it to Mir was that I was sort of miserably happy, and that about covers it. I had done what needed to be done but I was here right now in what was a parting, a time to say goodbye. I had given him into gentle hands, and a parachute called Infinity unfurled above him as all that remained of his physical body now became part of my memories, of that particular shade of sky blue, of a gentle rumble of a small plane engine gearing up to take flight, of a rustle of those wings which he folded around me to keep me safe twenty one years ago and in whose protection I had lived for a couple of decades. A couple of decades of a shared lifetime. He once gave me a card that said “I will always love you” – but forever doesn’t last as long as it used to – mine lasted for twenty years, six months, and eighteen days, and it ended up – as it had to end, given who Deck was – in that moment in which nothing existed but him and me and the life we had built together and the instant of saying goodbye.
I made my way home, still numb, still dry. And it was only when I got here, and closed the door of my home behind me, entering into the place where he would never be again, that I broke down, and cried helplessly for an hour. But those were, for the first time, tears that didn’t taste wholly of bitterest grief. They tasted of light. And of sky. And of a release of a bright, bright spirit.
That was a moment I could take, and treasure. That was a moment that will always stay with me, that will always be mine. He will be in every sky now, in every silence. In every moment.
Fly, my love. I set you free, in that eternal moment. In the light. In that open sky, where you have always belonged.
And I will see you again… in that place where no shadows fall.