as told to Jessica DeCostole
As a young girl growing up in Northern Iowa in the 1930s, I always wanted to fly a plane, but back then it was almost unheard of for a woman to do that. I got a taste of that dream in 2001, when my husband arranged for me to ride in a hot air balloon for my birthday. I thought it would be exciting, but the experience turned out to be incredibly dull. We went straight up in the air and right back down, barely moving around because of restricted air space in the area. Around that time, my husband and I talked about things we wanted to do before we die. I told him that I wanted to skydive. So when Brookdale Senior Living, the retirement community where we live in Peoria, Arizona, announced that they were having an essay contest and the topic was an experience of a lifetime that you wanted to fulfill, I decided to write about my dream, never thinking I would win.
In the short three-paragraph essay, I wrote about my desire to skydive, stating George Bush Sr. did it at age 80. Why not me? I was just 84 and in pretty good health. A year went by; I heard nothing and figured that someone else had won. But then at a community party in late April 2009, they announced that I was one of the winners. I nearly fell off my chair! They asked me to come up to the podium to tell the group what my essay was about, but once up there, I was so astonished I couldn’t think for a second. Then the announcer said, “You wanted to skydive, right?” Oh right, that was it. I just couldn’t believe I had won.
The reaction from my family and friends ranged from, “Are you crazy?” to “I wish I could do that!” My husband, who is afraid of heights, was very supportive, but my children were definitely a little nervous. It wasn’t required that I get my doctor’s permission to skydive, but a few friends nagged me to make sure that it was safe at my age. My doctor sure didn’t think it was. When I told him what I was planning to do, he said, “You could break bones at your age!” But my bones were in good shape, so I probed him further about what the likely risks were (aside from the most obvious one that comes from jumping out of a perfectly good airplane). He went on to say that it was very possible that I could sprain my ankle during the landing. I had to stop myself from laughing; I could sprain my ankle walking across the street! That was not going to keep me on the ground.
On June 11, 2009, nearly 40 of my family and friends gathered in the area close to where I would land while I headed up in the airplane. My tandem instructor, Jay, who was connected to me via harness the entire time, guided me through the experience. The plane was the noisiest one I had ever been in, but I wasn’t frightened—I was really just looking forward to the experience. When we reached 13,000 feet, Jay told me it was time. He instructed me to curl my toes and just nudge myself out of the plane. When we first hit the air, the wind was so incredibly strong that it took my breath away. For a second I thought, What have I gotten myself into? But then everything got calmer. We were in a free fall for about a minute before Jay pulled the parachute’s cord, then we just floated downward for about four minutes. Being up in the clouds and looking at the view below was unlike anything I have ever felt—much better than the hot air balloon. Jay told me how to move my arms to go right and left during the landing. I know it’s hard to believe, but I really wasn’t nervous at all—I was just enjoying it.
Stay Young at Heart
Jean Pettit didn’t let age stop her from fulfilling one of her lifelong dreams—and neither should you! “Your state of mind is what really determines how old you feel and act,” says Linda Sapadin, Ph.D., a Long Island-based psychologist (drsapadin.com) and author of Now I Get It! Totally Sensational Advice for Living and Loving. Here, Sapadin shares some advice for living a full life no matter how many candles you’ll be blowing out on your birthday cake this year.
Don’t Play the Old-Age Role.
Yes, as you get older, it’s only natural that you’ll experience more aches and pains, loss of loved ones, and other life experiences that are sad and painful. But don’t let the bad stuff consume you. Constant whining and complaining about the not-so-great stuff in life not only blocks you from seeing the joyful events, but can cause others around you to treat you differently, reinforcing this role you have created for yourself.
Surround Yourself with Positivity.
Don’t listen to other people who are always telling you what is appropriate “at your age.” What you do in your life is completely up to you.
If your lifelong wish is something you physically just can’t do, look for ways to modify your dream. There are plenty of disabled people who play basketball and ski; they just had to figure out a way to do it. So can you.
Reverse Your Thought Process.
When fear is holding someone back from reaching a goal, they often end with what’s called a stopper, such as, “I’d love to take a painting class, but I would be terrible at it.” Instead, end on a positive note, such as “I’m scared that I will be the worst painter, but I would really enjoy painting and might get better at it.” Push to try whatever it is you are thinking about.
It was great to land and see everyone waiting for me and snapping photographs. My friends and family were so happy that I made it down safely. After that day passed, I was surprised at all the fuss everyone kept making. For an event that took just 10 minutes, it was funny how people kept talking about it for months. Several people interviewed me, and a video of the skydive appeared on a giant video screen in Times Square in New York for a week. The fact that I was 84 years old didn’t really enter my head as being unusual, but people were very intrigued with what I had done. Just today, nearly eight months afterward, I was on the bus headed to the grocery store when one of our neighbors saw me and said, “Jean, do you have your parachute?”
Skydiving was really one of the greatest experiences of my life, and because of that I got another great experience that most people don’t get. Former President George Bush Sr., a fellow senior skydiver, sent me a letter telling me that he heard about what I did, and he attached a signed picture of himself during his own jump. I thought that was incredible, and it’s now in a frame in my home.
I hope other people look at me and realize that you don’t stop living just because you are 84 years old. If there’s something you want to experience, investigate it. If it’s something that is possible, make it happen. I think The Bucket List—a movie about two men who set out to complete a wish list of experiences they want to do before they die—in part got me thinking about all the things you could do before you get too old to do them. “Just keep living” is what I like to say. I still get asked if I will skydive again, but I did it once and don’t see the point in repeating it. I’d rather do something else I’ve never done before. Next time, I think it will be scuba diving.