Invisibilia: When Death Rocks Your World, Maybe You Jump Out Of A Plane

Mar 9, 2018
Originally published on March 13, 2018 11:02 am

Welcome to Invisibilia Season 4! The NPR program and podcast explores the invisible forces that shape human behavior, and we here at Shots are joining in to probe the often tenuous line between perception and reality. Here's a personal essay by the host that expands on Episode 1.

There are lots of times when moms ask us to do things we don't want to do. Move the car. Wipe down the table. Get a haircut. Call the great aunt on her birthday. Figure out why my new phone is making a weird buzzy sound and why can't I get into my Facebook account and, you get the picture. My mom? Last fall she asked me to jump out of an airplane.

Now, I am generally not a person hindered by fear. As a child I was the one chosen by cousins to play the monster under the bed because I could happily hide in the dark by myself for hours.

But lately I have developed just one single deep, visceral, nausea-inducing fear. And just my luck, it's a fear of heights. I noticed it one afternoon when I took my son and his friend to visit the Sears Tower in Chicago and walked out onto the glass balcony. Looking down at the city under my feet, I got so dizzy that I stumbled backwards and knocked over a small child behind me.

Intellectually, I recognized that this newfound phobia was probably some glitch of biology. My doctor blamed it on my balance getting worse with age. One theory is that your vertical perception deteriorates, and you get worse at approximating distances. It might just be that having children makes you less of a daredevil. Whatever it is, the fear was making it hard for me to be a dutiful daughter.

"If you're so afraid, then why are you doing it?" all my friends asked, which was the obvious, reasonable question. But I didn't feel that I had a choice.

A year earlier, my mother's husband — my father — died quickly and unexpectedly of a rare form of cancer. They'd been married for 51 years. They had done everything together. He drove her to the subway every morning, picked her up in the evening, made her tea every night. After he died she was in a permanent state of shock. All her bossiness, humor, vitality — gone.

Then on the first anniversary of his death she sent me a text. It was a link to a place called Skydive Cross Keys outside Philadelphia, with a photo of a guy doing two thumbs up as he tumbled out of a plane. My mom is 74, and not at all physically adventurous, or any kind of adventurous. She's never even ridden a bike. The fact that she wanted to jump out of an airplane meant that some revolution was brewing inside her.

She'd gotten it in her head that skydiving was the one thing that would help her move forward. Her logic has to do with my father having been a paratrooper in the Israeli Army and also one other thing: "Up there we will say 'hello' and meet someday," is what she texted me. Up there, she would catch a glimpse of her husband. Deliver a message. Then separate, but vow to meet again soon. It was a little alarming and death-wishy but you'd have to have a heart of coal not to sign on.

"Can't you just wait for her on the ground?" my friends asked. But that seemed like cheating. Who would send a 74-year old woman into the barren sky, alone? Plus, if she could make such a sudden radical shift, couldn't I? I've watched a few episodes of the View. If a woman my age has fear, her only option is "conquer." If two women — and especially a mother and daughter — go on a road trip, their only option is to "push beyond their limits" and "awaken something within."

Determined, I put my trust in Google, hoping to find some celestial inspiration. This was an amateur Internet error. "Skydiver dies in parachute malfunction." "Three skydivers die after mid-air collision." "How I Survived a Skydiving Accident." Tabloids and YouTube love them a skydiving accident. That last one involved a tandem skydive in which the instructor's parachute and then emergency parachute failed to open, because it was too busy strangling him unconscious.

I had made zero progress when, on the morning of our jump, my mother picked me up at the Philadelphia train station. She drove us out to the open field and I sat next to her, recording the trip with my microphone — both to steady my hands and take my mind off visions of accidental strangling.

As the sky grew increasingly gray and the wind picked up, I tried to hide my relief. I had done enough Googling to know that no respectable outfit will let you skydive when the weather turns south. We arrived and the receptionist's face made it clear: We were not going to skydive that day. My mother begged, and I went to the bathroom to secretly high five myself.

My mother, however, is the most stubborn person on Earth, so a week later we were road-tripping again. And this time, clear skies.

Here is where I wish I could bring in the rousing music to indicate inner limits dissolving in open air. Unfortunately, I am too much of a realist. "Skydiving" is such a majestic term, a centuries old dream of being freer than free that dates back to Leonardo DaVinci's first sketch of a parachute. But to me, it is what it is. You fly 12,000 feet up in a rickety airplane, and then walk out the door.

My mom took two old sweatshirts and sewed the letters E-L-I onto them for us. That was my father's name. Eli. In Hebrew it suggests ascending to God, something up high.

I sat in the back of the tiny plane as we climbed up high, trying not to look out the window and track how very far up we were going. The skydiving video guy tried to get me to say I was excited, but in the video I just nod my head no and stare grimly ahead. First a young guy ahead of us tumbled out the door. My mom was next. She took her position at the edge of the open door, and the instructor adjusted her arms and chin. I watched with growing terror as a stranger pushed my mother out an airplane door and then it was my turn.

Psychologist Jerome Kagan has done many studies on fear and the anxious mind. His theory is that we are all born with a certain temperament — either more or less fearful — and while we can work mightily and successfully against our natural instincts, we can never fully overcome them. He calls it "the shadow of temperament."

The conclusion has always struck me as gentle and generous towards the fearful, because it allows them to brave unknown territory while still holding onto their essential selves. But what about the naturally fearless, like me? Nobody talks much about what happens when they stray into the unfamiliar territory of deep fear.

I jumped. I don't know how it happened but it did. The instructor I was attached to just moved me to the door and I was out. I remember that it was freezing, and my ears hurt a lot. I remember he asked me, "Are you OK?" because I imagine most people, at some point during the jump, marvel at the beauty below. I can't say I ever did relax and enjoy the view. I just kept thinking, "DOWNDOWNDOWN" until we were down.

In the standard video they ask everyone if they would do it again. My mom answered an ecstatic "Yes" before he got the question out. My answer was "#$@%* No!" and then I think I mumbled, "Why do humans do this to themselves?"

In the end, I did not get over my particular fear or push beyond my limits or awaken anything within except a terrifying jolt that hits every time I step onto an airplane. It's a very unfamiliar feeling for me, but maybe I can adopt a bit of Kagan's generosity in this situation and accept that I will experience this one little pocket of terror without betraying who I am. At the very least, it made my mom happy. Because after a long, crushing year, she got to be the brave one.

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Good news for all of us who are fans of NPR's Invisibilia - the show about human behavior returns today with a new season of stories about the invisible forces that shape our lives. Today, co-host Hanna Rosin explores what skydiving and death have in common, and it's not what you think.

HANNA ROSIN, BYLINE: A few months ago, my mom started talking to me about jumping out of an airplane, my 74-year-old mom. The whole thing started with a loss, the kind of loss that subtracts from your life something so central that you no longer really know who you are. About a year earlier, her husband, my father, was diagnosed with a rare stomach cancer and died within a few weeks. They'd been married for 51 years, and they did everything together. He drove her to the subway every morning. He picked her up in the evening. He made her tea every night. And my mother had no way of understanding her life story without him.

Do you feel - what thoughts about Eli's death were going through your head over and over?

MIRIAM ROSIN: Could I do more? Did we miss anything? Why didn't I just take him and went to another hospital?

H. ROSIN: Month after month, she went on like this, scratching circles into her brain, unable to make her way out.

M. ROSIN: Don't want to eat, I don't want to cook. I don't want to - completely stuck.

H. ROSIN: So when the thing that holds your world together disappears, how do you find your way out of your old story and into a new one? Naturally, I did what you do when you're a journalist and you're looking for answers to tough questions like this one. I called lots of people, and there was this one guy whose answer really clicked. His name is James Pennebaker - he goes by Jamie - and he's a professor of psychology at UT Austin. He studies words and language...

JAMES PENNEBAKER: And how we can use words to influence our ability to cope with upsetting experiences.

H. ROSIN: The way he thinks about life is we all walk around with a story about ourselves and we're always shifting and editing that story, but then sometimes something happens that knocks out such a big chunk of the story that it just doesn't hold together anymore.

PENNEBAKER: But the ability to get on with it is the ability to put this experience into a simpler, perhaps more coherent story.

H. ROSIN: Now, some people can do that with relative ease. They can tell themselves loss is a natural part of life. But then there are the harder cases where people reach this cliff.

PENNEBAKER: Do I change my story about my life, or do I continue persevering with the old story even though the facts don't fit very well?

H. ROSIN: Jamie wanted to know if he could find clues to the differences between the two groups, the ones who shifted and the ones who circled in place. So several years ago, he came up with a computer program that could measure when people are doing a good job coping with loss, exactly what words are they using and how many times are they using them? In a few different studies, Jamie had people come in and write about what they'd been through, usually for 15 minutes a day, for three or four consecutive days. And then the computer divided up the words into different categories and catalogued them.

PENNEBAKER: What really jumped out were there were huge differences in pronouns.

H. ROSIN: You know...

PENNEBAKER: He, she, they, we.

H. ROSIN: The most important pronouns to track were I words - I, me, my. A person who uses I words at a higher than average rate...

PENNEBAKER: Tends to be more honest, more self-aware.

H. ROSIN: But, according to Jamie, a person who stays in the I mode all the time and never shifts, you need to worry about.

PENNEBAKER: Depressed or depression prone.

M. ROSIN: Why didn't I just - don't want to eat, I don't want to cook. I don't want to - why didn't I pay attention more? I don't know.

H. ROSIN: The pattern the computer picked up was the people who benefited the most were people who switched from I to he, she, we, back to I again, not because this meant they were selfless or deeply invested in others, but because perspective switching...

PENNEBAKER: Implies detachment.

H. ROSIN: If you're having trouble coping, you have to step outside at some point and actively construct a new story. The moment my mom was able to step outside happened while she was home alone during the holidays.

M. ROSIN: I reversed the feeling.

H. ROSIN: Meaning she switched places with my dad, switched from I to he and him.

M. ROSIN: That I said, if I would be the one who died, would I like him to enjoy life, to continue normal? And the answer was immediate, on the spot, a hundred percent yes.

H. ROSIN: She was fully able to step outside herself and see the same story from another perspective, my dad's. And this is how my mother came to the conclusion that what she needed most in the world to move forward in her life was to jump out of an airplane, how she decided the jump would help her close one chapter of her story and let the next chapter begin. The story begins in 1967 with a knock.

M. ROSIN: Knock on the door, and we were all shaken.

H. ROSIN: At the time, my mom was in a bomb shelter at her aunt's house. This was in Tel Aviv, in Israel, during a war.

M. ROSIN: And the entire country was in complete blackout. I mean, you couldn't see even 1 inch in front of you.

H. ROSIN: My dad had already been gone for 60 days. You see, he was a paratrooper trained by the military to jump out of an airplane and parachute into war zones. And when the knock came, my mom did not get up.

M. ROSIN: We didn't want to open the door. That means that they're coming to give us bad news. And, finally, when we opened the door...

H. ROSIN: It was my dad. The truck that was transporting his unit had broken down and wouldn't be ready for 24 hours. He had hitchhiked to Tel Aviv just to sneak in a kiss.

M. ROSIN: Just said, I'm here, I'm alive, I'm fine, gave us a kiss, and he left.

H. ROSIN: I've heard this story over the years, but this time she built on it a whole new way.

All right. Can you just read what you texted to me?

M. ROSIN: OK. Up there, we'll say hello, and we'll meet someday.

H. ROSIN: That was her idea. Up there, 10,000 feet above ground, she would catch a glimpse of her husband, deliver a message.

So it's like completing a story.

M. ROSIN: And not even thinking about the danger - just doing it because I want share everything that you did that I missed.

H. ROSIN: On the day of the jump, I sat in the back of the tiny plane as we climbed on high. I stared at my mom, who was just in front of me. Her lips were moving.

M. ROSIN: I love you, Eli. I love you Eli. I miss you, and I'll be doing it for you.

H. ROSIN: She took her position at the edge of the open door.

M. ROSIN: I love you, Eli. I love you, Eli. I will do it for you.

H. ROSIN: The wind was freezing and brutal, and I desperately wanted to pull her back in. She raised her chin, arranged her arms like wings.

M. ROSIN: I feel you. I really do.

H. ROSIN: She didn't look back.


H. ROSIN: Hanna Rosin, NPR News.


MARTIN: Invisibilia just launched its fourth season, and you can hear it on a whole lot of member stations or on NPR One or wherever you hear podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.