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My Friends Have Started Dying. Here’s How I Stay Sane

Bucket lists were never for me, until I came face-to-face with mortality

Animated GIF video of a man sky diving, appearing to be shouting out of excitement

One of my childhood friends recently died from a heart attack. Another is about to go under the knife for pancreatic cancer. Every day brings more reminders that tomorrow is less guaranteed than ever.

It feels like just a few weeks ago that Mark, Jay and I were playing in our junior high schoolyard, speculating about how adulthood would feel. None of us correctly predicted its dominant characteristic — cruel brevity — or that I would probably be the only one to make it to 50. 

We’re at an age when a friend’s getting sick or even dying shouldn’t come as a complete shock. But it still does. And so after these back-to-back brushes with mortality, I did the only thing that made sense to me. 

I jumped out of a plane.

I told people jumping out of a plane was on my bucket list, which isn't exactly true. Bucket lists always seemed like something old men do when they know the end is near. It’s what Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman do in a buddy movie. It’s Make-a-Wish for graybeards. 

But bucket lists make sense for guys like us, says Sheldon Solomon, a psychology professor at Skidmore College and coauthor of The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. A bucket list “renders the end of our lives more psychologically palatable. To put it more bluntly, it contributes to accepting the reality of the human condition, which is that everyone dies and so do I.”

So if skydiving was a life goal, it made sense to get at it. I signed up with the Flying Elvi, a team of 10 skydiving Elvis Presley impersonators who loaned me a jumpsuit and a jet-black hair helmet and invited me to join them.

Our rickety prop plane took 18 nail-biting minutes to climb to 14,000 feet, the engine emitting a sinister hum as the ground shrank into the distance.

I expected to be nervous. I did not expect to be paralyzed with fear. It turns out that stepping off a tiny metal ledge into nothingness was not something my central nervous system would allow me to do. My body just froze up, refusing to budge any further. Had I not been strapped to an Elvis impersonator, I might not have made the leap at all.

“It’s now or never!” my Flying Elvis yelled before pushing us out into oblivion.

There are few things as terrifying as free-falling two miles above land, attached to half a flapping balloon by a few nylon straps that separate you from your obituary. But it is possible to be taken out of this moment by other things. For instance, if your instructor, who is strapped to the back of your buttocks, has a raging hard-on that’s pressed into your back. (I guess he really enjoyed skydiving.)

After a flip in which I briefly saw my dead grandmother at the end of a tunnel of light, we quickly stabilized and I began enjoying the free fall. As every part of my exposed body rippled with the force of five gas-powered leaf blowers, I experienced a superpowered presentness totally alien to my ground-based lifestyle.

Suddenly, our chute opened and yanked us to what felt like a dead stop in the air. From this point onward, all gravity returns and you hang like the piece of meat you always were.

“How was that?" my Flying Elvis asked as we still hung a mile in the sky, and he still hung six inches into my jumpsuit.

I’m a cynical jerk by nature, but something about this experience left me giddy and exhilarated. I still know I’m going to die, and I know my friends are going to die, probably frighteningly soon. But jumping out of a plane gave me a fleeting sense of control over my own death. Which I know is a total lie, because I’m still more likely to die from a random heart attack or car accident than while skydiving. But this is by far the best feeling a lie has ever given me.