Thursday, June 28, 2012

the last time

It is always the same.

Someone tells you.

You're caught in a moment of hollowing disbelief.

Then -- always -- you remember the last time you saw them.

You remember the last time your eyes caught theirs, and when those eyes turned away.

Jasna was sitting on the floor of the Sapphire tower, all legs and long blonde hair. She was wearing green and smiling widely, eyes narrow with laughing. She was surrounded by friends, and I felt bold approaching her; I did, anyway -- I wanted to connect with her. I gave her a little gift and touched her shoulder and told her I'd see her in Greece.

She was dead within weeks.

The newspaper article about what happened was in Swedish, and the web translation was woefully inadequate; the first image captured Jasna's canopy, alone, listlessly pooled in a field. The photo of her that they ran with the story didn't show how pretty; how vital she was. At the Sapphire, I had taken a snapshot of her in a mid-exit stride from the ledge, those long legs frozen as if stepping toward something no one else could see, helmet rapturously pink against the grey skyline. It was the only photo I took of anyone's jump during the entire course of the event. I'm so glad now that I did.

Then, JT died. Yesterday. Somewhere in Norway.

When it first dawned on me that the cryptic news I was hearing must be about him, I couldn't quite grasp the possibility. So many times I'd seen that pair of puckish eyes flash across mine in the plane; been honored to be there in the same place with the man whose name was a part of the fabric of skydiving. As I sifted for clarification on the details, I remembered.

I remembered standing next to the swoop pond at Elsinore in the dark, pressed into a crowd that was jostling for the front cordons, beer in hand, chin tilted up, searching for movement in the black sky. I remember the announcer say his name, and his sudden emergence from the night, and the surge of sound as his toe dug into the surface, and the shimmering plume of water he painted across the floodlights.

I remember his frame in flight -- so birdlike, every limb a distinct note in the sweet and complicated chord.

I can't picture that frame broken, as little as I can picture Jasna's.

We touch each other before we go. It's a part of the thing.

We reach across the plane or the exit point and clasp; tap; shake; tickle; squeeze, just once for each of the others there with you. We lock eyes as best we can through the milky obscurement of goggles or the dim of sunglasses. We extend a part of ourselves to remember and be remembered.

Just in case it doesn't go as planned.

Just in case it's the last time you see them, or if it's the last time anyone sees you and still sees you inside.

Postscript, 10/7/12: 

Sean was one of my first papa birds. His smile (which always looked half-surprised, as if he were startled and delighted to see you there, even if you'd been in the same room for hours) keeps blossoming up into my heart's eyeline, reminding me that he never looked quite like himself when his face wasn't mid-expression.

I remember him at Echo, standing next to the exit's Flying Spaghetti Monster flag, long arms wiry in a long-sleeved shirt. He was grinning even as he scrabbled over the scree to check the winds at the bottom; his face never fell into solemnity. His love for the sport -- for all of us -- seemed always to buoy him up from the exit, a feather-light soul in the void.

There were so many exits; so many lackadaisical moments lolling around launch; so many nights curled up in his cavernous living room with him and his wife and our neighbors and their dogs and their kids. 

I've remembered every single one of them today.

Then, suddenly, we were standing in the early-evening chill outside the Horner. I was struggling, trying to embrace his tireless encouragement in a moment I was feeling desperately unsure. Then there was a skinny, sincere hug. Then there was a promise to reconnect, and soon. Then he loped away, stash bag slung over a shoulder, out of sight.

That was the last time.

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