Category: Risk and Death

Daughter

216128_7041024612_3296_n“Stay wonderful. We can be happy. Love can go anywhere. Wherever you are, my love is with you, and it’s good love.”

Your dad wrote these words to me before he died, and I believe they are still true. I have loved you for a long time. I fell for you when you curled up in my lap after my first weekend at a new dropzone and snoozed as he gave me a lift home.

Later, when he and I moved in together and I played more of a role in your weekend visits, we spent special time with our imaginary friends — Alice the flying dolphin and of course the toenail shark, who appeared in the bath to bite children whose nails weren’t trimmed.

You were at the skydiving club when his landing went wrong and he couldn’t get up to drive you back to your mom’s house. Nine years old, and there was nothing but to hold you and your sister tight while I still could, and hope that you would come looking for me someday.

Eventually, you did. 

The people who have stepped up to help both of us are former skydivers whose lives your dad touched through his instruction and presence. It is complicated that what he loved took him away, but somehow continues to pay the love back.

Your dad enjoyed jumping out of airplanes and flying fast parachutes, but skydiving was more than a selfish indulgence for him. Teaching and interacting with jumpers were his ways of making a difference in people’s lives. He believed in love; he believed in you; and he had a strong sense of his own path and the obligations that came with it.

He’s not here to hold you, and it’s not fair. Yet, more than ever, now is the time to begin a deeper understanding of who he was, and to learn from that wisdom. I want you to know unconditional love; to believe in yourself; and to develop strength in your convictions as you work hard to create an adventurous, fulfilling life.

From our conversation earlier today, I know there are times you’d rather be “stabbed with a butter knife” than finish high school. You’re 17, and I guess we’ve all been there. What would your dad say? He’d probably tell you he understands, but he also wrote to your uncle one time, “If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that there is no action without consequence.”

You can do this, and the rewards will be worth it. You will not be alone. 

Our actions, even the smallest ones, make ripples that we can never know the end of. When you cast a stone into the ocean, it seems to disappear, and the surface of the water continues to churn. But from the moment the stone leaves your hand, the entire universe has become a different place.

Act wisely, and the world will show you its magic.

I love you, for always.

Safe Place to Sleep Tonight

Taya JeffWe leave the bar near the dropzone with hookah pipe smoke clinging to our clothes, into the darkness, the car, towards the neon signs of gas stations around the lake. He reaches over to hold my hand and I take it. I am his passenger and he has promised me a safe place to sleep tonight.

He says, “I think you’re scared of me because of how I make you feel. Either you’re worried that your feelings won’t be returned, or you’re just scared of the intensity – I’m not sure.”

I meet Jeff when I decide to attempt healing from the biggest loss I’ve ever experienced by trying out for a wingsuit world record. I’m not known in these circles since I’ve just moved back to the US from South Africa, but I can fly my slot. At the end of the weekend he takes me out for sushi and invites me to California. The mission is to organize the wingsuit bigway formation attempt, a 71-way at Lake Elsinore. It’s an exciting offer. Flying feels good but I’m grieving, and won’t get involved with anyone before a year has passed.

He says he understands. He has scheduled the wingsuit event to coincide with his late father’s birthday. His dad died when he was 29 years old, and he still wants to make him proud. His mom passed away, too. We will do a 71-way because he was born in 1971. He doesn’t want anyone to know that’s why he picked the number. I am sworn to secrecy. I trust him because he seems to understand loss and remembrance, so we agree to travel and work together.

Jeff turns left down a side road and I feel my stomach lurch. I recognize something about the neighborhood. Moonlight on the lake. The road dead-ends and the porch of the house still looks exactly as it did five years ago, when my friend Wyat lived there. He had cut away and was jumping full time. We had partied and talked about our dreams.

Wyat is dead now, crashed his motorcycle last year. A man who used to make a living jumping out of airplanes and flying tiny little parachutes down the sides of mountains. The irony of the ground getting him from only a few feet up is never lost on me.

We get out of the car at my dead friend’s house, now occupied by one of Jeff’s friends who is still very much alive and has invited us to stay.

I shouldn’t be here.

I see ghosts drinking Jack Daniels and kicking the rope swing out around the corner of the big porch. They turn to look at me, the dead skydivers. People I’ve held hands with in freefall. Wyat is there, and Elle. And with them is Eric, the love of my life, smiling at me and swilling his drink with a sideways look that says, “You know I hate this stuff but I’m trying to be social.”

“…I give people ladders,” Jeff is saying. “I let them think they’re better than me so they will achieve their dreams. Look at what I’ve done in this sport: for Justin, for Tony – for you.”

“Take me to a hotel.” I’m choking on the fear I don’t want to show.

“What?”

“Take me to a goddamn hotel.”

Edgeington


Taya Jess XRWOur goal was to explore the limits of a high-performance canopy pilot docking with a wingsuit flyer in freefall. The idea had been around for a while, but we wanted to do it in new ways that showed it could be developed as a discipline and not just advertised as a stunt.

Up late one night working on a funding proposal, I dubbed the effort “Project XRW” (Extreme Relative Work). It stuck. The first round featured Jonathan Tagle of the Performance Designs Factory Team under a 71-square-foot Velocity, surfing on the back of Jeff Nebelkopf flying his TonySuit X Bird wingsuit. The project logo had their names emblazoned across the letters XRW: Tagle. Nebelkopf.

It wasn’t until a few months later during the next iteration of the project that I aimed my own TonySuit X Bird in the direction of the PD Factory Team’s only female canopy pilot, Jessica Edgeington. She had bright pink nail polish on, her hand waving at me to come in closer as I balanced on the outside of my performance range in the wingsuit, trying not to screw up.

We became the first women to do XRW, but we hadn’t even met until we were on the verge of attempting what then seemed nearly impossible (or at least, very dangerous). It’s a hell of a way to meet your future best friend, midair at high speed wearing various forms of nylon and trying to hold hands.

Edgeington. Weiss.

Those names never appeared oWeiss Edgeingtonn a logo. Not that we cared. As we navigated the high-testosterone dynamics of that week, we both enjoyed laughing at the very masculine world we inhabited and thrived in. Mostly, we wanted the same leeway to train and achieve as the men around us.

When we narrowly missed the surf dock on the very first try, the guys were quick to pull the photographer away from us, worried it would be a waste if we took too long to figure it out (we nailed it on the very next jump).

We grew to be more than just dropzone buddies. We created, for and with each other, a safe place to share, bond, and vent about the often ridiculous challenges we faced. We spent time at each other’s family homes, planned weekends away together, and helped each other unconditionally through some very tough times. She once played the ukelele and sang to me while we sat on the banks of Walden Pond after a long swim.  

We were both serious about our skydiving, and struggled with the frustrations (unspeakable and unspoken in public, of course) of being women in our professional environment. But we never stopped laughing about it all, and using humor to keep each other afloat. Years after Project XRW’s initial success, we still started calls, voicemails, and text messages by intoning each other’s last name. If spoken, we went for either a wrestling-announcer voice or an evening news-anchor persona, no matter how mundane the subject matter following. 

“Edgeington. What time do you get off work?”

“Weiss. Mark and I are raising a baby… squirrel!”

“Edgeington. Shit’s hitting the fan. May drunk dial you later.”

“Weiss. I almost had a meltdown.”

“Edgeington. Time for a weekend catch-up.”

“EDGE-ING-TOOOOONNNN!!!!”

“WEEEEEEIIIISSSSSSS!”

In April, I got a call from the scene as soon as it happened. There was no filter, no lead-in, just the words: “Jess went in.”

Edgeington Weiss Pooch

Dust to Dust

1934099_19769534612_6418_nShe tells me she’s having a recurring dream about giving birth. She physically feels the contractions and the pain, pushing and breathing and yelling until she hears his first cries.

When she wakes, the sobs start low and growly. The dream vision of the birth is like the Big Bang, an explosion in her chest with the compressed mass of the human condition, pushing out and out. She gave birth, and she couldn’t protect him. Her son is dead.

Eight months later, Eric’s mother and I drive out to the skydiving club.

She rummages in her bag and gives me a slightly worn picture of him as a young boy to carry with me in my wingsuit pocket. At 19 years old in a collared button down shirt, he’s still scrawny, a gleam in his eye. He was 44 when he died, with the same smile.

She puts her hands on my shoulders and her forehead against mine (I am thinking: just like he used to do). She says, “He was my son. He came from my womb. His life started with me, and it ends with you.”

I walk to the plane with the handmade red pouch strapped to my left wrist. At boarding point, I sit with my head down. This is a solo mission. I look up once, opening my eyes to a view of our friend Raymond’s pants leg as he stands near me protectively. The embroidery reads, “Martin’s Funerals! 011-672-8104”. New sponsor. I start to crack, giggling hysterically.

On board, I sit near the pilot, close my eyes, breathe, and focus. I feel Eric’s presence. He is smiling, with a student. He is kissing me in the door.

Tears mark minutes until we get to altitude. I grab my soul and throw it over the threshold, then chase it out. The plane dives away and I begin to glide. The air feels dense. Everything is slow. He is off my left wingtip, he is underneath me, he is the air and the sky and the planet below.

I open my parachute and then the little pouch, feeling the rough ash with chunks of bone between my fingers. This magical dust. So many late night conversations, our deep trust, the way we rolled over together while sleeping, all condensed in the palm of my hand.

Pieces of him stream out to my left side, riding the relative wind.

I land where his blood marked the grass. Edith holds me and moans, “my baby, my baby”. I can’t tell if she is talking to me.

The sun is bright, the earth red, the breeze soft, the sky brilliant blue, the birds alive, the grass still growing. Everything in vivid color, heavy and bright, bleeding with his memory. 

I eat a banana, give our long-time packer a hug as he hands me my neatly closed container with the suit unzipped and ready to wear, and do what will come to define me. I give Edith a kiss on the cheek and get ready for the next jump.

Glitter in the Ashes

GlitterSpilledIngredients:

1. Cremated remains of a skydiver
2. Heavy duty Ziploc bag
3. Glitter (optional)
4. Duct Tape
5. Cordura pouch with velcro
6. Functional aircraft
7. Parachute system
8. Love
9. A willingness to let go

Directions:

Remove the remains of your loved one (the one who couldn’t feel alive without jumping out of an airplane almost every weekend) from the container (urn, box, etc.) given to you by the undertaker. Transfer the powdery, chunky remains into the Ziploc bag. If you are working with the remains of the entire body, you will need the freezer size.

Caution: this can be messy, and you may end up inhaling some of the person you once snuggled up against in the early hours of the morning after making love.

Optional: add glitter to the mix of ash and bone chunks. Glitter will help spectators on the ground to see your loved one shimmering on their last jump if the light is angled favorably. Any color glitter will do. If there is little room in the freezer bag, combine bone chunks, ash, and glitter in a mixing bowl, and then transfer the combined mixture into the bag.

Seal the bag.

Vacuum the carpet.

Have a beer, or three. Laugh about something ridiculous.

Let the mixture marinate for 24-48 hours. Sober up. Cry uncontrollably. Pull it together. Drive to the dropzone.

Wrap duct tape around the bottom of the Ziploc in order to make handles, like those on a shopping or tote bag. Dropping the bag suddenly, rather than releasing the mixture slowly, would make your loved one into an ash bomb that might kill an innocent person on the ground, so handles are good.

Place the bag, with handles, into the Cordura pouch, and secure it around your waist, over your jumpsuit.

Put on your parachute harness and container system. If you are doing a tandem jump, don your harness and make sure your tandem instructor is ready to go. Review your exit procedures.

Go to your loved one’s family. Let his mother place her hands on the Cordura pouch, imagining that she is touching the cheek of the little boy fast asleep in his bed at home: that she is holding the new baby just home from the hospital, wriggling with new life, full of hope. Open your eyes. Accept that the little boy, the baby, the lover, the husband, is dead now, and you carry all that’s left in a synthetic bag.

Board the plane. Reach into the bag and secretly sprinkle some of your loved one inside the plane.

At a minimum of 10,000 feet above the ground, open the door and look outside at the sky. Take a moment in the door to feel his presence, to remember his arms around you. Tell him that this is his last jump. Tell him he’s dead, but he can land softly this time.

Exit the aircraft. Release some of the ashes in freefall. Open the parachute just above 5,000 feet.

With the wind in your face and the ground far below, reach for those duct tape handles and take the whole Ziploc bag out of the Cordura pouch. Unzip the top as you hang in the harness under your parachute. Hold the bag out to your side and see ash and bone in freefall, a jetstream of sadness and freedom and shimmering beauty. This is what’s left of the body you once held. 

Wait until the bag is empty.

Say goodbye.