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Rebekah Sanderlin

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PBS's 'This Emotional Life': Letting Go of Loved Ones and Airplanes

Posted: 06/23/10 04:18 PM ET

I've seen a lot of parachutes.

Big jumps, little jumps, Golden Knights -- there are parachutes aplenty here at Fort Bragg and I've seen a bunch of them. I've even written about the chutes themselves. Jumping out of airplanes begins to seem commonplace when soldiers wearing maroon and green berets, which are awarded only to soldiers who have attended the Army's Airborne school, are everywhere you look here. With all of this exposure, I thought I understood what it meant to jump out of an airplane -- but then Saturday I did it for myself.

I knew immediately afterward that I wanted to write about the experience and thinking about what I would write kept me up most of the night. I kept going over everything in my head. The adrenaline had worn off and I was trying to make sense of it all. Finally, I woke up my husband to tell him what I had realized:

Stepping out of that little airplane at 11,000 feet was the scariest thing I have ever done. Everything in my mind and body was screaming "NO!" and yet the guy clipped onto my back was saying, "First your right foot, then your left," into my ear. Blessedly, Ron, my tandem instructor didn't ask "Are you ready?" or "Are you sure you want to do this?" because I am convinced that I would have chickened out if he had. He just very calmly and kindly -- but firmly -- told me in not so many words to get my cold feet out of that little plane. The 45 seconds or so of free fall were terrifying, simply terrifying. It was amazing, to be sure, but I was so scared that I was nearly paralyzed -- and I was extremely grateful that Ron, with his 30 years of skydiving experience, was clipped onto my back.

After the first 10 seconds of 125-miles-per-hour free fall, I tried to mind-over-matter myself into relaxing. I told myself that lots of people do this and lots of people love it -- are addicted to it, even. I reminded myself of all the people I know who either skydive for a living or for a hobby. I reminded myself that George Bush, Sr. jumped with the Army's Golden Knights parachute team on his 75th, 80th and 85th birthdays, and that my mom's neighbor Ruth, a mild-mannered church lady, jumped on her 60th birthday. (By the way, it is possible to have a lot of thoughts in 45 seconds, I learned.) All of this reasoning did seem to help. I relaxed a little and managed to somewhat enjoy the free fall, but still, when Ron signaled that it was time to pull the rip cord, I eagerly fumbled to find and yank it.

That's when I really began to enjoy the ride. Sailing through the sky under that canopy was like being a kite. Ron showed me how to sashay, dip and turn. We flew right through a wet and warm cloud, much to my son's delight. He and my husband were watching from the ground. It was truly amazing, so quiet and peaceful and beautiful. I loved it and didn't want it to end.

But that's not what I woke my husband up to tell him Saturday night. He's been skydiving, he knows what it's like. That, and he had been hearing me talk about it all night already. What I woke him up for was this realization:

The only thing I have ever done that came close to being as scary as jumping out of that airplane was saying goodbye to him before each deployment.

Each time he leaves I expect that I will never see him alive again. I make myself think that way, as awful as it sounds, so that I will appreciate every last moment with him -- so that if he is killed I won't live my life regretting that I took our time together for granted. But thinking like that makes it nearly impossible to say goodbye. Each time he has broken away from that last hug, every cell in my mind and body has screamed "NO! Don't let go!" just as they did when I knelt by the open door of that plane. And then, just like I did on that plane, I had to let go anyway. However, with skydiving, the agonizing moment of decision is followed by an amazing thrill ride. With a deployment, the agonizing moment is followed only by months of exhaustion, worry and loneliness.

My husband was surprised by what I told him and we stayed up to talk about it. He said he hadn't considered how terrifying his deployments were for me because, for him, the letting go before a deployment is always followed thinking about the work he must do. That, and -- for obvious reasons -- he doesn't consider that he might not be coming back. He was also surprised that, of all the things I've done in life -- and I've done some really scary things -- that "deployment last hug" ranks up there with skydiving on my list of most frightening. But then, he's never been the one left behind.

This Emotional Life is a two-year campaign to foster awareness, connections and solutions around emotional wellness. Join our community here.

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