My nephew and I had always been close, but when he called instead of texting and asked me to meet him at his home, I knew something was up.
I drove to where Josh and his partner lived, high in the foothills, a few miles from me. He answered the door with a smile and a “How you doing, Kenny?”
I told him I was fine, but quickly cut to the chase, “What’s going on? You doing okay?”
For the last six months he’d been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. It was in remission, but still, you never knew.
“I’m good, I just want to talk to you about something.” He motioned me inside. “And no,” he added with a grin, “it’s not cancer related. The treatments are working just fine.” We walked through the welcome coolness of his stucco home to his shaded back patio. “Have a seat.”
I was getting antsy, but did as I was told.
He looked past me down the long sloping hill toward Lake Havasu, five miles away. The fresh, clean desert air seemed to invigorate him. “I’ve got a big favor.”
“Funny you should put it that way,” he laughed. “I want to go on a hot air balloon ride for my fortieth birthday. I want you to come with me.”
I gulped. Jesus, that wasn’t fair. I loved Josh with all my heart, but I have to be clear: I was deathly afraid of heights. I paid a guy to climb a ladder to clean debris off my one-story roof, for Pete’s sake. Elevators at the mall made me queasy. Ride in a car in the mountains? No way. But this was my nephew asking, a man I’d helped my sister raise ever since his father died when Josh was five. My wife and I never had any kids, and I looked at him as my own son. Fear of heights or not, it didn’t take but a blink of an eye to decide to go. Besides, it’s not every day you get to face your biggest fear, especially, with someone who’s dying. The way I looked at it, it’d be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Turns out I was almost right.
“I’d love to go,” I told him. “I only have one question.”
“Do they provide air sickness bags.”
It was good to hear my nephew laugh. Six months ago the doctors had told him he had between six months and six years to live. Josh was a fighter and definitely had his sights set on the six year option, if not longer.
Three weeks later, at dawn on Josh’s fortieth birthday, I pulled my jeep into the tiny parking lot for Big Air Balloon Rides, located at an abandoned air field on a spit of land that jutted out into Lake Havasu, a half mile wide stretch of the Colorado River on the border between Arizona and California.
We got out and headed for the rainbow colored balloon tethered a hundred feet away near a dented Winnebago that I assumed was the office, if not also the home, of Galen Pickle, the owner of the company.
Galen was checking out the basket but stopped and walked over extending a callused hand. “Hi Josh. This must be Kenny. Welcome,” he said, shaking our hands. Then he spent more than a few moments looking me over. Josh was tall and lean and, in spite of his cancer, still remarkably fit. He worked for Desert Adventures, a company that led outdoor excursions around the Lake Havasu area, primarily hiking, camping and kayaking. Me? Well, think the opposite of my nephew and you’d get a pretty good picture. I was short and stocky, a little doughy to be honest, and retired after teaching geography at Lake Havasu High School. I though Galen was being kind when he said to me, “You look like you’ll be able to handle this just fine.”
Josh grinned and gave me a high five, “See, Uncle. This’ll be great.”
Thirty minutes later we lifted off and were soon soaring high above the southwest desert. Did I mention I was afraid of heights? Well, for some reason that morning the fear disappeared. I was having the time of my life watching the desert landscape unfold beneath me with ragged hills stretching to the horizon set against a fiery orange sunrise. It was a thrill I’d never anticipated. I’m sure having Josh with me helped. But then…
Then Josh said, “Here, Kenny, help me put this on.” I looked. He was holding a parachute and a harness. He grinned, “We’re jumping together.”
That’s right, jumping . Together. Seems Josh had a little joke up his sleeve to play on his old uncle. He’d been taking skydiving lessons for a year. Who knew? One minute I was enjoying a mellow morning sunrise, silently congratulating myself on conquering my fear of heights, the next minute I was air born, strapped to my nephew’s chest, silently screaming.
Just kidding. Once I got past the fear of losing my stomach, I have to say, jumping out of that hot air balloon was the most exhilarating adventure of my life. We went out at six thousand feet and opened at four thousand. It was a five second drop of unrelenting terror followed by twenty minutes of magical floating that I never wanted to end. The whole experience was fantastic beyond words.
We landed a mile from where we’d lifted off.
“What do you think?” Josh grinned at me after he’d wrapped the chute up.
It took a minute to get my thoughts in order, not to mention my equilibrium. Finally, I grabbed him in a tight bear hug. “I loved it.”
“Want to go again?”
That was ten years ago. Since then, we’ve jumped every year on Josh’s birthday. A once in a lifetime experience every year for the last ten years. In spite of his cancer.