Even now I have a difficult time deciding what the greater shock was - my son's turning 18 or his "special request" to make a parachute jump by way of celebration.
"Why don't you say something?" Alyosha prodded as I smiled passively and gazed off into the distance.
I'm not sure why I was so hesitant about my son's wish. After all, I had always encouraged him to seek the new, try the untried, and open doors at every opportunity. Perhaps I was just reflecting an attitude about something that I would personally never do.
"You scuba dive," my son reasoned. "What's the difference?"
That was an easy one. "The difference," I countered, "is that if something goes wrong underwater, I can go back up. But if something goes wrong when you jump out of a perfectly good airplane..."
It didn't matter. I knew that I would give in, if only because I would have looked ridiculous if I had made an issue out of what was, at root, a unique and probably safe request. Before the day was out I had called a skydiving agency and reserved a slot on Alyosha's birthday.
Sept. 5 dawned warm and clear and stayed that way as I drove Alyosha and his 7-year-old brother, Anton, out to the airfield. The instructor was there to greet us, a big man resplendent in his multicolored jumpsuit. "It's a great day for a jump," Dan said. "You ready?"
Alyosha couldn't have been more eager. This would be a tandem jump, meaning the instructor would be harnessed to my son's back. Such an assisted jump required only minimal preparation - just a 20-minute video followed by 15 minutes of instruction by Dan.
I watched the video with Alyosha. It was more a glorification of the sport of skydiving than practical, "how to" information. This is where Dan came in. He handed Alyosha his own spiffy jumpsuit and then served up the critical pointers. "When I open the plane door," he said, "crawl out to the edge and put your feet on the wing support. When I say 'Go,' don't actually jump, or else you could hit the tail wing. Just fall, and we'll clear the plane."
Gulp. I could already feel the sweat pooling in my palms, and I wasn't even the one jumping ... er, falling.
Dan continued. "We'll free-fall for about 40 seconds. When I tap you on the shoulder, grab the ripcord ring and pull it. If you don't pull it within three seconds, I will." The list went on, including the following vital tidbit: "If you have to throw up, turn your head to the left."
I was trying to keep it all straight in my own head while watching Alyosha's reaction to the directives. But his enthusiasm only grew in tandem with my anxiety. The next thing I knew, he and Dan were climbing into an itsy-bitsy single-engine airplane with only one seat - for the pilot - who looked to be about 16. Anton and I watched as the plane droned and bounced off down the runway. Within five minutes it had lifted off into the wild blue yonder.
By this time clouds had rolled in, low and dark. I could hear the pilot's transmissions over the ground-based radio. With due frequency he reported his position and altitude. Three thousand feet, five thousand, seven...
"Is that a lot?" asked Anton. I nodded, realizing that the plane would be going much higher.
The thing was, we couldn't hear the plane. Only silence reigned overhead. And then, far above us, far above the clouds, the low growl of the engine. The radio crackled. "Ten thousand five hundred feet," said the pilot. And then, "Jumpers away."
I felt my throat catch. Both Anton and I were straining our necks, scouring the sky for signs of life. Alyosha, the little boy I had so often supported in my arms or carried on my back, was now in free-fall, and accelerating, borne on the wings of his faith in a folded sheet of fabric in a nylon sack.
'There!" shouted Anton, and I immediately saw it: the black flickering line of the tiny pilot chute. Then came blessed relief as the blue-and-white main parachute blossomed like an immense flower. That was the moment I had been waiting for, and I was finally able to share Alyosha's joy in full.
And what joy it was. We could hear him, way up there, hooting and hollering. Then the acrobatics commenced: the swooping, horizontal flight, the spinning about an imaginary still point, the pendulum-like descents. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and when Alyosha made his final descent there was no pitch and roll, no clumsy thud, but rather the gentlest reunion with the earth, feather-like, as if he would momentarily be wafted skyward again.
After detaching the parachute, Alyosha came up to me for a paternal embrace. "It was awesome," he gushed. And then, "Dad, you should try it."
Still deep-breathing from the ordeal of watching my son leap into the atmosphere from two miles up, all I could manage was, "Alyosha, I feel like I already have."