Personal Essay by Valerie Hartgenbush

“My 30th birthday is coming up.  What do you think about skydiving with me?” my younger brother, Richard asked me and our two sisters.

“No way!” my oldest sister, Ann, said.

“I won’t jump but I will watch you do it,” my second sister, Cher, said.

“I’m totally in!  Tell me what I need to do,”  I declared as the excitement rocketed.  Sky diving was always something I thought about but never pursued.  I like to consider myself an opportunist.  I may not seek out every crazy feat I think of, but I will jump on it if the opportunity presents itself.

Over the next month, my brother put all the arrangements together.  He found the place, details, my brother-in-law, and four friends to join us.  He sent us all the paperwork and arranged lunch afterwards for all those that skipped breakfast because they weren’t sure if they would be able to keep it down.  The only thing left to do was take the time off work.  Not something I was looking forward to.  My boss was a bit of a curmudgeon.

Acacia Counseling was a small agency that provided substance abuse intervention, DUI, and domestic violence groups for those who were sentenced with a related legal charges.  I was one of the few counselors employed there that could do it all, but that also meant there weren’t many people to cover for me if I needed a day off.  It had been a year since I had taken even one day off.  My boss promised me a long vacation when he was able to hire another counselor to help cover domestic violence groups, but they were hard to find.

I decided to wait until after our staff meeting to request the day off.  I wanted to talk to him and explain what it was for, hoping I would stand a better chance of him approving the time off.  Once we entered his office, he sat and stared at me trying to figure out what problem I was going to bring him now.  I felt myself start to fidget as I explained why I was requesting the day off, trying to emphasize it was for a big birthday.  His response was, “I cannot let you have the day off to go skydiving.  That is not a good enough of a reason.”  He had a look of surprise that I would even dare to ask.

I instantly was angry.  I thought to myself, what kind of reason is a good one?  Being in the hospital because I work too much?  I could not explain where the courage came from, but I looked him in the eye and said, “I work to live. I do not live to work.  Family is important to me, and I am going to celebrate my brother’s birthday with him.  You can do what you deem necessary when I come back but I am taking that day off.”

He saw my seriousness and started to back pedal,  “Now now, there is no need to talk about anything happening once you come back.  You can have the day off, and I hope you all have fun.”  I think he realized I was completely prepared to never return to my job if he chose to fire me.  It took me a while to realize he needed me a lot more than I needed him.  Well, with that task done, I was ready to put my life in danger and jump out of an airplane.

I had been warned so many times I could die.  I knew the truth was that there were worse things than dying that could happen.  Things that involve lots of pain and permanent damage.  However, it was a risk I was willing to take for the experience.

The day of the big jump, I was up early and ready to go, fizzing with anticipation.  We all met at our site, and no one was late.  True to her word, Cher was there to watch us and had dragged Ann along with her.  We were individually matched with an expert jumper to go tandem with.  I was with the tallest of them.  My brother-in-law, who was easily a foot taller than me, was matched with the shortest jumper.  I couldn’t help thinking, are we sure they know what they are doing?

We changed into our gear and went through clear instructions of what to do, what was going to happen, and how to land.  I didn’t make sense of what I was hearing through all the adrenaline pumping loudly in my body, until the instructor was explaining how to land properly and safely.

“Put your legs in front of you and act like you are going to sit down.  Your jumper will take care of the rest.”

Sounded easy enough, now I just hoped I would remember it.  We took lots of pictures as we waited for our group to get called.  The anxiousness and excitement were visible in everyone’s body.  Excitement that started to ease away as we waited… and waited… and waited.  It was a couple of hours and lots of bathroom trips before we were reminded of what we were doing there.  It was fun hanging out with everyone, but I was starting to feel tired and wondering if what I was about to do was worth it.  I was thinking of the potential pain that could come with a bad landing as I heard the naysayers in my head.

Finally, our group was called.  We got on the plane and were quiet after the long wait.  The most embarrassing part of the whole experience was sitting on our jumpers’ laps during the plane ride.  I was afraid they wouldn’t be able to feel their legs after we sat on them long enough.  We reached the altitude we needed, and the plane door opened.  I was alive again as I saw my brother and his friends disappear out the door one by one.

When it was my turn, I had a second to doubt what I was doing.  We were out the door before I could say goodbye to my brother-in-law.  The feeling of free falling was exhilarating, and the world was a blur.  Then it was time to breathe.  However, I couldn’t.  The air was rushing past me so fast I wasn’t able to take a deep breath.  I thought to myself, scream, that should help you breathe.  I screamed as we continued to fall closer to the earth.  Despite my best efforts it didn’t work.  I still could not get a real breath in.  I stopped screaming and once again started talking to myself in my head.  Am I going to die up here because I can’t breathe?  They wouldn’t even know that was the cause of my death.  Also, how is it I can be having this whole conversation?  How long is this fall anyway?  I finally closed my mouth and was able to take a much-needed deep breath through my nose.  Oh, thank goodness, I am not going to die.  Just then, I felt the pull of the parachute open and slow us down significantly.  Finally, good wholesome air entered my body.

Breathing normally, I was able to look around and take in the stunning sight.  My jumper asked if I would like to do circles.  Of course, I wanted to experience it all.  We circled in the air in both directions.  He let me take the lead for a while.  He then showed me how to go a little faster and a little slower.  Being in the air was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.  I was completely present in the moment and could hear only our voices and the atmosphere.  I saw the ground coming in greens and browns, yet it was far enough that cars were the size of dots.  I made sure to look for the mountains and take in the glorious view.  I loved every long moment of being in the sky.  It felt like an eternity, but I would gladly have stayed longer.

I was able to watch my brother make an expert landing with his jumper.  The joy I saw on his face made everything even more worth this already incredible day.  My landing was a little rockier, but with no serious problems.  I survived!

Reflecting on my day, I remembered telling my boss “I work to live, not live to work,” and this was fully and completely living.  I realized I needed better work/life balance and more adventure in my life.  Some risks, whether that be losing my job so I could live a little or jumping out of a plane, are what makes my life feel full.