Note: TWA member, Dean Burke, shared this touching experience which occurred on August 2, 2016
I walked in the front door after work and I sighed. The house smelled different. There was a distinct lack of energy in the room. My expectations and emotions had been habit formed over a decade. Alas, on this evening, our beloved dog, Katy, was no longer there to greet me. It had been just over 24 hours since we made the dreadful decision. The cancer had run its toll and it was time. My shoulders sagged a little. I paused and looked around the room. And I missed her.
My intentions were to grab my gear and go paddle, but right now I was fighting with those plans.
Trying to talk myself out of going, I moved slowly about, pausing at each collection point to try again to convince myself that I should stay home and sulk. I felt every right to sit in silence for a couple of hours and embrace my sadness. I would have the house to myself after all…why not? But with each step, I kept assembling my wares until finally I was strapping my board to the truck and driving away. Before I closed the front door, my trained and condition response was to turn and say, “I’ll be home soon girl. Watch the house. Be good. I love you.” I always told Katy that if I was leaving her alone for a while.
I was glad to arrive at the dock. My outrigger canoe club friends were assembling for their evening paddle session. I enjoy the energy and the comradery of seeing everyone assemble. As is usual, I am first or at least early into the water as they work in teams to load the hulking six-man canoes down to the shore. I was greeted by and said hello to a dozen of my friends. Fist bumps, hand-shakes and words of encouragement. It always brightens the soul a bit.
I HUNG AROUND FOR A FEW MINUTES.
Maybe I’d wait for all the canoes to load up and paddle out with them. But I changed my mind. They still had a couple more canoes to wrangle, talk about the plans for the paddle, launch, etc. It might be another half hour before they were moving down the water. So I set out on my own at a very easy pace. By this time I was glad just to be there. I was going to move slowly and deliberately on this night. I was acting out of discipline that by going out and getting some physical exertion, that I would inevitably help disrupt some of the chemical mayhem in my emotional being. Some activity would be healthy, wise and healing. And the space and calm that the water provides would feed me and help bring me back toward center.
As I moved slowly down the waterway, I began to approach the 11th Street Bridge. It’s a point of historical reference around here, a vintage piece of architecture. I often take walks across it on lunch breaks to enjoy the views of the Foss Waterway.
A COUPLE OF SILHOUETTES CAUGHT MY EYE.
A pair of men standing on the bridge. Not uncommon, but also not necessarily common at this time of day. One of them pointed down toward the water, but was not pointing at me. I only make note of this as I was the only one on the waterway this evening and as a paddle boarder, sometimes the object of my craft draws attention and conversation.
Then I noticed the lights of a police car on the bridge and that’s when my eyes went back to the water ahead of me.
“Is that a body?” were the next words that entered my mind, as I could see something in the water up ahead.
DID SOMEONE JUMP OFF THE BRIDGE?
My mind raced through many questions and projections as I grew nearer. I paddled hard now, sensing trouble and being aware that no one else was around.
Soon I could tell that what I was seeing in the water was the top of someone’s head. But there was no other movement. No arms. No splashing of any kind. Just the natural movement of their hair in the current. I could see their hair floating about.
“HEY!” “HEY!!” I shouted as I approached. “ARE YOU OKAY?” I was still 75 to 100 feet away.
His head rolled and his eyes appeared. They were as open wide as they could be with the intense look of fear and terror. His skin was as white and blue as I have ever seen. His lips were almost translucent. The water temp was about 53 degrees and I had no idea how long he had been in the water. He had jumped off the bridge, in attempt to take his own life.
I paddled even harder now, aware of what was happening and afraid that he would possibly resist help or even try to force himself under. As I neared him, his ghostly white hand came to the surface and he looked me in the eyes and through slurred and freezing lips he simply said, “please…”
I GRABBED HIM BY THE ARM AND PULLED HIM TO MY BOARD.
At once I was relieved that he was not going to fight or resist me. He was in terrible condition and hope for help was all that was left. I was not sure how to handle him at first. I was on a race board. Narrow and low in volume, I was concerned of how to get him from the middle of the waterway to the marina or shore. There were no other craft on the water to help.
His pants had come down to his knees in his fall. As I held one arm I had to reach deep in the water to find the waist of his pants to grab onto and try to lift him. Adrenaline provided the boost I needed and I managed to drag him up onto my board and get him into a prone position. The board was sinking down and quite unstable now and I was fighting to keep us from both going back in, knowing that that would consume critical time. I placed one knee into his back and straddled his thigh with the other while trying to paddle us toward help. He was not entirely on the board, but we were good enough to move.
A lady on a moored yacht came out and was standing on the water level swim deck on the back. She waved at me to come to their boat as it was the closest resource. I don’t remember the paddle to that boat or how we got him off my board and onto the boat deck, but we did. High doses of adrenaline will do that to memory.
I asked the lady to grab a blanket and we wrapped it around him and I held him tight.
I HUGGED HIM AND I BRUSHED HIS TANGLED HAIR OUT OF HIS EYES.
He was still so blue and pale but was shivering now which is a good sign – his body trying to generate warmth. We had a few minutes to wait for police and medical aid. I later learned that by the time the police had been dispatched, someone had already phoned in, thinking that someone had jumped. We only knew that he had been in the water for a while, but not entirely sure how long. However long it had been, what we did know is that he might have had another minute left in him. It was close.
In the time we waited for the police I felt that all this young man needed to know was that he was safe and that he was loved. I knew that once he was processed by the police, empathy was not going to be part of the conversation. To look into the eyes of someone on the other side of a suicide attempt is to look at ultimate brokenness. It is to see the darkest of despair. It is one of the most painful and heart wrenching things to see in a fellow human.
Regardless this man’s story, right now his story simply needed grounding and love. I spoke to him the whole time. I called him “brother” and I made him look at me when I spoke to him. “Look at me brother. Look into my eyes. Listen – you are safe. You are okay. You are loved. You are loved. It’s going to be okay.” And he cried intensely when I told him that he was loved. I held him tight not only to help him regain warmth, but to also comfort his soul and touch his spirit.
THIS WAS A MAN WHOSE SPIRIT WAS BROKEN TO ITS VERY CORE.
Deeper than I can comprehend. And here he was, alive, when all he expected was that he would be dead.
The police and medics began to arrive. I stayed with him and kept talking. The police process is not always a comforting one. Their protocol began with rather harsh steps of assessing the situation, but they did not ask me to leave. I kept a tight grip on him, looking him in the eye and explaining to him what was happening. He did not need any more fear in that moment. The only thing I had to give him was compassion.
Eventually it was time I step aside. I had to take care of some details with the police and their reporting. I overheard his name and his date of birth. He was young. He appeared to be homeless and had some other signs of trauma on his body. The narrative was somewhat typical looking in that regard, but it just did not seem to matter. I could not judge him or passively assign him to this fate. This was rock bottom. The time for love and redemption begins, hopefully, now.
When my role in the moment was complete, I floated back out into the waterway on my board. I really did not know what to do next. Do I pack it up and go home? Do I go paddle?
Into the bay where a series of storm squalls had been at work. To my right there were columns of rain falling on the bay and nearby islands. To my left were dramatic looking clouds with intense bursts and beams of sunlight. The water had a mysterious green-to-gray color. The wind was building and I could see the water just beginning to crumble and turn white across the bay. With no clear direction, I just paddled on. Into the moody sea. Ghostly jellyfish passed beneath, seabirds danced on the wind. The setting was profound.
As I passed back through the waterway en route back to the dock, I stopped and made a proper introduction to the boat owner. Her name was Jaimie. He husband had phoned as he was leaving the marina and told her to go look outside, that he had seen some police on the bridge. We talked over the whole incident, recounting the details and shaking our heads at the whole thing.
I slept terribly last night. I could not stop seeing the brokenness in his eyes. That’s a pain that will haunt me. But if I am able to put any closure on it at all, it’s that I was blessed to be of help. Blessed to be clear of mind and heart that I could simply let him know that he is in fact, loved.
It’s a reminder we all need, not just when we are at the bottom.
We are loved.