Saturday, January 28

The woman who fell to Earth: ‘As we continued to plummet, a sudden terror ripped through me’ | australian books

It started like this.

The deafening beats of the propellers matched the thundering of my heart. I felt electric as the ground shrank beneath us, snow-capped mountains disappearing into the landscape – a patchwork of green, brown and white as the gray sky yawned open around me, large and endless. The town below looked like a dollhouse, and then an oil painting, as we rose.

Just as I thought we must almost be at the right altitude to jump, my instructor told me we hadn’t even reached halfway.

I startled at my own insignificance as the helicopter continued dizzyingly upwards – a similar feeling to when you look into the night sky and realize that you’re looking into the past.

An anxiety that I hadn’t been expecting caught in my throat, and the memory of my signature over a dotted line flashed back to me – suddenly the danger laid out in a black-and-white liability form felt somewhat plausible.

My hand entwined with Jemma’s, I turned to my instructor. Eager for reassurance, I asked how many times he had jumped. The number was absolutely staggering, and I imagined that he had spent more time in midair than he had with his feet on the ground.

This reassured me, along with his honest answer when I asked if anyone had ever been injured diving with him. He told me about a jumper who had broken their ankle on landing a couple of years ago, and his candour and warmth from him in telling him comforted me.

And then before I knew it, it was time. Fourteen thousand feet in the air, the door of the helicopter opened. As the wind rushed in, it felt as if all my senses were coming alive. This sensation was what I’d been craving, this is what my life in all its daily monotony had been missing.

Jemma and I looked at each other, her fear obvious through the tears welling in her eyes. I felt a pang in my heart knowing that my love of adrenaline was the only reason she was here, but I gave her one last squeeze and let go of her hand from her. Strapped to my instructor, I turned towards the door and a new version of myself.

For a moment we sat on the edge of the helicopter, legs dangling in the space between who I was and who I was about to become.

And then I was falling.

The instructor had launched us from the edge, throwing us into wide open nothingness. I remembered the instructions we’d been given on the ground and moved my body into the correct position-and just like that, the world stopped. The sound of the helicopter, the sound of the air whooshing by, the sound of my screaming voice-it all became silent. I was flying.

I was enraptured by the picturesque ground below: the snowy alps, the winding rivers, the endless green farmlands. Again, that feeling of insignificance overwhelmed me and all the troubles I’d left on the ground no longer mattered. This was where I was meant to be. Everything seemed so clear; an undeniable sense of peace in the chaos. It was like a nudge from the future whispering, “Remember this feeling, this is what happiness feels like.”

A tap on my shoulder pulled me from my epiphany. We’d been told the tap meant the parachute was about to be pulled. I crossed my arms over my chest and prepared myself for the jolt of the parachute slowing us down.

When it came, it felt like my hair was being ripped from my head and I was surprised at the pain – no one had warned me that it would hurt. I expected my instructor to say something, to give me a high-five like I’d seen in videos online, but he didn’t move, and as we continued to plummet a sudden terror ripped through me.

Why weren’t we slowing down? It had been hard to tell at first, because when you’re that high up you barely notice the shift in the landscape as you fall towards it, but as you get closer suddenly you notice the drop of every foot – details on the ground below start blooming into clarity.

Then I saw it, the parachute. Red like a warning, it whipped before me in a tangled mess. It hadn’t opened. I screamed at the instructor, desperate as an indescribable wave of panic consumed me. He didn’t answer and I wondered if he was even attached to me any more. I couldn’t turn my head against the velocity of the wind, I could only watch as the Earth seemed to come forwards to meet me. I knew we were about to crash, I knew there’d been some kind of mistake, I knew we were only seconds away from impact, but I hadn’t yet thought about what that meant. The gravity of the situation dawned on me as quickly as it was pulling me down – I was about to die.

My desire to live pounded through my veins with increasing urgency and I felt fear beyond anything I had ever experienced before. “Fear.” What a dull word for what it is. I imagined the sandwich I’d made earlier that morning waiting for me on the ground. The clothes in the washing machine that would never get a chance to dry. My half-packed bag sitting on my bed, belongings thrown carelessly around the room in the implicit belief that I would return safely to pack them away. How was this happening? I wasn’t ready for this yet.

‘I hit the ground and the force was strong enough to alter an entire universe.’ Emergency responders attend to Emma Carey. Photograph: Emma Carey/Allen & Unwin

I wanted to live. The longing was palpable – for my future, my old age, my sandwich. I wanted all of these things but mostly I wanted to scream at myself for only realizing I wanted them once it was too late.

The ground was so close now, and the beautiful rolling fields I’d been admiring moments ago now looked hard and unforgiving. I wondered what being dead would feel like; I wondered if I would know that I had died. And then I realized that the fear coursing through my body was the last thing I would ever feel.

My death was so close I could almost touch it.

3, 2, 1.

I hit the ground and the force was strong enough to alter an entire universe.

I wasn’t dead. Well, at least I was pretty sure I wasn’t. I could hear myself panting and I could taste the blood filling my mouth. I was face down in an expanding pool of dirt, blood and shock. I didn’t understand. How could I not be dead? I wasn’t even unaware. I had somehow remained completely awake for the moment of impact. I wondered how rare that was, to be so acutely present at the precise moment your world changes.

There was a split second of relief, followed by total disbelief and confusion. I couldn’t accept that I had just been in a skydiving accident. Things like that don’t happen in real life. Not in my world. I was supposed to be running over to my best friend, arms outstretched, with a smile so wide at the sheer rush of being alive.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Through the blur came a solitary coherent thought. I was hit with the sudden and panicked realization that help wasn’t coming. We hadn’t landed where we were supposed to land, there was nobody around to see it happen, and we were in the middle of the Swiss Alps. I had thought after surviving the fall my life was guaranteed, but it dawned on me that until I got help, I was still living on borrowed time. I had no idea how I was going to get out of there, but I knew it was up to me to go and search for help. I didn’t know if it was humanly possible to move through the pain, but it was my only chance to be saved.

I inhaled a shaky breath, gathered all my remaining strength, gritted my teeth together and prepared to do what I knew I had to. I began to roll over to get the instructor off me and, just like that, the Earth stopped turning. In a single moment, the life I knew, my heart, my spirit, every plan I had ever made and every ounce of who I was, were shattered.

My legs wouldn’t move.

My soul dropped. Time frozen.

I had only landed seconds ago, but time didn’t seem to flow like it used to. In fact, it didn’t seem to exist at all. Everything was happening so fast that I barely had time to comprehend my reality, yet on the other hand it was passing so slowly that I had multiple streams of thought at once.

I still couldn’t believe any of it was real. I couldn’t fathom why half of my body would suddenly stop working. Then it hit me. I must have broken my back. The realization was so obvious yet utterly shattering. I didn’t know how I was only just figuring this out. I’d seen this scene play out in so many movies – when someone loses feeling in their legs, they’re always told not to move. I had been throwing myself around trying to get up from under the instructor. I thought for sure that I must have brought this injury on myself, that my back hadn’t broken until I started moving.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Emma Carey.
The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Emma Carey. Photograph: Allen & Unwin

My chest was hurting even more than my back now. It was so heavy I could barely breathe. I didn’t know where the pain was coming from at first but then suddenly I understood. It was heartbreak. It was worse than all the physical pain. The loss felt worse than death. My body was ruined. My one body. I had to live in this body for the rest of my life and I had destroyed it. I felt claustrophobic in my own skin.

I had always thought the saying “you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone” was a clichéd lie. I can now tell you from the bottom of my heart that it’s not. In that moment, I could feel the weight of its truth pushing down on me with so much force that it was impossible to ignore. That morning I’d woken up in the bunk of our cabin feeling melancholic and unappreciative. Now there was only one thought in my mind. Distinct, definite and soul-destroying: My life was perfect two minutes ago and I didn’t even know.

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