How Skydiving Changed My Life - Heidi Barker
by Heidi Barker | USPA #231673 | Boise, Idaho
October 7, 2007, and May 4, 2008: two dates that changed my world and my life forever.
May 4, 2008, was Michelle’s 23rd birthday and our first without her. For weeks in advance, Rich and I discussed and danced around the issue of what to do on that day. We quietly and tearfully fought through the pain of the loss of “Mitchy.” When the day arrived, there was still no plan in place. It seemed strange to even contemplate the notion of some kind of celebration. With no decision made, Rich decided that he would go fishing for a few hours. I stayed at home, wondering what to do.
Throughout it all, I had become close to several skydivers at the drop zone in Star, sort of becoming the DZ mom. So I decided that to celebrate Michelle’s birthday, I would bake cupcakes and share them at the DZ. Kevin Purdy, Brian Corey and Bill Stallcup, three of Michelle’s closest friends on and off the drop zone, were there and had the emotions of the day evident on their faces. Michelle babysat for Brian’s and Bill’s children. They went to dinner, movies and boogies and just hung out together. I trust and feel close to Brian. We share the same sense of loss.
After I wandered around the DZ for a bit, Kevin, who is a tandem instructor, approached and asked if I wanted to make a jump for Michelle’s birthday. I had sworn that I would never, ever jump from an airplane. I had never been up and didn’t quite understand Michelle’s passion for skydiving. After her first jump in May of 2005, she practically lived at the DZ. She was either at work or at the DZ. If we wanted to see her, well, we had to go to the DZ.
I hesitated for a bit and then said yes. Brian, who was the DZO, would take me up, and soon I was watching the requisite video, signing waivers and suiting up. We did a few practice exits from the 182, and the mood lightened when I actually fell from the parked plane and landed on the tarmac!
I called Rich and told him that I was going to skydive. But I hate flying. I’m absolutely terrified of takeoffs and landings, so the ride to altitude was a white-knuckled one. Brian and Bill did their best to keep me calm. And I kept telling myself, “Happy birthday, Michelle.”
When the door opened and I had my first look at the view from 10,000 feet, I remembered my fear of heights. It was exhilarating and frightening. A step out the door, a brief hesitation and we were away! Immediately, all fear disappeared—replaced with feelings of freedom and peace. Just then I realized exactly what it was that Michelle had discovered among the clouds, a release not found anywhere on earth. For those moments spent in freefall, all the grief and pain were still on earth. I was free from their grip, and for just those moments, my heart did not ache.
I can’t tell you how much my new DZ family has helped in getting me through my loss. They have been there for me when others were not or could not. I have a place to go where I can relax and find peace. I can connect with Michelle in a way that the parents of the other victims don’t. Each time I jump, I get to experience a bit of her passion for skydiving and her love of life. I see her name inscribed in the new concrete walkway at the DZ, a bit of her ashes encased below. The memorial picture of “Our Ten” hangs on a wall in the packing area.
I share good times with her friends, who are now my fellow skydivers. They came from Montana, Utah, Washington and beyond to be at Michelle’s ash dive and to jump at the annual boogie named in her honor. Some have even chosen to jump with her mom.
Many cannot understand how I could lose my daughter in such a horrific and terrible way and then pursue this sport. They don’t understand that Michelle died in a plane crash and not a skydiving accident. But those are likely the same people who could never muster the strength to overcome their fear of making a skydive anyway. And those same people will never know the gift of freedom from the bonds of earth or the peace, tranquility and solitude I find in the sky. I now possess the knowledge that I have learned to overcome fear and that I can do anything.
There have been a few bumps and bruises along the way. One broken foot (some sagebrush got in the way) and a sore wrist. I have 57 jumps so far, and I haven’t earned my A license yet. One day I will, but today it doesn’t matter. That’s not what counts. Every time I’m in the air, I’m close to Michelle again, and I know what she knew all along.
Blue skies, Mitchy B. I love you as high as the sky!