“Blue Skies. This sport glows brightly, and burns incomparibly beautiful images into our memories. That brightness comes at a very high cost. It's the lives of our friends, the blood and the bones of our sky family. That's the dark side, the Black Death. There is no one without the other."-tonto
This morning I woke up early and looked out at the rising sun hitting billowy clouds layered over smooth, silky ones, interspersed with a few that looked like the surface of ice cream that has just been scooped. I sat outside facing the mountains and thought about the way it feels to fly those clouds with my bare hands caressing them.
Skydiver Eric "tonto" Stephenson died on October 28, 2007. Today is his birthday. He was my life partner and my best friend, and the father of two girls he loved to the ends of the earth. I came home to him every day for the years we lived together. We held hands a lot, cooked dinner, cuddled while watching Isidingo on television, practiced kung fu, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, flew wingsuits, and had long talks sitting at the end of the runway at the Johannesburg Skydiving Club. It's more than five years now since he left, and most of the people I spend time with these days didn't know him. I have fallen in love again, with someone who makes me feel like the luckiest woman on earth. Obviously, I can't and don't talk about it every day. But he is still part of me.
When I met Eric, he was on his way out of South Africa. He was going to introduce me to everyone he knew and then leave for a skydiving season in America. Instead, he stayed, and then so did I. With a bizarre symmetry, he left me with a new country, a second family, a legacy in the sport. These most incredible gifts came at a cost; I had given my whole heart not just to him, but also to the near-worshipful practice of gravity-powered flight.
We pulled each other. He pulled me towards the edge, I pulled him back, and now that he’s gone I find him in birds I see on takeoff in jump planes, in sunsets, surfable clouds, opportunities to fly, in the last two inches between my hand and docking on a canopy pilot with my wingsuit, in fresh jalapenos a farmer leaves at a dropzone snack shack, in Jesus billboards and the way my heart feels when I fly just a little past my deployment altitude.
I miss him.
After he died, I came to expect even strangers to ask me, “Why do you skydive?” The implication is, of course, embedded silently: “How could you possibly skydive if you love and care about your family? When it has killed so many people you love? How do you keep doing this thing that stalks lives, when you never know if you’ll be next?”
I don't have an easy answer, but the question takes me back to the third time I jumped out of an airplane.
The first time was a novelty, the second I was too scared to remember much - but after that, something clicked.
When the time came, I moved towards the open door hiding the tears in my eyes, recognizing that it didn’t matter how crazy it seemed to do this voluntarily. With blue sky filling the door frame, it would be reasonable to conclude that safety lay inside the plane with a seatbelt on. But my life experience told me a different story. Safety isn’t always where you think it will be. No, sometimes the places most enclosed - by walls, by rules - are the ones that blindside you. Sometimes letting go is the safest thing to do. I wanted freedom. I wanted to watch the plane fall away, and with it everything that represented conventional expectations. Outside was an uninhibited yet focused place, full of possibility.
Many people find it difficult to understand the yearning for this kind of freedom, and the places such desire takes you. The risks involved and the fear to be overcome can hide the meditation, understanding, and release on the other side. Eric didn't just understand, he met me there and said, "I've been waiting for you."
Happy birthday, t. I still feel you out there. Thank you for teaching me that it's okay to inhabit the sky, and that I don't have to do it alone.