It is late August in Minnesota, and even though most of the world still thinks it is summer, Minnesotans know that they had better squeeze every nice day out of the season, because autumn is just around the corner. Fall is a season that I have always loved. Ev and I married in the fall. The chlorophyll camouflage on colorful leaves is stripped away, revealing the true, autumn thoughts of trees. I still carry the memories of less than a year ago, when I rode a bike to work through the crisp temperatures and the crunchy leaves on the bike paths. Each morning was a decision of what to wear, knowing full well that it would be cold on my way to work, and warm or hot on the ride home. Fall brings the days that portend the winter to come, for while fall is a time of stripping away, it is also a time of preparation. We don’t do winter here like the rest of the world. We take it very seriously, and we know that the world-death of winter comes on the heels of color, and coolness, and the honesty of a fall day. So we Minnesotans seek every drop of life that is left in the world as we get closer and closer to the winter, and farther and farther from the announcing fall.
I think that fall means more to me this year than it ever has before. As I await its truths, they seem to symbolize my own truths, my own autumn. As I work through my own dis ease, I find myself anticipating an autumn with a meaning of color that is beyond the simple get up and go to work existence that accompanies the blessed ignorance of temporary able-bodiedness. As I try to be both realistic, yet still empowered, the fall has a significance that I struggle to comprehend, for I know it means more than just the changing of a season.
This August, an unfortunate focus for me has been falling. Falling is a bad thing, all too often associated with aging and chronic dis ease such as ALS and resulting in injuries hard to overcome. And in the past few weeks, I have had a few falls that left me shaking, bruised and, this is hard to admit, scared. Each time I have fallen, I have admonished myself to be more careful, but I have also known that it is impossible to put the full, one hundred percent attention to walking or standing that dis ease demands. And this inability to always attend, while carrying the consequences of falling, is potentially debilitating. I have found myself holding back, cautiously seeking the safety of sitting, staying, remaining, lingering in the quasi-comfort of my own small space. Falling is a phenomenon that can put you in a place of fear. It can color all your perceptions so that keeping fear at bay, ensuring safety first is so paramount, that any engagement seems reckless and ill-advised.
There are many kinds of falls, and the consequence is always fearfulness at some level. People fall in relationships, tumbling down due to their own or others’ weakness and inability to take a chance on honesty and authenticity. People fall in their lives, allowing their failures to define them in a way that makes it impossible to meaningfully connect with others. Fearful of commitment, afraid of hurt, the fallen exhibit a dis ease of spirit shaped by their own out of control life nosedives. In life and in dis ease, falling really does have significant life consequences.
In the past weeks, anticipating fall in Minnesota, I have also anticipated the autumn of my dis ease. I know that this is no way to live, no way to be defined, and certainly no way to experience human contact and trust and vulnerability. Falling has inspired meanings with a life of their own. In the past few weeks, falling meant fear. Falling meant pulling back. Falling meant expecting others to reach out to me, rather than putting myself out to others. I needed to reconceptualize falling into something that, while evoking fear, also inspired courage. I needed to make the anticipation of my own autumn a celebration of the moment when life lived and shared is beautiful, and shared beauty is a rush of oxygen to the spirit. I needed to take the dis eased meaning of fall and reinvigorate it somehow.
So I decided to go skydiving. This is no easy decision, even for someone with an absolutely healthy body. When I would tell people that I wanted to skydive, the reaction was split—-half thought this was a “cool” idea, and the other half thought I was crazy. But I knew I had to do something that significantly shifted the meaning of falling away from weakness, and bruises, and mistrust, to something where strength and healing and absolute trust were paramount. What better way to rework the concept of falling than to free fall in tandem with a person in whom I had to place my absolute trust? What better way to rework my head than to make thirteen thousand feet the distance from me to the ground?
On Saturday, I met family and friends out in the fields of Winsted, Minnesota, and I went skydiving. The owner of the company, Joe Johnson, told me that it is his special mission to get people who might not be able to even conceive of skydiving, to take the plunge. He has even bought special pants that allow him to help someone like me, quasi-paraplegic with no leg strength, to put my legs into the proper position for the dive. As we ascended to our dive height in a plane that seemed remarkably small, as he and the cameraman lifted me into a position that I would have struggled to get into myself, suddenly that rush of trust and strength and healing was in my face. And yes, I was scared. There is something inherently fear provoking about dangling your legs out the side of a plane at 13,000 feet. But I was also scared that I wouldn’t do this very real thing of taking back my fear. So I did it. I put my trust in a very special person, who took the time to prepare me, to help me, and to finally get me to roll out of a plane and free fall for almost a mile and a half. It was sheer joy–air rushing by at what seemed like the speed of life, gravity’s arc pulling inexorably, yet defied by the simple complexity of a parachute deployed.
I’m tired today, maybe a little achy, but I have a new meaning for falling. I am sure that there will be another fall or two in my future, but they cannot hurt me the way that they did before. I know what it feels like to fall away from the safety of a perfectly good plane, to roll over and over, only to be righted belly side down, air rushing past in a way that I will never adequately describe. And that memory, with the knowledge that a parachute opened and lifted me up into a meandering, slow, undulating set of turns until we landed softly on terra firma, cannot ever be taken away. It was empowering. It was exhilarating. And it was exactly what I needed to take back the meaning, and to be strengthened by it.
I cannot deny that winter will come. I cannot deny that there is still danger in standing, but I have a different framework for the world, for I have fallen freely.
For sixty seconds, I was free of earthly bonds, free from fear, and free from ALS. For sixty seconds, I fell into the assurance that I can indeed do this in spite of my dis ease, that I can stay the course, and fear of falling, fear of failing is unimportant. I know now that I can trust, squeezing every possible beauty out of this incredible adventure. I know now that I can overcome fear, and that any impediment to my ultimate path will be shed like a human being rolling over and over, out of a plane while his dis ease continues to fall away, freely, like the rush of air at the speed of life.