Bearing Witness

“Oh shit!”
It was the first thing I remember of the traumatic sequence of events that followed. Actually, that’s not true. The first thing I remember was having a discussion with my friend about how the human brain often “remembers” extreme or traumatic events incorrectly. The “Oh shit!” interrupted her mid-sentence. With that fresh in my mind, I decided I needed to get my thoughts down immediately so that I too didn’t fall victim to the very phenomenon we had been discussing when the event occurred. After comparing notes, I found our accounts did in fact differ—even from the first instance—despite standing next to one another as it all unfolded before us.

“Oh shit!” someone screamed to our left. Instantly alert, my eyes tracked to where he was looking across the courtyard. I was just in time to see a canopy through a tree, about 40 feet above the ground. What did l just see? Time dilation kicked in as my brain stopped time, racing to put together what was happening. That’s not the way canopies land. He’s in trouble, he’s in big trouble. Holy shit indeed—I’m witnessing a fa…

Thump. Or maybe it was whump. It was loud but low, and seemed to resonate in the surrounding air and structures. There was no doubt what the sound was, as I have heard it before and unfortunately will no doubt hear it again. It was the sound of a body hitting the earth at an unsurvivable speed. Time returned to its normal speed, and I realized less than a second and a half had passed.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that sound. I’ve heard several people die. Despite being near it, and right next to it, I had never actually watched it happen. Some twist of fate, some lucky chance, always had me looking in a different direction. This summer I thought I was watching my friend die. I knew it, in fact. I resigned myself to what was happening and looked on in spite of it while others turned their heads so they wouldn’t have to see. He proved us all wrong and survived. I think about that moment a lot. He almost impacted in front of all of us and hundreds of spectators.

Today I watched a man die. As fate would have it, the distraction, or rather interruption, was what drew my attention to the incident. It was instant. I looked up, it happened, and I knew he was dead. I knew he was dead but I kept watching. I refused to turn away. First responders administered CPR but everyone knew it wouldn’t matter. As more and more of the crowd realized this, they turned to walk away. I stayed, refusing to leave, refusing to turn my head. I didn’t know this man, I knew he was dead, and it would have been easier to walk away, but I looked on. I stood there rooted to the spot watching the futile scene unfold before me. I didn’t look away until I saw the black bag being unfolded and placed on the ground.

I’ve been talking with someone close to me a lot lately about the need to bear witness to tragic events. Up until this point it was still something I had a hard time wrapping my head around. What point does it serve? We all know what’s happening—witnessing it can’t change the situation. Yet today I was determined to bear witness to the end. In that moment it made sense. Sort of. I felt this man deserved my attention, deserved the respect, and I needed to be strong. I knew at that moment something was to be learned here, something had to be taken away from this. I’m not talking about safety, but something on a higher level. Something moral, if not spiritual.

Maybe I’m just fed up with everyone burying their heads in the sand. As the crowd moved around me I could hear the typical “at least he died doing what he loved” and different variations of it uttered several different times. Bullshit. That’s something people say to one another to feel better about the risks they are taking. A safety blanket of sorts. For fuck’s sake CPR was still being administered the first few times I heard it. The crowd was wasting no time trying to assure themselves this tragedy wasn’t as bad as it really was. There is nothing assuring or romantic about smashing your body into the ground and leaving your friends and loved ones to pick up the pieces. Yeah, figuratively and literally.

Maybe I needed to see this so I can understand and appreciate just how lucky some of us are. I used to hate when a close call happened and someone would say “you got lucky.” I would argue in most cases it was skill or a safety margin that saved them. That’s true sometimes, but sometimes people really do just get lucky, and sometimes some people get unlucky. When I look back at my life I can see I’m lucky. When I look back at my jumping career I’m really lucky. Some years I must have been pulling luck right out of my ass. This year alone I’ve managed to scar every single limb on my body – I even managed to put a scar on top of a scar. I was lucky though. Just this week I’ve had two cutaways in 10 jumps. During my last jump I had a two out situation with the reserve risers temporarily pinning my head to my chest, but I cleared the malfunction and even recovered all the gear. I got lucky. Barely thirty minutes later this man was unlucky and died right in front of me.

Maybe I needed to bear witness to this event so that I can share this message. We need to stop burying our heads in the sand. We need to stop pretending like everything is okay when sometimes it’s not. We assume an abundance of risk so of course sometimes it’s not going to end well, but we need to stop pretending it’s okay when it does end badly. It’s okay to mourn, it’s okay to say what the actual fuck happened here? It’s okay to talk about it, about our fears, and our weaknesses. It’s okay to be emotional and lean on each other.

What we need to do is talk about this stuff. How it bothers and affects us. We need to look out for one another—not just physically but emotionally and spiritually. We need to say we love each other and care—way more often. We owe it to ourselves and to each other.

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