She looked back for the last time, her heart thumping in her chest. And then she jumped.
She felt the wind on her face as she fell, the breeze hitting her with a thousand needles, dragging her hair upward. She wanted to close her eyes, her arms splayed out, letting the world rise to greet her. To forget it all, and just stay here, like this, as if nothing had ever changed.
But she also wanted to see every single moment.
So she peeled her eyelids apart, the light squeezing between them, the wind streaking tears that rose onto the tips of her ears. She kept falling.
She saw the distant mountains, where he had taken her skiing. At first, he’d seemed an expert, snaking down the blue slopes, his poles held under his armpits as she hung on tight for the ride. As she learned to ski on her own, she realized he had the clumsiness that adults have when they’ve learned too late - a little bit unsure, a touch of fear, a bit of a wobble. Soon he couldn’t follow her onto the black diamonds, and eventually he just sat with the cocoa cooling at a table by the fire, his feet up, ready to help her out of her boots.
She saw the village - the one where he said he’d grown up. It looked more like a town now, with houses that looked like suburban villas, and strip malls and parks. She could just make out the splash of red on the sign that she knew read, “Gina’s,” where he’d taken her for burgers and curly fries, and playfully teased the wait staff, all of whom he knew knee-high. Then he’d treated her to a strawberry milkshake, taking the first sip, which doused his mustache in pink. She’d laughed until it came out of her nose.
She saw the farms. The way the tractors moved so slowly and steadily in lines across the dirt. The tiny sprouts in the ground, and the possibility of them turning into dinner. How she used to sit on his lap and steer, barely ever driving anything again back in the city. He’d admonish her to sit but she insisted on standing up, arms raised, screaming with joy while he shivered and shouted with pretend fear.
She saw the graveyard.
Only last month, they’d walked arm in arm through the vineyard, her hand idly plucking plump grapes and popping them out of their blue-gray skins between her lips. The juice would flood her mouth, and she’d crunch on the bitter seeds as he told her again about all the varieties, forgetting them as he passed each one, and retelling the same old tale about when he’d bought this place with his new wife, and raised four children, and grown grapes and peas and herbs and berries. She’d just nod and smile. She’d heard all the stories before and loved each one.
Once in a while, he’d stop and laugh. “I guess I already told you that one,” he’d say, but it was a question, not something he was sure of. She’d nodded, and nudged him to tell it again, weaving in and out of the lines, the wet fruity smell clinging to their warm sun-drenched clothes, their boots caked with mud.
He’d take off his floppy brown hat every now and then, fan himself and her, and look around, as if he wasn’t sure which way to go next. And she would pull at her arm locked in his. “Let’s go this way,” she’d laugh, tugging him gently toward the house. But not too fast, so they could linger, and he could tell her the same things over and over, and the old jokes, and she could hear his crackly voice under his now-white mustache, and watch his eyelids crinkle at the corners, his coated gray eyes shimmering.
She’d always known time was short. Even when she was a baby, his hair had begun to gray, and his face was creased. He was still strong, but she noticed when he’d started struggling to carry her, and then would insist on walking everywhere. Back then, he remembered everything.
At the end, he had only occasional lucid moments. During one of them, when she was ready to drag him out to the field, he’d patted the spot next to him on the porch swing. She sat on her hands, waiting, staring innocently into his face. They both knew what was coming.
He’d told her not to be afraid, to take the leaps she’d always wanted, to grab hold of her dreams no matter if others around her were scared. He’d told her how he hadn’t taken the risks he wished he had, how his life would have been so different. He told her he’d watch her to see her in all her glory, and smile and laugh, knowing she was having the time of her life.
And so he’d come with her, riding in the boat when she grabbed hold of the rope in the water behind him, and skied on liquid for the first time. He whooped out loud when she held on to the hang-glider and soared above his head, a neon green bird. He’d laughed his deep laugh as he waved his hat to her, ziplining across the forest with her arms spread dangerously wide.
He’d waited for this one, but not long enough. She’d nearly canceled the plane ride, her heart as heavy as her pack. She rode up, the loud sound drowning out any fear but unable to quell the loneliness. She’d peered out, unsure, until she finally did take that leap.
She saw the graveyard, and kept her eyes on it. He was there among the rows of white stones somewhere. Or maybe somewhere else. He would be watching, laughing, cheering, waving his faded hat. His eyes would crinkle and shine with pride and sheer joy.
She kept falling, the ground ever closer.
And then she whispered, “For you, Grandpa,” and pulled the parachute cord.