My skydiving experience. Rewritten in honor of my departed Mom for Mother's Day.
LOOK, MOM, I'M FLYING
Maria Concepcion Panlilio
“It’s all in your head.”
“I know it is. That’s where I remember it. That’s where I hear it.”
“There’s no way you could remember Mom singing lullaby to you when you were just a baby.”
“But it seems real to me. I hear it clearly in my head.”
“We have younger brothers and sisters. Mom sang lullaby to all of them. That’s what you remember.”
“I remember those, too. But what I feel in my heart is different.”
“You’ve said that many times before. I can’t blame you, though. Mom does have the softest and sweetest voice. . .like that of an angel. It tends to linger in the subconscious.”
To this day, decades later, no one believes me that I can still remember my mother singing me to sleep when I was a baby. Why is that so impossible to believe? Are babies immune to memory?
Let me tell you about my mother's voice. It is so soft, gentle and melodic, almost hypnotic, and just loud enough to beguile a baby to sleep. Even when she is displeased, it retains these qualities, but the strength in the timbre dominates, and you can almost feel it passing through stonewalls.
I am going to miss that voice. I am going to miss her.
Tears emerge and sting my eyes.
I watch my mother’s expression change as emotions dance across her face, like shadows floating lazily across the mountains. What do you see in your sleep, Mom? I ask inwardly.
Behind the feigned stoicism Dr. Lee has undoubtedly practiced often in his profession, I sense the emotion he tries to subdue. He has been the family doctor for many years. Just a few weeks ago, he had been so pleased with the success of the peritoneal dialysis. But the renal failure and the various infections that have affected my mother’s other organs were simply too much for her to fight. "We have done all we can," he says softly.
“There is nothing more any of us can do for her. Her body has given up. It is time for you to accept it and let go"
I take and gently squeeze Mom’s fingers, blue veins showing the age spots that have sprouted on the back of her transparent hands. She looks so fragile and small. Her sweet face is relaxed in sleep. Is she really asleep? As I’ve found myself doing often recently, I talk to her telepathically, wishing and hoping she could hear or read my thoughts. Where are you now, Mom? Your favorite doctor says we should let you go. In other words, remove the IV lines, the feeding tube, and the catheter for your dialysis. Basically, just wait for you to leave this world when you’re ready.
Dr. Lee quietly closes the door behind him as he leaves us alone with our mother. With the doctor gone, we release all the pent-up emotions that shatter the silence in the room. One by one, her children and grandchildren hug and kiss her to begin a long good-bye.
Overpowered by the emotional scene, I leave the room and drive to my sister Kelly’s house in San Diego where Mom has been living during the last ten years. Dr. Lee’s words reverberate and spin in my head like an old whirring fan. Just a few months ago, Mom still looked great. I visualize the way she had looked when we went to church, when we dined in restaurants, and how she had fun with her grandchildren. I cannot believe that in such a short time, the doctors would declare her terminally ill.
It is almost midnight. My tears diffuse the lights all around me, like looking through a kaleidoscope cylinder. Just as I blink to clear my vision, the light turns red . . . and I absentmindedly drive through it, oblivious of the police car to my right. I give a little sigh of hope when I see a female cop approach me, thinking she’d be compassionate when I describe my emotional state that caused me to go through the red light. Instead, she slaps me with a citation and advises me to take a safe driving course. The irrevocable penalty for the violation is $395. It is one of the worst days of my life.
I make it safely to Kelly’s house. I walk straight into my mother’s closet and review her wardrobe. I need to buy her the most beautiful dress I can find for her funeral. I grab one of her dresses from the hanger and hold it against my chest. I recall the story about Kelly’s son Joey when he was about six years old—so traumatized when Mom left them to visit me in Colorado for a month. For days, the boy cried while he searched for his grandmother all over the house. The family would find him in Mom’s closet curled up in a ball, sobbing, his head on his knees, his arms around his legs and hugging his grandmother’s tear-stained dress.
Mom is transferred to the San Diego Hospice—the home for the dying. Her children and grandchildren stay with her everyday, She now sleeps most of the time; barely talking, barely recognizing her relatives who came from all over to be with her.
One time, Mom wakes with a sweet smile on her face, her eyes to the ceiling. “She’s seeing the dead,” a visitor says. Mom turns her head toward the patio doors and says softly, “Let them in. Let them in,” We all look out into the sunlit balcony, but there is no one there.
“Who is out there, Mom?” Kelly asks her. No response. “Is it Dad? Is Grandma there? Grandpa, too?” Mom simply smiles as she keeps her finger pointed toward the doors, repeating, “Let them in. Let them in.”
The time is near; I feel it. Mom will not be with us much longer. Although I want to be close to her when the moment comes, I leave the room and head to the parking lot. I rush to my car and drive away, letting destiny take me anywhere. I drive, drive, drive, without destination. Unaware of my speed, I suddenly hear a siren, and behind me is the sheriff’s car with his red blue and yellow lights flashing. My heart starts pounding. Oh, no, not again, I scream internally.
I pull over onto the hard shoulder and shut the engine off. My hand shaking, I retrieve my car insurance and registration papers from the glove compartment and I wait. Cars zoom past my Celica as it shakes in their wake. I take a deep breath and drop my head down, resting my forehead on the white knuckles that clutch the steering wheel.
What’s taking him so long? I glance up. My eyes are assailed by the glare of lights several yards in front of me. I see the cop approaching the driver of another car. "Oh, God, thank you," I murmur.
Fifteen minutes later. I feel the gravel sand crunch beneath my tires as I find myself pulling into the parking lot of the Otay Mesa Drop Zone. Whenever I come near this place, I am pulled in like a magnet. I stop longingly to watch the familiar activity around: the rigging of the canopies, the exuberant camaraderie, and the wonderful sight of parachutists dangling from their colorful canopies, some landing all over the place. I cannot help but feel nostalgic about this extreme and exciting sport that first hooked me years ago.
I leave my car at the parking lot and saunter toward the gathering of people. Skydivers place their lives in the reliability of the parachute strapped on their back, knowing that if it fails to open, they’re history. For most people this sounds insane. Yet, a growing number of men and women of all ages continue to clamor for the adrenaline rush and thrill of skydiving. And for an elite group, it is a lifestyle. Like it was once for me.
I claim my place on the grass lawn and visualize bailing out of a perfectly operational aircraft from 14,500 feet. The dreadful thought of my mother nearing death makes me want to sail through clouds and scatter my heartaches into the atmosphere.
In my youth, I was always fascinated by anything that soared gracefully in the sky: birds, planes, kites and imaginary angels. To simulate flying, I’d flap my arms and jump from my bedroom window, from atop the fence or from a tree in our backyard. None of these take-off points were high enough to cause bodily injury, but they were high enough to cause an improper landing that would later reveal itself on my knees as ugly bruises.
Why can’t you be more normal like your sisters? Mom would always admonish me, which I could never take seriously because of that soft voice of hers. Sometimes she would spank me, but the small pain inflicted on my bottom was not enough to vanquish my adventurous spirit. My sisters also told me that Mom and Dad were secretly amused by my adventures, and that my sisters wished they could be more like me because I seemed to have all the fun.
Many years later after my father died, we all immigrated to the United States. It was here in this Land of Opportunity that my wish to fly like a bird would come true. And the memory of my first skydiving experience would never be obliterated from my mind.
It had been years ago, when Doug--a boyfriend—invited me to an annual Skydiving Boogie--a huge event that usually attracted hundreds of amateur and professional skydivers from all over the country; some from Europe and Canada. When I asked Doug to describe the sensation of freefalling, he replied, "Why don’t you jump and find out for yourself?" I smiled and without hesitation I said, "Okay."
Because I had not taken any skydiving lesson, I could only jump tandem--the state-of-the art piggyback method where I would be harnessed to the belly of Bill—Doug’s chosen Tandem Master for me. In addition to Bill’s instructions, I watched an introductory film for a quick lesson on the theory of skydiving, personal equipment, aircraft procedures, body positions, parachute opening, canopy steering, landing and emergency procedures. Doug also hired Wayne, an aerial photographer, to videotape my entire experience, hopefully capturing the intrinsic excitement of my performance without any humiliating incident.
Dressed in a bulky jumpsuit, I climbed into the aircraft behind Bill and thirteen other skydivers. Cramped inside the Beechcraft King Air, I closed my eyes and saw visions of my body dangling from a tree like a rag doll. I began to doubt my sanity. This is not like jumping from my bedroom window. At 14,500 feet, the roar of the plane’s propeller rang in my ears. "It’s time," Bill said. He checked all the safety locks that attached us together and announced they were secure. We were ready to go. I began to feel the excitement of anticipating my first leap.
A door in the side of the plane swung open and a cold wind ripped through the cabin. My gut wrenched and my whole body rocked. The guy closest to the door knelt at the doorway then tumbled out. The big guy in front of us in a Star Trek outfit jammed up the small opening, his hands grabbing the sides. He was playfully screaming, refusing to jump. His friend pushed him with a finger and he was beamed out of the prop blast.
It was our turn. Now or never! With Bill strapped to my back and breathing hard in my ear, we waddled toward the gaping hole. I gripped the sides of the door and I wondered if they could ever pry my fingers off them. My toes hanging over the edge, I stared at the empty space leading to the twilight zone. The wind was rushing up at me, pushing my cheeks back. The primeval fear began to consume me and I thought my brain would short-circuit and explode. "Oh God!" I screamed.
"There’s no turning back now." Bill yelled. "Swing your leg out and jump!"
In a lightning speed mode, I mentally reviewed the fine points of doing a proper and flawless jump: a full-spread eagle form, arms and legs straight and spread widely, head back, with a backward arch at the waist, pushing outward, maintaining throughout, a stable, face-to-earth freefall body position.
I made a sign of the cross, thrust my body forward and jumped our one-way ticket to earth. We stumbled straight into nothingness, and all the instructions I had reviewed in my head were scattered in the wind.
Almost instantly, an incredible euphoric sensation replaced my anxiety. With my arms spread wide like wings of an eagle, freefalling at a rate of 32 feet per second, I looked down at the panorama of colors below. I did not think of the hard ground that waited straight down for me. Instead, I soared with a sense of tranquility and quiet bliss, enjoying the sensation of experiencing the closest thing humanly possible to flying like a bird. The wind was roaring past my ears at about 120 miles per hour, but all I could think of was that the mystery of the sky had been unveiled.
My childhood dream of flying had become a reality!
I was hamming at the camera; smiling, waving and giving my videographer the skydivers’ thumbs-up language. I yelled: "Look, MOM! I’m flying!"
After about forty-five seconds, we pulled the ripcord, instantly jerking us upward. I craned my neck to look up, and there it was — our luminescent blue, white and yellow canopy blossoming heavenward, rippling gently in the breeze — like the wings of an angel protecting me. I noticed the total quiet and peace around me. I didn’t know whether to scream or say a prayer. I chose to scream — it was a manifestation of joy for being a part of an adventure that was bringing me so much thrill and satisfaction.
I thought I heard my mother’s voice. You’re still not normal after all these years! I wish you were more like your sisters.
That was the beginning of my fanatical obsession with skydiving. I remember how upset my mother got when she first saw my skydiving video. She called me right away and scolded me on the phone as though I were still the same incorrigible, tomboyish little girl who always got in trouble, unlike her other demure daughters.
On my 55th jump, however, I thought I heard my Mom admonish me for the last time when I experienced my first premature encounter with my own death. I remember that very last moment just before my consciousness fluttered into oblivion. It was my mother’s traumatized voice crying to me: You’re going to kill me with a heart attack one of these days if you don’t kill yourself first. Fortunately for me, none of the severe cuts and bruises, torn ligaments, a dislocated elbow, and a broken ankle left any physical imprint on my body to forever remind me of that mishap. But throughout the recovery process, my mother’s voice kept playing in my head like a broken record: I wish you were more like your sisters.
"I've seen you here a few times before," A tall skydiver says, pulling me out of my reveries and sending me back down to earth. I’ve seen him here before. No woman could forget that California sun-kissed sculpted face, and that unruly, blond hair. "Would you like to try jumping this time?"
I smile. "No, thank you. I’ll just watch."
"All right. But you don’t know what you’re missing!"
I remain sitting comfortably on the grass for a few minutes, watching jumpers land on their feet; some stumbling, and one being dragged by his canopy instead of the other way around.
I turn my head to the right toward the manifest table. I check my wallet to review my cash, hoping they’d have a comfortable jumpsuit for my size. I get up and walk to sign up.
Blondie sees me at the registration. He flashes a wide grin that makes his face look all teeth. "So you decided to join us after all," he says.
"Yes, I did."
"We have a Tandem Master on board. He’s quite good. You’ll like him."
"That’s all right. I’m a certified jumper.”
I catch the look of surprise. "Well . . . How about that? How long have you been jumping?"
"A few years."
"I haven’t jumped in about a year."
"What made you change your mind now?"
I ponder his question for a moment. Maybe he thinks it's all about him. How can I tell him that Í just want to hear my mother’s voice again, even if only in my head?
"For my mother," I say.
He gives me a quizzical look.
I rush back to the Hospice after one jump. Mom appears asleep, but every now and then she murmurs some unintelligible words as if dreaming. The sound of her voice seems to issue from the depths of the ocean and course through every nerve in my body. I reach for her bony hand and stroke the onionskin above her pulse. I lean over and kiss her lightly on the forehead. “I will always have your sweet voice in my head, Mom,” I whisper in her ear. I notice the ghost of a smile play around the corner of her lips. I choke back a sob. "Can you hear me, Mom?"
Having tasted human flight, I often find myself walking with my eyes to the sky where I have soared like a bird many times before. Up there, I imagine seeing my mother’s face with the aureole of a saint--a circle of light around her head. She had to be a saint to have had me as her child.
My mother is gone, yes. When missing her becomes unbearable, I seek the nearest Drop Zone to skydive and to hear her say in feigned admonition: You’re still not normal after all these years. I wish you could be more like your sisters. The sound is celestial music in my ear—inducing a feeling I had when she would cradle me in her arms and sing me to sleep when I was a baby. It's the closest thing to feeling next to her again.
(Revised May 5, 2010)