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Soaring with Spirit: The Story of Luis Perez
Luis Perez, 42, felt like Peter Pan as the paraglider inflated and his feet floated off the surface into the warm September air 600 feet above the Colorado countryside. The Littleton man, who is also an airline pilot, was addicted to paragliding.
“It’s such an amazing feeling,” says Perez, who is called Lalo by most people. “You just feel your feet get lighter and lighter and then you’re up there in the air.”
Yet, after only a minute into this flight — suspended between the heavens and earth — Lalo was in trouble and plunging toward the ground. Soon, he would face his biggest test. Could his spirit sustain him?
Fascination with flying
Lalo, the son of two pilots, grew up around planes. He started flying and hang gliding as a child and knew the risks involved. In 1990, he lost his father in a plane crash, and he’s grieved for friends killed in flying accidents. Despite the dangers, flying has always been Lalo’s passion.
When he was just 20 years old, Lalo moved from his native Argentina to Florida, near one of his four siblings. He sold a hang glider, used the money to buy a plane ticket for his childhood sweetheart Maria Elisa, and months later the two were married. Soon after, Lalo graduated from a nearby aeronautical academy and the couple moved to Colorado, where he works as a pilot and instructor for United Airlines. He used to spend his off-hours paragliding among the mountains.
Yet, soon after launch in September 2009, it appeared his flight would come to a disappointing end. Lalo hoped to catch a thermal and drift among the peaks for a half hour or more, but the warm air current never materialized. After only a minute in the air, Lalo was preparing to land. Then, he saw the dust devil. If he could angle his glider into it, he’d lengthen his ride. Lalo turned toward the churning air. Then, in an instant, the glider above him collapsed. Lalo began falling out of the sky.
His body smashed into the mountain, crumpling on a 20-degree slope. There he lay, in a fetal position. Pain chewing on his every breath.
“There wasn’t a sense of being afraid,” Lalo says. “It was almost like watching a movie. In the next scene I’m laying on my side, overcome with sadness that this is it. I know I’m not going to live.”
Movies that nourish the spirit
Spiritual Cinema Circle is described as the “heart and soul of cinema,” and for Luis “Lalo” Perez that description rings true.
Lifting the spirit
The Perezes have had their share of pain. The death of his father, personal and professional disappointments and the terrorist attacks of 9/11 left Lalo a jumble of despair and uncertainty. He grieved the loss of life, including a pilot he had known, and watched other airline employees lose their jobs and homes when the industry floundered after the attacks.
His wife struggled too, with anxiety and depression after the birth of their daughter Victoria in 2004. The couple sought help in Argentina, where they were treated for depression. There, after nearly six months, they experienced another blow: doctors discovered a tumor along Lalo’s spine. He returned to Colorado for successful surgery and slowly felt the flow of life returning. He also felt his spiritual connection growing.
Lalo has always been connected to spirit. Over the years he’s turned to books like The Art of Happiness, by the Dalai Lama, for inspiration and knowledge. He watches uplifting, thoughtful films from Gaiam's Spiritual Cinema Circle movie club, where he’s an active member. And as in the movie The Secret, Lalo has long believed that whatever he put his attention on would manifest. He can talk for hours about how his positive beliefs have created his life and how the soulful connection has helped him cope with challenges.
Now, crumpled on the side of the mountain, would those beliefs be enough?
Living in the moment
It was the grass, sprouting green with life near his face, that Lalo first noticed after the crash. Then, there was the searing, crushing pain in his chest. Giving up would be easier, Lalo thought, than enduring its fire.
But he desperately wanted to see his wife and daughter again. And, he remembered the promise he made to himself, after the death of his father, to live to be 117. Lalo also heard a voice “screaming” inside, telling him to take one more breath. Then another. So he shifted his thoughts from the pain to his breath.
“It’s a scene that will never leave your mind,” Lalo says. “It is so intense and it brings such emotion with it. It leaves an imprint. I can close my eyes and bring it back at any moment.
“But then it is really kind of beautiful, because what happens next is that you make the choice to live.”
Making the choice
One breath. Then another. Stay in the moment. Be present. Lalo had lived his life by these tenets. Now, on the edge of death, he leaned on those beliefs again.
In the hospital, doctors determined that Lalo’s pelvis was broken in three places. He had two broken vertebrae, a collapsed lung, a lacerated liver, a damaged kidney and a crushed sternum. Miraculously, though his helmet had blown off, Lalo had no head or neck injuries and he remained conscious; those things helped him survive.
So did his desire to live his best life, says Suzy Kulvinskas, a rehabilitation tech who worked with Lalo at Craig Hospital in Englewood, where he spent weeks rehabilitating.
“He just has that type of personality. That type-A overachiever. It’s a zest for life to keep moving in whatever direction you’re going and do the best you can.”
But Lalo’s recovery hasn’t been without some dark days. He’s felt frustration about the pace of his progress and guilt over the anguish he caused his family.
Biofeedback has helped him cope with the physical and emotional pain by teaching him to monitor his thoughts and breath. And he continues his spiritual growth by writing, reading, watching movies, and living with awareness.
Lalo is at home now, healing. He can walk without crutches and he participates in physical therapy. Slowly, Lalo is returning to work. But he will not paraglide again. The stress would be too much for his family, he says. And that’s okay. The addiction he once had for the sport is gone, he says, replaced with a deeper awareness of the value of each moment of life — an experience more satisfying than paragliding.
Lalo is also kinder now, more compassionate — two things he learned from those who cared for him in the hospital. Sometimes it was a silly song sung by Kulvinskas and other staff members who helped him to laugh, or a nurse simply holding his hand through the pain, or the patience of his wife. These things carried him through a difficult day. Those small gestures are the things that bring forth a healing and loving energy, Lalo says, no matter what you’re experiencing in life.
And now he hopes to share those ideas and his experiences with others.
“I had to ask, ‘why have I lived?’ I think it is because I can show people what I have learned. I am not special in any way. I think 99.9 percent of us have the tools to survive life’s challenges, but most of us aren’t pressed to use these tools. I have had to. And if I can do it, then you can survive the pain in your life.
“We will all die. But the beautiful thing about being human is that we have the choice about how we will live.”
We asked experts, authors and readers like you to share their stories of Hope. Every day for the next month, you'll find new tips for optimism on Gaiam Life, the Stream of Consciousness blog and our social media sites: Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. And don’t miss the GaiamTV.com Hope Film Festival, with FREE films all month long.