I haven’t done much blogging lately, I lost my mojo somewhere a few months back. I’m not really sure why, even though I was as busy as ever, I didn’t think I had anything new to write about. I was pretty fed up with melanoma. I think it was about then I decided I needed to challenge myself with something new.
I guess that’s not completely true though, because looking back at my messages it was actually September 16, when the idea of doing a skydive was first muted. I didn’t really take the offer seriously at the time and quickly forgot about it. Every so often the conversation would start again. “Are you going to come do that skydive?” for someone who could have had a limited life expectancy, I took my time. It wasn’t fear that was holding me back, it just wasn’t something that had ever really been on my radar to begin with. I didn’t have a “bucket list”, I thought they were a bit naff if I’m honest.
I was busy living, not making a list of things I wanted to do before I die, because I wasn’t really considering doing that anytime soon, if I could help it.
In March I attended the annual MPNE conference in Brussels. It was a great weekend, the conference went exceptionally well and Ireland had beaten England on St. Patricks day at the rugby. But, I knew that all too familiar gut wrenching feeling as we drove back to the airport. I knew I had just said goodbye to friends, I would never see again, because of this disease. I was feeling bruised as a peach, vulnerable, and confused. I went to talk to someone professional, but I didn’t need extra evaluation, I was coping well under the circumstances was their assessment. All they could do was advise me to seek out extra professional support, if I felt I needed it. I on the other hand decided I needed a distraction. Something to look forward to and plan.
I haven’t done a lot of forward planning in recent years, because stage 4 melanoma is too unpredictable. A couple of months at most in between scans, you feel is about as far as you can look ahead. So committing to something, that was months away, was the scary part. But, I bit the bullet and contacted a local cancer research charity, if, I was gonna jump, out of a plane, it should at least be for a good reason, right!!
I hadn’t actually discussed what I’d planned with anyone until I announced it on Facebook and Twitter, with my funding page. Then things seemed to snowball quickly, within a few days there was already over a thousand euros donated. I hadn’t even discussed the logistics of the jump, but I knew if it was going to happen it would be with Luc Vautmans, and Hoevenen skydiving near Antwerp, of which he is president. He was as surprised as everyone else, I’m guessing, to find out I was actually going to do it, after almost two years, of offers to accommodate it.
In fact I’d go so far as to say, he never really believed I would, he now knows better not to challenge me, I don’t back down easily. I couldn’t think who better to jump with, than a fellow patient who understands what it’s like to live in the stage 4 bubble of long-term responders. Unfortunately we are still a pretty exclusive club, that is why I wanted the donations to be ring-fenced for Melanoma research. I knew I would be safe, and I hoped he would understand, what a big deal it was for me to commit to jump.
We held a fabulous fundraising night in my local pub, last June, to correspond with my birthday, lots of amazing prizes donated by locals who wanted to help me raise as much as possible. We had a tremendous response, and in a crammed pub, in a little Irish village managed to raise another seventeen hundred euros from the raffle. I’m always proud of how my village respond when a cause needs funds, Irish people are known for their generosity and never fail to dig deep when asked. We also had a lot of craic, and dancing late into the night. To date the amount raised is over four thousand, six hundred euros. Boosted by the donation of a free jump from Skydive Hoevenen, which was a great surprise and really appreciated.
Logistics were never going to be easy, but we made a plan, some dates were proposed by Luc, the dive team, me and my friend Kacie, who I would stay over with after the jump. It was of course all-weather dependant, so I booked a cheap flight and a cheaper hotel in Antwerp, just in case it all went pear shape at last-minute. It almost did, after a summer of unbelievable weather, the week we picked it decided to break. I had to take a chance and just go for it. But on the day before I was due to leave I felt the tell-tale signs of an infection, something I knew was medication related. NOT bloody now, I thought as I started to burn up, my nasal passages and throat hurt like hell, I wasn’t sure what to do, I just wanted to lie in bed and sweat for a few days like I usually would in that situation.
I packed my bag and still wasn’t sure if I would be well enough to leave the next morning. I also took my electronic thermometer and promised myself if it went above a certain point I wouldn’t get on the plane. Just before we were about to board I felt the familiar feeling of a nose clot, I hurried to the bathroom and out it came followed by what felt life copious amounts of fresh red blood. I tried not to panic the boarding had just started, but I had ten mins to get it under control, I figured if I at least got underway they wouldn’t divert a plane if it started again.
I was going to Belgium and I was going to jump out of the next plane, I got on, no matter what!!
Luc collected me from the airport, I was feeling slightly better and my temperature was going the right direction, we had some dinner once we finally made it out of the Brussels car park that is the road to Antwerp, plans were made for the weekend ahead and a plan B depending on the weather. The heavens opened as we ran from the outdoor seating of the pub. It wasn’t looking good for friday as the rain continued throughout the night, and the wind picked up too. On friday morning I got a message to say the jump wouldn’t be happening, I was disappointed, but we had factored this in with Saturday and Sunday slots also a potential. I had a long lie in to help me recover from the infection, then I went exploring Antwerp on foot, but didn’t get too far. My motivation was low, because of feeling unwell, so I made it to the Rubens Inn, instead of the Rubens museum.
Once Luc finished work he came and collected me, we had decided as the traffic is so bad the best way to see a bit of the surrounding countryside was by bike, (not the kind with pedals). Again the weather wasn’t on our side, after a short ride out to the port of Antwerp the dark storm clouds gathered again, and we had to revert to four wheels.
After a stormy Friday evening out, it was still raining when I got back to the hotel. When the sun broke through on Saturday morning, I looked anxiously out my hotel window at the trees, to see how windy it was, thankfully the leaves were just lightly rustling, I went and ate breakfast, and waited for Luc to collect me.
I felt a little like a child on christmas morning, giddy with excitement but not nervous. I knew this was going to be one of the very best days of my life.
From the moment I arrived at the Skydive Hoevenen field, I felt completely at ease. I had a quick run through with my tandem-master Phil in the flight simulator. I was trying to listen carefully but was still a bit too giddy for it to sink in. He fitted me with my harness and then, Luc produced, what can only be described as the most unflattering piece of clothing that has ever been worn on my body, the tandem flight suit, even more hideous than anything we wore to a 80s school disco and that’s pretty hard to beat.
Phil disappeared off on the first drop so I waited with Luc, surprisingly he actually ate what I I managed to sneak him out of my hotel buffet, much better than a diet of Red Bull for breakfast even if it does supposedly give you wings!!. We took some pre jump pictures and then I heard the sound of an engine. The plane comes in so low, just over your head, it appeared from behind the office portacabin and Luc exclaimed “the best sound in the world”. I had to agree it was pretty awesome to be so close. Phil had landed safely from his first drop and was quickly getting ready to meet us at the plane, these guys don’t hang about, the plane lands and takes off again in minutes. Oh well too late, now wasn’t a good time to mention I could do with nipping to the toilet.
I joined Phil at the plane door, he got in, and I slid or rather plonked myself between his legs, all the time thinking I wished I’d tried harder at that diet!!. Phew!! it was small in there me sitting on Phil’s lap, the pilot whose face I didn’t even see, as I was sitting with my back to Phil’s chest, Phew again!! Luc beside me to the left on camera, Marc crouched in front of him with Christophe filming crouched at my feet, and I have no Idea how Bart fitted in because he is so tall. Sardines in a can would have more wiggle room. The engine revved the plane headed down the field and we were up!!
I absolutely loved the plane, the guys, were great fun, and pointed things out that we could see or at least I think that’s what they intended, it was a bit hard to hear. At 5000 ft the door flap opened, Marc gave me a fist pump and then he disappeared, It was the most hilarious thing I have ever seen, it was like a giant Hoover just sucked him out into the sky, the speed at which he dropped was phenomenal, now I couldn’t wait for my turn. We had slightly more room we were sans one passenger, but not much.
The guys closed the door flap and we continued to climb for another five mins to 12,000 ft, I guess if you were going to panic now would have been the time.
I was on the other hand completely relaxed, I so wanted to do this, and I felt entirely safe strapped to Phil, Phew again!! If I was gonna go, him landing on top of me wasn’t entirely the worst option for departure from this planet. (Ladies look a the pictures you’ll see what I mean). At our maximum altitude the guys opened the door flap and climbed outside to stand on the wing and cling to side of plane, I shit you not, this was the coolest thing ever seen by my eyes, just imagine doing that every week these guys are so damn lucky. With them out-of-the-way Phil pushed my carcass forward to the door. Now this bit, I wish had lasted longer, went in slow motion.
I looked down at the earth below and then at the guys hanging onto the side of plane, Phil gently pulled my head back into his shoulder and in unison thankfully, we began to fly.
The sensation of the air rushing past was all I could feel, I didn’t feel afraid, I didn’t feel like I was falling, it’s all a bit surreal, that’s why I wish I could rewind and do it again in slow motion. Christophe appeared out of nowhere in front of me, and Bart flew in from the side and touched my arm. I tried to look around for Luc, as I really wanted to see him, but he had explained it would be hard for me to locate him as he was jumping after us and filming from above.
We were in freefall for 43 seconds and reached a top speed of 220 km, it felt like nothing I can adequately find words, to describe, it felt bloody amazing!!
Suddenly as they appeared, the guys disappeared again, and Phil released our main chute. there isn’t a dramatic pull upwards it just appears that way on the camera. It all went very quiet because the free fall had stopped, and Phil told me I could remove my goggles. I looked up and said OMG there’s a canopy above us, anyone else would have probably been just delighted it had opened, but I genuinely hadn’t felt it go up, and was laughing again at the ridiculousness of the whole situation.
Phil loosened our harness, trust at this point is important, I didn’t panic and think he was trying to offload me!! We glided around for a while, I could see the motorway beneath us, Antwerp harbour, the nuclear power plant, none of them seemed like good options to land on. Phil pointed out the border of Belgium and the Netherlands. He asked me would I like to do a spiral, and help to steer the chute. I whooped, as we spun around so we ended up doing three, I have a strong stomach from years on waltzers at Tramore, good training for skydiving spirals.
I looked down and said, “is that LUC on the ground already?” how did that even seem possible, last time I saw him he was smiling at me in the plane and giving me a high five now he was looking up at me.
I raised my knees, then just as we were about to land stuck them out as straight as they could go, as instructed. We glided in and landed softly, me lying backwards on Phil, then Luc came and jumped on us and ended my fantasy. All I could think was “Don’t say it’s over, It’s only just begun……..
P.S Seriously though enormous high fives to all the team at Skydive Hoevenen, Phil, Christophe, Bart, Brit, Stefan, Marc, the pilot who remains nameless, all the people I sat and chilled with after the jump, while I waited for Luc to do two more!! the staff at pub next door for supplying post jump Moules Frites accompanied by a cold glass of Stella, but most of all to LUC for making it all happen…….I have a feeling it won’t be my last