It was true what they said – when you see the ground rush it’s too late.
As I fell below the hilltops I felt a deep sadness. No time for goodbyes; no last “I love you”.
No time for regret.
My life was about to end, and there was nothing I could do.
I’d seen the beautiful face of my lover for the last time. Never again would I caress her cheek and stroke her long brown hair in the warm summer sun. Never again would we walk hand in hand along a deserted beach as the evening light faded from view.
No more her kiss on my lips.
I heard her sweet, sweet voice as it became but a distant echo and my rational mind accepted what was about to happen…
I could have prevented this. I could have changed the way things were to be. I had the chance to change this outcome and once again laugh loudly in the face of my own mortality.
But this time would be different.
Absent friends who had gone before had been constant reminders that things don’t always work out the way we plan. Exciting friends, unwilling to mark time as life just “happened” had been here before me, perhaps paving the way for this moment in time to happen. Good friends, determined never to join the vast throng of people who live to regret time’s passing had made their own mistakes, and were now gathered there, waiting for me with open arms.
It had been a very rowdy evening – that’s usually the way it is when a bunch of skydivers get together after a particularly successful day – and the bell had been rung many times. Carton after carton of free beer had been consumed and it was obvious that there’d be more than a few sore heads stumbling around the drop zone the next morning.
Mine would be one of them.
The painkillers I’d swallowed on top of the gutful of alcohol were probably a bad idea, but at the time it seemed like a reasonable pre-emptive strike against the evil effects of the booze. They didn’t work, and as I lay curled up on the bed I tried desperately to keep my head still. Even the slightest movement amplified the nausea within, sending my stomach into spasms of protest.
I drank water, so much water that my bladder began to hurt, but then I found I couldn’t even stand to piss. The damp floor bore witness to my pathetic attempts to fill a bottle.
I had no idea how long I’d been lying there when a voice broke through my stupor and speared painfully into my consciousness.
A load was going up.
Apparently if I didn’t join the group I was unworthy of being called a skydiver, but despite my fervent protestations I was ordered to gear up.
I dragged myself from the clutter of jumbled sheets and clothes that reeked of stale beer. A half-filled can balanced precariously on its side, waiting for just the right moment to spill over and saturate my mattress. My brain pounded within my skull, its persistent primal beat reminding me why I gave up drinking all those years ago. The pills that wouldn’t work on the the pain succeeded only in numbing my reactions, and I fumbled stupidly as I tried to get dressed, tripping repeatedly over my own feet and crashing headlong onto the floor of my tent.
This was not good.
Maybe breakfast would help. Perhaps something hearty inside might be the ticket, but even the thought of food had my stomach heaving.
Nothing was going to work. I’d just have to let time take its course and flush out the poisons coursing through my veins.
Someone had packed my rig and it was sitting there on the ground beside my tent. I remembered leaving it on the packing room floor amidst a jumble of jumpsuits and abandoned clothing fully intending to pack it after I’d grabbed a beer, but obviously I hadn’t followed the plan.
That wasn’t like me at all.
My helmet and gloves were around somewhere, probably buried under the mess I’d been sleeping in, but I simply had no clue where anything else was.
I was in no shape to jump.
Heading over to the plane was awkward, and as I stumbled over the rocky ground I felt a strangely detached from my body. A weird light-headedness swept over me, and it was as if someone else was pulling my strings. Once inside the plane I could see I was not alone, there were zombies everywhere, all desperately trying to come to grips with the reality of the new day.
As we taxied towards the runway I was brought up to speed, it would be a simple tracking jump to see the New Year in. For a moment my excitement peaked. I loved tracking jumps, they’re the closest thing to flying you can get.
The drone of the engines must have sent me to sleep, and it was with a start that I woke to find the red light on and the guys setting up. I tried to perform my normal gear checks but the plane bounced violently in the turbulent summer air making me nauseous. I tried breathing deeply in an attempt to focus, trying to clear my head, but it didn’t help.
It was then I noticed I’d forgotten my altimeter.
This was a not only a huge mistake but a serious breach of the regulations – it was something you just don’t do. To admit my neglect would have been incredibly embarrassing and would have meant landing with the plane. The guys would have had a field day.
I hid my hand.
The door opened, and seconds later we were in free fall, flying as closely as we could. I had to work hard to stay with them, my senses dulled and my coordination muddled. I’d overcorrect, then in an attempt to fix the problem I’d overcorrect the other way.
I fell below the group, and in seconds was in a position that made it impossible to regain my place. I’d have to track away from them and try to locate the landing area on my own. It wouldn’t be easy in my state.
The seconds ticked by but I was lost. The area around the drop zone was pretty much featureless, a huge collection of flat ploughed paddocks surrounded by rolling green hills, and the buildings had disappeared under the shadows being cast by the clouds.
I looked for the canopies of the other skydivers, but could see none – the morning haze had not yet burned off and the visibility was simply too poor in the thin wispy cloud.
I glanced at my wrist, the habit not lost even though I had no altimeter, and the shocking realisation hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d entered cloud and had no idea of my height.
Instinctively I reached for my main pilot chute, dispatching it quickly into the airflow, but the comforting tug on my shoulders didn’t come. I was having a malfunction, but in my half-dazed state it took extra time to realize what was occurring. I was thinking about who had packed it and what might have gone wrong when the ground appeared below and began spreading out before me.
It’s something a skydiver should never see. It’s something that happens when it’s too late.
My hands went to the emergency handles but stopped. There was no point.
There was no time.
Images of lost skydiving friends flooded my mind. They stood there, arms linked, beckoning me to come.
The faces of loved ones urged me to relax, told me not to worry, told me that it would be ok.
I closed my eyes. The sweet face of my lover hovered before me, her smile telling me to accept what was happening, and as she slowly bowed her head her lips uttered softly the words “there will be no pain”.
I opened my arms.
And embraced the earth.