Risky Business at 13,000 Feet

(Photo: Tommy, Laurie and Kevin at Skydive New England, harnessed to jump)

So Tommy and I had a unique mother-son experience this past week. We jumped out of an airplane together at 13,000 feet. (I always threatened I was going to toss him out of a plane someday.) This fulfilled a promise I made to each of my three kids– that I would take them skydiving, a passion of mine, after their 18th birthday. This was my third skydive and his first. And this was my gift to him on the eve of his 20th birthday. What a fantastic way to inaugurate adulthood!

He was excited, and nervous. With us was my 22-year-old nephew Kevin, a police academy cadet, who seemed as jazzed as Tommy. It may seem funny to you that it’s an almost 50-year-old mother initiating this for her son. One spectator, a woman about my age who was watching as her 19-year-old daughter prepared to jump, said to Tommy, “You’ve got a cool mom!” Hearing that that was worth any risk in jumping, especially as Tara reminds me often how uncool I am. Who doesn’t want to be cool?

But I personally don’t think of skydiving as very risky. Most people do. My life insurance company certainly does. I think of it more as exciting, a way to overcome one’s personal fear. I was never afraid of heights, but actually jumping out the side of an airplane and hurtling to earth–9,000 feet in 55 seconds of freefalling– did give me butterflies. But I savor the adrenaline rush, and adore the idea of conquering fear. And I go tandem–strapped to my back is an instructor with 28 years of skydiving experience (including many years with the Italian Army) and thousands of jumps under his parachute. I was in good hands.(Photo: Tommy plummeting at 120 mph)

And I know Tommy would love it. I was hoping he’d feel that he’d overcome some measure of internal fear, and feel proud of himself. While I’ve always encouraged him to take some risks in life, and not feel overprotected or fragile, especially from hemophilia, Tommy has always been a cautious child by nature. And he’s an only boy; he didn’t have a big brother egging him on, daring him, showing him the way.

I had six brothers growing up, and as the only girl, and a petite runt at that, I had to always compete with the boys. With all those active, competitive brothers, there was no way I could not love risk. You had to: to fit in, to belong, to earn the admiration of your playmates, you had to do what the boys did. And they did a lot: waterskiing, snow skiing, motorcycle riding, rifle shooting, fishing, tree climbing, racing. We had land, lots of boys, a tree fort… my family attracted all the neighborhood boys in the 1960s, until we had our own tribe–with me as an honorary member, I guess. If there was a challenge in front of you, you took it. If you were dared, you did it. And not only to fit in, but to measure your ability, to see what you could overcome internally. To grow. Pain? Forget it. A few cuts, scrapes and scabs were badges of honor; to suffer in silence was one of the best ways to gain respect.

But times change, and it seems boys today don’t get the same opportunities we had growing up, especially only boys. Especially boys with hemophilia. We have to seek out adventure now. Earlier this summer Kevin and I took the kids white-water rafting, during a scheduled dam release, no less. Great fun, hours on the river, teamwork as a family– we always enjoy that adventure. So I upped it a notch for Tommy by giving him a skydiving certificate. He said yes!

Well, there was one truly risky part to this whole thing (besides the jumping out of a plane bit). He didn’t infuse before skydiving (Yikes, I can hear all the hematologists grinding their teeth now). Caught up in the excitement, the factor was left behind. Tommy has moderate hemophilia and does not infuse that much anymore, and never infused prophylatically, except for major events (which this should have qualified as!). This was a reschehduled jump, his cousin had driven two hours for the second time in two weeks to do the jump, and school started the following week–no hope of skydiving after this day. We had to make a decision. Calculating the risk, we decided it was actually very low. There was very little chance of injury when you go tandem. Still, in the back of my mind, I wished he had infused. But part of growing into adulthood is making your own decisions. I respected his. And he did fine. We boarded the prop plane after gearing up. The plane is stripped down and you sit on benches inside, nothing remotely like commercial flying. The ride is loud, the engines roaring, and the anticipation builds. At each thousand feet climb, you get strapped in closer and closer to your instructor, and you can feel adrenaline surging through you! Then the people ahead of you stand at the bay door, which opens, and within seconds whoosh! They are swept away. They seem to plummet like rocks to earth, but when it’s your turn… you feel as though you are floating underwater. You lose all sense of speed. It’s basically indescribable. After 55 seconds, the chute streams out and with a quick jerk, everything becomes eerily quiet, and you sail around, admiring the flawlessly blue sky, the fluffy little trees 2,000 feet below, and the miracle of flight.

When your feet hit the ground, first-timers predictably say the same thing (everyone did who was a first-timer that day): “That was incredible! I loved it! It was too short! I want to go right now again!” Tommy grinned from ear to ear. He and Kevin chatted nonstop about it, every aspect of it. And made plans to go again! (Photo: Hugs for my nephew)

There’s a great new book out called “The Dangerous Book for Boys,” detailing all the fun and risky things boys should know and do before they transition to adulthood: how to camp, how to build a fire, how to build a tree house, how to fish, make knots, skim stones, how to build go-carts, and fly paper airplanes. Things we did normally, naturally. This book is like a walk down Memory Lane of a wonderful childhood populated with curious and active boys. We did all those things; boys should do those things. And boys need to do those things. They need to take risks, push themselves, compete, overcome their fears. More so if the boy has a disorder like hemophilia. The trick is to find activities with an acceptable level of risk. Skydiving is one of them for me, and now for Tommy. Preferably next year, he’ll infuse first. Risk is great but it should be weighed, and I don’t like tempting fate too often.

I like skydiving, rock climbing, traveling to exotic developing countries. People sometimes ask: what activity do I feel is personally risky?

Cooking. Just ask my kids. No wonder they aren’t afraid to skydive.

2 thoughts on “Risky Business at 13,000 Feet”

  1. Hi Laurie,
    I found myself this morning at 5:30 am catching up on your blog. I loved your story about jumping out of a perfectly good airplane with Tommy. You are right, the rush is impossible to describe. When looking up I always see the sky in a different way now. You are a cool mom.
    Dan H

  2. I am a 44 hemophiliac going skydiving for the first time tomorrow with my daughter who just turned 18 today! Very excited. I am mild, but I've had over 100 emergency visits, 25 hospital stays, and 9 broken bones. ONLY because I was quite rebellious- oh what I put my Mom through. I have calmed down somewhat but have been hospitalized still each of the past three years from Softball and Basketball injuries. Hopefully, everything will go fine tomorrow. Be well,
    Michael Eck


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