Last Saturday, December 8th proved to be the pinnacle of Nick’s recovery, even though he still has plenty of rehab left. His big day has come and gone; over 18 months of build-up resulted in a climax that did not disappoint.
With the help of our friends Paul, Jared, and Blue, we loaded two cars full of tables, chairs, coolers, food, skydiving equipment, and T-shirts the night before so we could get an early start that morning. Tsunami Skydivers is about an hour drive from our house and we wanted to arrive between 9:30-10am to make necessary preparations before our friends and family began showing up. It was a beautiful day with bright blue skies and warm-for-December temperatures down in Oceanside.
When we pulled up we were greeted by lots of smiling faces (of course my Dad was already there waiting for us!) and got busy right away. Our first order of business was to check out the plane. We’d never jumped from a PAC 750 before, so there were a few unknowns, like how Nick would get in, how the seating would be arranged, and how the exit would go.
Nick practicing his climb-out on the PAC750
The step ladder was no problem for him, and we were thrilled to find the plane had foam seats to keep Nick’s ass off the floor.
Once we cinched down our plan for getting out of the plane, we hopped in the van and headed over to the landing area to have another look at where Nick would be landing and to get an idea of where the spectators would be.
The landing area at Tsunami Skydivers is awesome! It’s flat and the dirt/grass is unusually soft. Not to mention the winds are almost always mild and predictable, and you always have a cushy ride back across the runway to pack!
By the time we finished the safety briefings, our friends started coming in droves. It reminded me a little bit of Feet For Fener, in that we were again the center of attention and surrounded by the love and support of all of our best friends. We were honored to have some very special people there with us. People who directly helped Nick get back on his feet again, and who shared the painful journey with us. Tommy Gann, the extraordinarily talented emergency trauma nurse who helped save Nick’s life, brought his family out to watch Nick jump. John Mayberry, Nick’s lead physical therapist at Ballard Rehab hospital, who taught Nick to transfer and maneuver a wheelchair, who personally prepared us for life on our own, made the long drive to Oceanside that day. He even wore his Fener shirt! Friend and fellow skydiver Bill Collins, Nick’s first outpatient physical therapist before he even had prostheses, and who worked hard to get Nick strong enough and flexible enough to stand on his legs when he got them, brought his girlfriend out to celebrate with us. Bri Hamilton, Nick’s lead specialist at Project Walk, who took ownership in Nick’s recovery and worked just as hard as he did every single week when they were together, brought her husband and made TWO tandem skydives! Eric Harness, co-founder of Project Walk and the man who showed Nick “no mercy” every Friday, pushing Nick’s limits and guaranteeing very sore Saturdays, came out with his family to support Nick. Harold Owens, Nick’s current personal trainer who has been killing Nick’s core and upper body to get him ready for the jump, was there with his wife Jill to cheer Nick on.
And like Feet For Fener there was money being raised, but this time not for Nick. We sold left over Fener shirts for donations to the Project Walk Scholarship Fund. Actually, we didn’t sell a thing, our friends Carrie and Idar manned the T-shirt table all day and worked the crowd, raising almost $1000. That’s nine hours of specialized therapy at Project Walk for someone rehabilitating from a spinal cord injury. Carrie and Idar were also responsible for gathering the canned food I asked people to bring for the food drive. Together we collected a giant pile of food and drinks that the Salvation Army was thrilled to pick up the next day.
It was hard to pull Nick away from all the friends who were excited to see and talk to him, but eventually we had to get ready for the jump. I told everyone he would be jumping at noon, but we were still mingling and soaking in the scene at noon, enjoying the company of our friends way too much to get down to business. But I stole Nick away and we sat down with our super star camera girl Karen Dalton and our additional lurking AFF instructor Paul Rodriguez and planned out the details of the dive. We were so stoked that Karen agreed to shoot video for us that day, especially because it meant flying with a monstrous camera that required special mounting on her helmet.
Karen, in her bad ass custom helmet, sighting in the massive camera, wearing a Fener shirt! Photo by Idar Kvam
The plan for the jump was that Nick would climb outside of the plane and hold on to the bar while I ducked inside grabbing his arms. Nick would signal the exit count with a thrust of his head and we would leap out together while Karen dropped below us and Paul followed right after. Nick and I would be face-to-face, give each other a kiss, then let go of one hand and open up for the camera. I’d then let go of him completely and we’d all sit there and watch Nick fly stable on his belly and do a 360 degree turn if he felt like it. We agreed that none of us would pull any impromptu maneuvers no matter how tempting, and that Nick would pull in place at 5,000 feet. Easy. We are all experienced instructors and between the four of us we have over 20,000 skydives total. At the risk of shattering the illusion of excitement and danger for my non-skydiving readers, this skydive was engineered to be extremely routine, and frankly, kind of boring. It was designed to be safe, to see what Nick’s really capable of in the sky, and to get good footage for the documentary and pictures for the wall.
Before Nick geared up for the jump he stood up and said a little Thank You to the crowd, making sure to publicly acknowledge Bri and Eric and Project Walk for being the secret sauce that got Nick to this point after his injury. But they weren’t the only ones who came from P-Dub! We were joined by several other clients who have become friends, one of the other trainers, and our favorite pseudo-Mom Kay Ledson. We were shocked to see everyone, yet at the same time not surprised at all. There’s a brotherhood at Project Walk that is so strong it’s like a family. Even though Nick and I don’t spend a lot of time down there because we always have a long drive home, we consider the people at Project Walk our extended family. Our friends there continue to inspire and motivate us. It was truly an honor to have so many of them come out to support Nick.
Nick talking to his friends and family just before the jump. We loved the fact that Tsunami Skydivers offered an intimate environment for everyone to meet everyone else. It was perfect!
The Project Walk crew who came our for Nick’s jump. (Minus Bri and Ke)
It was GO time before you know it, and I was just rushing around like a crazy person by this point. The timing was awkward. Nick didn’t want to gear up too soon, for fear of exhausting himself with the heavy equipment. We knew it would take him the longest to get ready, but of course, nothing was going to happen until he was ready to go.
The crowd watched Nick’s every move as he geared up.
Last minute adjustments to Nick’s microphone. That’s Doug, Match and John helping out.
By the time we got our shit together and made the short walk to the plane, we still weren’t ready to board. Our agenda included a pre-planned photo-op in front of the plane, all geared up, with a few key people in the crowd. And because of Nick’s dwindling energy, we didn’t get to snap photos with everyone we would have liked to.
Everyone on the load for Nick’s first jump back. Kneeling in the front is Ricardo, then there’s Karen, Paul, Nick, Me, Jenn and Mike Nootbaar both doing tandems, Brinkman, Bandito, Carson, and in the back are tandem instructors Isaiah and Dave (not visible), and MooTang. Photo by Amanda Burgess
That’s my nervous smile! But Nick, he was as cool as the other side of the pillow. Photo by Idar Kvam
Everything was happening so fast. The adrenaline was really flowing, and the anticipation of the biggest moment of our lives was looming just ahead. I stood back as Nick climbed the step ladder into the plane. I just couldn’t believe it was finally happening. Everything we had been working for was boiling down to these next few moments. Had I missed anything? Was he going to be alright? Was I going to fuck up the skydive? All these crazy worries flashed into my head as I watched Nick stumble his way into the plane, accidentally smashing the GoPro attached to his foot against the floor of the plane while crawling his way into place at the back of the bench. I climbed into the plane and took my seat right between his legs and looked out at our friends waving us good luck.
My perfect spot on the plane, next to Nootbaar, and in front of Nick so I could lean back and snuggle with him. The blurry Waldo way in the back is one of Nick’s best buds Vinnie, who got to ride along in the plane with us. Photo by Amanda Burgess
Two very special people couldn’t make it that day, so we took them along with us. Al and Debbie Nocita were there in spirit! Nick can’t wait to autograph this puppy and give it to them.
This one’s for you Al and Debbie!
All the jumpers got buckled in and shut the door. Rick the super cool pilot started the prop and took off down the runway. As soon as we left the ground I laid into Nick’s arms, threw my head back onto his shoulder and started to cry. He held me tight, turning his face into mine as I let everything out. It felt like 18 months of heartache was finally releasing. I cried for what we have been through, for all the pain Nick has experienced, and all the helpless moments I have watched him suffer. I cried for the knowing that the worst is behind us. We had been saying “Get Busy Living” the entire time since his accident, but it was in this moment that I realized we had only been “Getting Ready to Get Busy Living”. This skydive was more than just a skydive, it was the moment that Nick would finally Get Busy Living his life again. And I knew that I could finally move on too.
I was so preoccupied with my crying that I missed the mooning as we took off. Apparently a bunch of our girlfriends lined up along the runway and showed us their butt cheeks as we flew by. But don’t tell Nick, he’ll ask them to do it again!
As we approached 13,500 feet, everyone started to give us high fives and wish us luck. The door opened, and the rush of cool air on my face reminded me of what we were about to do. Our six friends were first to get out as a group, then Mike, then Jenn. We could see the dazzling blue Pacific a mere two and a half miles below. It was beautiful.
We closed the door and flew the plane around a few times to allow everyone to land before we got out. We put our helmets on and then realized the camera on Nick’s shoe was dislodged. A little ingenuity and gaffers tape did the trick to ensure the foot cam was a go, just in time for the green light to come back on.
Paul opened the door again, this time briefly climbing outside to turn on the two GoPro cameras mounted on the outside bar. Karen climbed out into position on the camera step as Nick scooted toward the door. He swung himself outside and fumbled to get his footing on the step. His big, awkward feet with unforgiving, rigid ankles required his full attention in order for him to get into place. I grabbed onto his shoulders, took a deep breath and gave him a shake.
Nick let go of the plane at the same split second that I lunged forward holding onto him. In that instant there was no sound, no struggle. I lifted my chin to look at his face. His cheeks were scrunched and his mouth was wide open in a screaming smile. I couldn’t see his eyes through the sunglasses, but I knew they were staring deep into mine.
Our exit came off a little steep and I rotated over the top of him, landing us both perfectly stable onto our backs, staring at one another. Without a hesitation, like we had practiced a thousand times, we instinctively rolled over in the same direction and leveled out onto our bellies. Karen and Paul came flying up and I pulled Nick in tight for a mid air kiss. I could feel his energy through his lips. His raw excitement was magnetic. We flew together for a few more seconds, looking at the camera, waving our hands and smiling before I let him go.
The second we left the plane. Nick’s first taste of freedom in over 18 months. Photo by Karen Dalton
He flew in front of Karen, did the 360 we talked about, and smiled so big for the camera I thought his cheeks would fly off. I could tell he never wanted it to end. He was finally doing what he had always wanted to do. I was so proud.
The happiest dude EVER! Photo by Karen Dalton
At 5,000 feet he reached back and pulled his parachute, leaving me and Karen falling away from him to open our own. The view at Tsunami Skydivers in Oceanside is truly breathtaking. From altitude you can see Catalina and Big Bear and the glistening blue ocean below.
I followed Paul and Karen into the landing area and was greeted by the screams of all my friends. I screamed too, completely overwhelmed by the energy they were giving me.
Nick hung up there in the sky a while under his blue and grey Saffire2 209 canopy, all the while the star of the show. As he descended on his final approach the roar of the crowd escalated. People were cheering and cowbells were ringing! A giant blue tarp that read GET BUSY LIVING was sitting in the middle of the landing area and Nick aimed right for it. He landed safely, of course, just as he planned.
Nick coming in for his first landing. The crowd was going crazy at this point. Photo by Amanda Burgess
Just about to touch down, right next to the Get Busy Living banner that Candi and Jason made. Photo by Amanda Burgess
And he’s SAFE! A perfect slide-in landing that didn’t jar his back or his legs one bit. Photo by Karen Dalton
Everything that happened after he landed is pretty blurry for me except for one eternal second.
Our Top Gun moment.
This picture reminds me of my promise to Nick: We’re going to get through this together.
The scene after Nick’s landing. One of the happiest moments I’ve ever had.
Not quite everyone… but almost. We all had the after-jump glow! Photo by Amanda Burgess
Triumph after tragedy. Photo by Amanda Burgess
Ever since this day, I’ve been racking my brain to think of another point in my life where I was happier, more alive, and more in love. There isn’t one. For most women, their wedding day is the best day of their life. And maybe one day that will be true for me. But for now, I can say with every ounce of my soul that being by Nick’s side as he returned to skydiving, conquering an injury that stole so much from us and almost took his life, was the happiest day of my life. My cheeks and jaw hurt from the uncontrollable smile plastered on my face, and I was exhausted for days afterward. We’re still dwelling in the afterglow of that day, and reminiscing about what it took to get there.
Thank you to every single person who has supported us on our journey to get our lives back. To Nick’s family for their unwavering, selfless support. To everyone who gave part of themselves to make Nick’s recovery possible. To everyone who came to Tsunami Skydivers to watch Nick jump. And to Rich Grimm for believing in us.
Now go. Get Busy Living.