For years, she had been her ailing husband’s caregiver. When he died, she wasn’t sure who she was anymore, but she would soon find out.
Nearly four years after joining Episcopal Church of the Messiah in downtown Santa Ana, California, I felt almost like a full-fledged member—emphasis on almost. I attended every Sunday, happily settling into the all-redwood sanctuary built more than a century before. I baked and brought food for coffee hour, hosted small group dinners and went to classes. I drove elderly members on errands and served as clerk to the vestry.
The only thing I didn’t do? Believe in God. Well, I sort of believed in God. I wanted to believe in God. But I wasn’t exactly sure what I believed. About a lot of things. Including myself.
For years, I’d been my ailing husband’s caregiver. When he died, I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. But I would soon find out. When I’d stumbled upon Messiah while writing a story for the Orange County Register, where I was a reporter, I’d been a devout skeptic. Something about the church had moved me, though, especially the rector, Father Brad. He was conducting a memorial service for a homeless woman. He’d opened the church to all the woman’s friends, most homeless themselves. He made a point of hugging and talking to each one. It made an impression on me.
I began attending, and in the years that followed, my life changed almost unimaginably. Overweight since childhood, I had surgery and lost 210 pounds. My husband, severely disabled by a stroke, died, ending decades of caregiving. I neared retirement age. My older son got married, moved to New York and had a baby. My younger son graduated from college and launched his career.
You’d think such changes would have strengthened whatever spark of faith drew me to Messiah. And they did—to a degree. Still, as I neared my four-year anniversary at the church, I remained unsure about myself and my beliefs. All my life I’d been defined by need. My husband needed care, so I cared for him. My boys needed me. I needed to make people accept me, an overweight woman, so I bent and contorted myself whichever way they wanted. Robin the Rescuer, I called myself, always there to do whatever people needed, whatever would make them glad to have me around. I wondered—just why was I at Messiah? Because I believed in God? Or because all those church activities gave me a dose of acceptance, something to do, someone to be? Was it Robin the Believer baking muffins for coffee hour or Robin the Rescuer?
One Sunday I fell into conversation at coffee hour with a woman named Peggy. I didn’t know Peggy well. She was quiet and low-key, about 20 years younger than I. She happened to mention what she’d be doing the following weekend—skydiving, jumping out of a plane at 12,500 feet.
I practically spat out my coffee. “Peggy! You—you skydive?” I took a closer look at her. Nothing, not her understated clothes, her slender frame, said adventure woman.
She nodded. “Every weekend. I love it. It means so much to me. Have you ever thought about it?”
Again I choked. “Oh, no. Not me.” One thing in my life had most emphatically not changed—my mortal dread of heights. Even as a child I wouldn’t let my own father twirl me by the arms—what my granddaughter calls “doing dizzy.” I cowered at stepladders. Skydiving! That would be the day.
A few weeks later Peggy invited me to a party. I was still trying to reconcile the thought of her skydiving when, walking into her house, I found myself in a room full of divers—all Peggy’s friends. Peggy, I learned, owned her own parachute, knew how to pack it and was learning to jump in formation.
“Robin, you’ve got to try it,” one of her friends said. Again I laughed. “No, I mean it,” he insisted. “Everyone says they’re afraid of heights. The minute you’re out of the plane you forget all that. Why do you think we do this every weekend? It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced. It is a total sense of freedom.” His tone was almost reverential.
I talked to more people. They all said the same thing, in the same awed voice. I assured each one of them I would never, ever jump out of an airplane. But I couldn’t help noticing—I was the one asking questions, wanting to know more. I caught myself. Robin, you are in your sixties. A few years ago you were too overweight to walk around the block. You’re terrified of heights. You are not going skydiving.
The following Sunday I buttonholed Peggy at coffee hour. “Why do you skydive? Your friends—the way they talked, they were starting to persuade me!”
Peggy smiled, then paused, as if searching for the right words. “Well, I’ll be honest. The first time I jumped I was scared too—until I went out the door. Then it was this incredibly spiritual, moving experience. I felt like God was there with me and I could see all of His beautiful creations. It was a gift.”
She stopped, and I realized I was tuning out everything else in the room.
“The airfield’s only an hour and a half away,” Peggy continued. “You can come anytime and just watch. I have a video I can send. I definitely don’t want to pressure you.”
Weeks went by. I retired from the newspaper and suddenly had a lot of time on my hands. Skydiving began cropping up more and more in my conversation—much to the horror of my friends and family. “Mom!” my older son, Jim, exclaimed one day on the phone from New York. “You hate heights! You want to jump out of an airplane and break your leg and wreck this good life you’ve got now? Listen, if you’re serious about this, tell me. I will fly out there and talk you out of it. I mean it.” I heard him. But what I found myself thinking was, I’ll call him after I jump.
Peggy’s video came. Watching it, I peered closely at the airplane. It looked like an airplane. Nothing too scary. One by one the divers tipped out of the hatch. So quick! You’d hardly notice, I thought. Then they were in the air, jumpsuits whipping in the wind. I looked up, out the window. It was a warm, dry southern California morning. Perfect skydiving weather. I went to find my car keys.
The airfield was in Riverside County, surrounded by patches of farmland and subdivisions. A propeller plane with shark’s teeth painted on the nose ferried divers up, then returned to the runway for more. This being a weekday, Peggy wasn’t there. I watched divers glide in for a landing. At first just tiny pinpricks in the sky, they slowly descended until I could see their limbs, the colorful chutes. Gently, without fuss, each stuck their legs out and skidded to a halt on a strip of grass. Several immediately repacked their chutes for another dive.
Not quite deciding anything, I went into the office and signed some papers. I was given a jumpsuit and watched an instructional video. A young man shook my hand. “I’m Adi Blair. I’ll be your dive partner.” Dive partner?! Novice divers go tandem, strapped to an experienced instructor who knows when to open the chute. Half buoyant, half dazed, I followed Adi across the tarmac to the airplane. The propellers roared. We clambered in and sat on benches running down either side of the hull. The propellers roared louder and the plane trundled down the runway. I barely noticed taking off, I was so busy chatting with other divers.
The plane rose to cruising altitude. I chanced a look out the open hatch—and that’s when it hit me, like a smack. I’m 12,500 feet in the air. The earth, far below, looked unreal, like a toy. I was about to jump out there! My entire body seized with panic. I looked frantically to Adi. “I can’t do this!”
Calmly, he edged us toward the hatch. “Yes, you can.”
“No! You don’t understand! I can’t do this!” I began praying—hard. We were beside the hatch. “No!” I screamed.
“Would you mind bending to one knee?” Adi asked. Blindly, I did. Adi made a slight motion with his body—and we were out, free falling. I felt wind rush against me—but it wasn’t wind, just air roaring past at 120 miles an hour. I opened my eyes.
Everything was changed. The world spread before us, fields, highways, hills, shading to southern California haze. The air—it was all around us. We were in it. Of it. Just like Peggy said. I felt something build in my heart—not fear; that had vanished in an instant. No, it was plainer than that. With the solidity of irrevocable fact, I knew that I was in the presence of God. Not some God conjured out of my own need. Just God, maker of the sky and everything else, holding me in His hands.
Adi pulled the chute and we jerked upright. The wind ceased and we floated in serene silence. I basked in it. I, Robin Hinch, terrified of heights, once terribly obese, had jumped out of an airplane.
Five minutes later we came in for a landing. I actually botched that part and ended up plowing ignominiously into the grass. But I got up smiling like all the other divers. Maybe more than the other divers. Did I believe in God? In this new life He’d given me, this new person I’d become? In the silence of 12,500 feet I had heard my answer.
This story first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Guideposts magazine.