The decisive moment of truth came while I was freefalling toward Earth at 120 miles per hour and my parachute was not opening.

I was 23 years old and had, perhaps flippantly, answered my mother’s concern about my penchant for diving out of airplanes with something to this effect, “If I die while skydiving, just know that I died while living the way that I wanted to.” 

Having jumped from 16,000 feet above the lush farms and ocean views of Monterey Bay, I’d enjoyed a freefall that lasted not much more than a minute. At the altitude that called for it, I’d reached back with my right hand to the tucked pilot chute. I pulled it out of its stash and tossed it into the wind.

The pilot chute’s function is to pull the main canopy from its container. The main canopy opens and fills with air. I’d then reach up and take hold of the steering lines. You can pull down on them simultaneously to slow. Pull down on the left steering line to turn left. And the right to turn right. When things go properly.

When I looked up, I saw that my canopy was a blue ball of nylon entangled by white nylon suspension lines. The decisive moment was upon me. And when it came, my body responded with an eerily inexplicable calm. 

I looked down at my torso, where two stainless steel handles awaited. I’d tossed my pilot chute at around 3,000 feet altitude, tops. Every heartbeat brought me closer to impact with a planet, and with a main canopy that needed up to 1,000 feet of continued vertical drop to fully deploy.

The decision to be made with seconds dwindling was:

Do I “cut away” the tangled canopy and then release the emergency chute? That would call for two movements in succession: 

1) Take hold of the handle affixed at the right-front of my harness, and rip it to the left side of my body, as if trying to laterally pull-start a push lawnmower while plummeting in freefall, and then

2) Do it again, this time applying the motion in the opposite direction to pull the handle at the left-front of my harness to release my emergency chute. 

Or … not? Just let it ride and see what happens. That is, die.

I took a breath and heard a voice within say, “Wait. Look up once more.” 

As I started to raise my eyes back toward that wadded up ball of blue, I felt the violent tug of the harness at my groin as the parachute popped open and filled with air. I looked up and quickly assessed the scene. What I saw seemed to be a fully operable parachute. No entanglements, no worries relatively speaking.

Split seconds instantly slowed to minutes as, under canopy, I floated and steered my way to a controlled landing in the drop zone, enlightened by a new edge of experience.

I’ll never know the answers to: What was the malfunction with my parachute opening? Or was there really even a malfunction? Maybe I simply looked up too soon and saw an aspect of the process I’d not seen before? No matter, really. Those answers aren’t the essential experience I had that day.

How often are we faced with moments of life, death and decision? To test our mettle and know what we’re capable of? What happened in those few seconds of my life have lived in me for decades.

I don’t think I told anyone about that jump when it happened. What I saw and felt and was ready to do. Which to be honest is what you’re supposed to do; it’s what people do do when things go wrong up there. That part is not extraordinary. Yet it was my first encounter with this moment. Just me and the decision. And what I validated within myself when the alarm sounded.

For 25 years, it’s been about the calm I felt that day and the confidence that solidified. The slowing of those precious seconds and the steady-ready willingness to act in favor of my life in a decisive moment.

The Parachute is #Eight in the weekly memoir series, Among Other Things. What’s it about? Read Introducing ‘Among Other Things,’ A Weekly Memoir Series.