For some reason, friends recently asked if I was having a midlife crisis. Yes, my oldest daughter had just spent her first summer living independently. My son was leaving for college on the very date of my 50th birthday. My youngest daughter’s fierce separation anxiety had mutated into fierce independence. But no, I was not having a midlife crisis.
I was dangling my legs out the open hatch of an airplane, 11,000 feet above the earth, preparing to hurtle through the clouds … hoping my parachute would prove in good working order. I had to force myself to leap, just as I forced myself to leave home for college, to walk down the aisle, to give birth three times. I wanted all these things, but they were fraught with uncertainty. I had to do my part, and I had to trust other people, like the tandem instructor attached to my back. When he hollered over the freezing air assaulting the open door, “Ready, set, arch!” I had to do what I’d been taught — hold onto my harness, arch my back, and take off.
Terror gripped me. Then the crazy rush of wind blasted my hair straight up from my scalp, vibrated my cheeks, and flapped my nylon jumpsuit, deafening my ears. My mind cleared of everything but the moment. It went by way too fast, like the 49 years behind me.
The worst part of the experience? That moment the parachute deployed. The ecstatic high of flight ended abruptly as the harness brought me up short, bruising my arms. The clamor and kerfuffle that had left me no space to think shifted to the opposite extreme — utter silence and serenity. Everything was under control, for better or worse, like a nest emptied of kids.
Transitions are tough, but I learned to catch the wind and pull the toggles to control my direction. Soaring high above Canada’s Great Lakes, my eyes went first toward the small airport where my family stood searching the sky for me. Next I was intent on finding my roots, grounding my view in the lakeshore roads I bicycled as a child and the cottage I loved. This was my happy place, a place I still dreamt about when life got stressful. I learned later that I missed out on more notable sights, like that wonder of the world Niagara Falls. But I saw what mattered most to me.
Like the free fall, the landing also went by fast. My instructor reminded me to stick my feet out as we hurtled toward the ground. I was so relieved to touch down I forgot to let go of the toggles, which meant air filled the parachute and dragged us backward fast. Still, despite the less-than-graceful landing, all ended well.
The most thrilling part? Seeing my husband and my three kids — the great loves of my life —waiting for me as I walked on my own two legs across the airfield. I knew they would not always be right there waiting for me. My own days would soon be less structured by waiting for them — to come downstairs for breakfast, to come back from school, to come home from parties. My heart would always be waiting for them, but my days would focus a little more on my own direction.
Like the free fall, our time together sped by too fast. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Mostly, I just hung on and, to be precise, flew by the seat of my pants. I tried to stay true to myself and remember what I’d been taught. Terror gripped me, but nothing could compare to the extreme joy and extreme wonder.
Of course, it’s possible that the past 20 years have merely been the ride up in the cramped plane, and the previous 30 years the preliminary training simulation. Could it be that only now do I dangle my legs out the open hatch, free fall about to begin? No midlife crisis here. Just trying to leap with dignity from the first stage of grief, denial, to the last stage, acceptance.
“Would you do it again?” people have asked me. You bet I would.
Jean (Woestendiek) Letai ’87 s’87 p’17 is a freelance writer and aspiring kidlit novelist as well as a mother of three and board member of the Bay State Speedskating Club. At Princeton she served as editor-in-chief of the Nassau Weekly and taught English in Japan, through Princeton-in-Asia. After graduation, she completed an MBA at the University of Chicago and spent her early career in nonprofit development. She lives outside Boston with her husband and three kids. You can find her on Twitter @JeanLetai.