Adoption Stories Two figures skydiving above the clouds; their parachutes are not yet visible

Published on June 28th, 2022 | by Jessica O'Dwyer

2

The Jump

We’d arrived at the drop zone in the early morning, ready for my boyfriend to teach me to tandem jump. Although I had never skydived, he was an expert, dating from his Vietnam War days. “It’s safer than driving a car,” he assured me. “Statistically you’re more likely to die from a bee sting.”

I’m terrified of heights and anything fast, and avoid ski slopes, roller coasters, and the edges of cliffs. But I’d fallen head over heels in lust for a man who loved to parachute from airplanes. I hoped that by being near him, I too might become brave.

He’d do the first jump solo so I could see how easy it was. I watched as he lay out a large parachute—or canopy, as he called it—on the dusty landing field and kneeled to roll it into a compact package. In his fifties, he was muscular and nimble, with a weathered, craggy face and eyes wrinkled from smiling.

My friends called him “the Seal,” as in Navy Seal, which he’d been for decades. We met in the seaside town of Coronado, on a weekly Saturday morning bicycle ride. The route ran along Coronado’s Silver Strand, a flat sixteen miles out and back, followed by coffee and donuts. We rode two abreast, and from my vantage point in the middle of the pack, I observed the Seal up front, chatting with whoever rode beside him, his pedal-strokes smooth yet aggressive, his bicycle gliding forward like a torpedo through water. The other cyclists spoke of his accomplishments with reverence: His record-breaking times in Ironman and ultra-marathons, his skill at stealth combat. As one of my friends said, he was the man every man wanted to be and every woman wanted to sleep with.

I’d moved from Los Angeles to Coronado a few months before, after the 6.7 Northridge earthquake in 1994. I was alone in bed when the thunderous roar of ground ripping apart shocked me awake. Too paralyzed with fear to run under a doorway for safety, I clung to the mattress to ride the vibrations. As my bed pitched side to side, I heard dishes smash and framed pictures fall from the walls and shatter. The security lights in the alley outside my window went dark as power lines fell. Car alarms screeched.

Wall papered with rows of small pink flowers, disrupted by two large vertical cracks
Image by Kayelle Allen from Pixabay

When the earth finally stopped moving, I touched my bare feet to the wooden floor and stepped on broken glass. Stunned by the sharpness, I instinctively drew up my legs and curled my body into a fetal position, wanting to hide.

My first thought was “People have died.” My second thought was “I want to become a mother.” I was two years past my last period and in early menopause, thirty-four years old and recently divorced. Learning I was unable to conceive had thrown me into a state of despair. Now, with the world split open, alone in a pitch-black room with bloody feet, I knew I needed to act. I longed to breathe salt air and live closer to the ocean. Shortly after the quake, I quit my job as a publicist at the L.A. County Museum, found a position at a smaller museum in San Diego, and moved.

I’d circled the Seal for weeks before striking up a conversation over coffee and donuts. He asked what a “museum gal” like me was doing in San Diego after a glamorous life in L.A. I mentioned the earthquake and needing a change. Somehow it came out that I didn’t have children.

“I don’t do kids,” the Seal said with a southern drawl and a wink. “So that’s perfect.”

After retiring from the Navy, he’d gone to law school to become a prosecutor and “stop bad guys.” He liked country music, dogs, and old Mustang convertibles. He had two ex-wives and a grown daughter he never saw. He implied his life was full without alterations.

I can’t remember how quickly we tumbled into bed, but once there, we rarely got out. Being in his force field of masculinity made me feel feminine for the first time since I’d gone through early menopause, as if his surplus testosterone made up for my lack of estrogen. Although I knew our relationship could never lead to where I wanted to go, I didn’t care. The Seal was the most manly man I’d ever encountered. He reminded me there was more to being a woman than the ability to create a baby.

*

He zipped into a flight suit, hoisted on the backpack containing his canopy, and snapped on goggles. “Ready to see me fly?” He pulled me close for a dramatic back-bending kiss before joining the crowd bound for the small prop plane at the end of the landing strip.

I tucked under a building overhang and watched while the prop plane headed into the wild blue yonder. As I tried to imagine myself beside the open hatch waiting for my turn to leap into nothingness, acid filled my churning stomach.

Up above, the prop plane glided past and, one by one, tiny specks emerged, freefalling fast before stopping short, a bloom of bright color snapping open like an umbrella, then catching hold of an invisible current and floating down. The sky became a pattern of dots growing larger and closer, drifting gracefully to the horizon.

A skydiver with a sunlit green parachute approaches the ground
Image by Günther Schneider from Pixabay

The Seal was right: It looked easy. For him. He experienced danger differently than I did. Instead of fear, he felt exhilaration. Instead of a churning stomach, an endorphin hit.

As he walked toward me across the dusty field, chortling and high fiving with two other jumpers, his stride radiated confidence. He’d never twist himself to accommodate anyone else, which is what I’d spent most of my life doing. I was a people pleaser who’d married the wrong person, convinced no one else would want me. Yes, like “every woman” I wanted to sleep with the Seal. But like “every man,” I wanted to be him, too. I wanted to be brave and fearless enough to live an authentic life.

The Seal swept me up for another acrobatic smooch before introducing me to his buddies. “This gal’s first time at the drop zone, first time jumping.”

We exchanged hellos and they went off as he turned to me with a wide grin. “All set to learn tandem, darlin’?”

My mouth trembled as I attempted to smile back. “Not today. I’m not there yet. Maybe next time.”

He missed only the shortest beat before recovering. “Jumping’s not for everyone,” he said. 

I waved him on. “You go again. I’m fine here waiting.” 

He trotted away to join his friends and repack his canopy. We both knew I’d never jump. Not next time. Not ever.

On the drive back to Coronado I said I was sorry—that I wished I were brave, and I tried to be, but something always held me back. He shrugged. “You’re tough in your own way. You’ve had a couple of bad breaks and you’re not a whiner.” He reached across the console and squeezed my knee. “You know, you would have been a good mother.”  

The lump in my throat prevented me from responding.

After a quick dinner I rustled up in my kitchen, we landed, as usual, in bed. But something had shifted. As much as I longed for the Seal to be my knight in shining armor, there was no such thing. The only person who could construct the life I desired was me.

Soon after, the Seal left San Diego. And I enrolled in a teaching credential program so I could leave the museum world. My dream was to become a mother. My plan was to have the same schedule as the child I hoped someday to adopt.

Cyclist viewed from the back, riding through a desert landscape
Image by Brent Olson from Pixabay

My first semester teaching high school English, I signed up for a five-day, four-hundred-mile bicycle ride across the Anza Borrego Desert and down the coast of San Diego. The first day out, I spotted a cute guy changing a flat tire on the side of the road. I stopped to offer help. 

You learn a lot about a person when bicycling with them for five days and four hundred miles. Like me, Tim was divorced and childless. He was a physician who taught at a university in San Francisco and liked to dance, grow tomatoes, and bake bread. Tim listened hard and thought deeply. He was kind, patient and quietly funny.

On the last morning of the ride, we exchanged information, and every week for the next three months, Tim express-mailed me a package of homemade bread. Whole wheat spiced with cardamom, carrot flecked with raisin, rye speckled with poppy seed. Tucked along with the loaf was a note describing how the bay glittered when he bicycled over the Golden Gate Bridge or the way clouds at sunset glowed the same pink as my cheeks. I carried the notes in my purse and read them over and over, afraid to trust what seemed too good to be true. Saturday nights we talked for hours on the telephone and during spring break, he flew to San Diego to visit.

“I can’t stop thinking about you,” he said when we met face to face. “You’re the love of my life.” We laughed at the craziness of it and kissed for the first time.

Tim and I just celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary and are adoptive parents to a daughter and son. Yesterday our daughter called from college. She said she wants to learn to skydive.

“Skydive?” I said, only briefly gasping for air. “Yes, sweetheart, yes. Go for it.” 

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About the Author

Jessica O’Dwyer is author of Mother Mother (2021 San Diego Book Award for fiction; finalist, 2021 National Indie Excellence Awardand Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir (2011 San Diego Book Award for memoir). Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Scary Mommy. An alum of the Squaw Valley and Bread Loaf writers’ conferences, Jessica earned an MFA from Antioch Los Angeles. She lives in Marin County, California.



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  1. Pingback: My essay The Jump – Jessica O'Dwyer

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