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Remembering the Man Who Helped Me Fly in Life With a Disability

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It was around the time of the Day of the Dead, that time when we think of loved ones lost, when I got the early-morning email that Nathan unexpectedly passed. I was shocked. Nathan took me on my first skydive. That day was electric, one of the most exciting of my life. How could it possibly be?

We jumped together for Skydiving for MS. For 19 years MSers and allies took to the air and back down again, 60 miles west of Chicago. We called it “the most exciting fundraiser in the world.” I got hooked: I did it 11 times.

two men in freefall, sky in background

I loved skydiving, but more than that, I loved skydiving with Nathan. He was my instructor on my first four jumps. Every single time I saw him, he was all energy, like a jolly pirate. Larger than life and all gusto. Skydivers have their own vibe and subculture, like surfers of the sky. They laugh more, their comradery more intense and out there for all to see, at least at Chicagoland Skydiving Center in Hinckley, Illinois. But even in this wild cast of characters, Nathan stood out from the others.

S4MS was a big day, and I needed a big instructor. I’m a 6-2 quadriplegic and Nathan was strong enough to do everything with another human being strapped to him. But he also had the expertise of thousands of jumps. He specialized in accessibility and took care to learn about our needs. He introduced almost two dozen paraplegics and quadriplegics to the ecstatic experience of skydiving.

He’d suit me up, sweating with the effort (imagine dressing a mannequin who knows nothing but bad jokes). He’d weave a cord through the jump harness and pull tight. I came rolling out of the hangar trussed up like a pot roast. They rolled me to the tarmac and hoisted me up on the floor of the plane like a sack of potatoes. (All of these food metaphors are making me hungry.) In other words, working with me was a ton of work, and year after year Nathan without hesitation was right there for all of it. What an honor.

Then 14,000 feet into the air, where the air gets chilly, the roads look like slot racing, and farmland becomes an endless checkerboard quilt, the see-through Plexiglas door lifts like a garage door, and the air and prop-noise roar inside. Showtime. Using grab bars, Nathan stands up for the both of us: harnessed together, we look like a two-headed, four-legged science experiment teetering toward the threshold. Here, looking down on the earth 2 1/2 miles below, was where I thought fear might kick in. But there was no time for that. He pulled us through the cargo door and we were gone!

It’s an amazing, intense rush. The first several seconds are breathtaking. You tumble and spin, and all around are churning visions of blue sky, white clouds, the airplane, the earth, sky, clouds, airplane, earth, blueness. Surprisingly, you don’t feel vertigo; nausea is rare, Nathan told me, and in thousands of tandem jumps only one person ever got sick. Your mind is occupied with processing the swirling kaleidoscope of images. It is rapid flight. In one minute of freefall you fly 10,000 feet through tornado-level 120 mph winds, so remember to pull that chute. Somebody? Nathan pulls the chute and changes the game.

Under the canopy of the parachute, presto, the world turns serene. A few seconds ago my ears boomed like a volcano, but now it’s quiet enough to have a conversation. You just completed your first freefall, my man, Nathan says. We turn this way and that in our maneuverable parachute, and he points out the landmarks.

I tell him this is the first time in years that I’ve moved around without being strapped to a machine. I point to a black dot on the field far below. See that? That’s my wheelchair. Keep me out of it as long as possible.

We heckle the people down below. I don’t know how long we float around like that, maybe five minutes. Nathan points out the plane circling in the distance, and says we need to beat it down to the landing area. I tell him no, let’s stay up here. To be clear, I love my wheelchair, it’s my ride — but we can take a break from each other without hurting our relationship, we’re cool like that. But no dice: Nathan shifts me up in the harness, so that his feet are positioned lower than mine. It’s ingeniously simple: his feet are going to reach the ground first.

And that ground gets closer and closer. The grass rushes past. People run to intercept us. Here we go, I think, gritting my teeth in case of pain.

The bad news is that they didn’t catch us. The good news is they didn’t need to. Smooth as silk, Nathan touches down, and an instant later my feet plop to the ground. Just plop, like when you lie on the ground and let your hand fall at your side. Which is so ironically funny — 14,000 feet at 120 mph, and then just “plop.” Each and every time, Nathan would set us down in the grass as light as an egg. (More food.)

Through it all, we shared a ton of laughs and good times. You can’t help but laugh after that journey, after all of that effort and adrenaline. Like, why did we do all that? To laugh! And the next year we’d do it again, and again, and again.

Skydiving for MS group.

After jump #7: Nathan on far left, John center.

Nathan also put together the video I received after the jump. It followed us from street clothes to jump harnesses, from hangar to airplane to touchdown, plop. So much fun. When we exit the plane, Nathan cues a hard rocker for the soundtrack, “I Feel So Alive” by POD.

“Every day is a new day
I’m thankful for every breath I take
I won’t take it for granted
So I learn from my mistakes

I feel so alive for the very first time
I can’t deny you
I feel so alive
I feel so alive for the very first time
And I think I can fly.”

Last year was a year of loss and remembrance. I’m celebrating Nathan Dexter, my friend whom I’m tied to for life. I never learned why he passed and don’t care to know, because to me he’s the embodiment of living life with energy and joy. Also, I’m celebrating my journey with multiple sclerosis and disability. Yeah, I’ve hated a lot of the times and ordeals along the way, you can’t sugarcoat that, but these things also shaped my voyage uniquely. If Odysseus had hired a better pilot and got home without a hitch, he wouldn’t have sold any books. These things made me me. They made me a quadriplegic man who needs assistance to live. They turned me into a writer with a special perspective and cheesy food metaphors.

They also brought me to a guy who changed my life, named Nathan. Blue skies forever, my man — now you can touch all the clouds you want.

All photos by Becky Johns

Originally published: January 25, 2021
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