“Don’t look down,” the man said as I approached him on the bridge. He nodded in the direction I wasn’t supposed to look, which I took as an invitation, and I peered over the railing to the railroad tracks. I immediately wished I hadn’t.
The man’s two young sons stood next to him. One of them, the older one, chattered maniacally at me, heaving in air to fuel his sentences.
"We ran down"—heave—"and I lifted his foot"—heave—"and there was hair on the leg"—heave—"so that was how we knew"—heave—"that it was real."
The father smiled down at his boy. “I figured it was a joke, you know? A mannequin or something.” He shrugged his shoulders and tousled his son’s hair. “So we went down to take a look.”
“Yeah,” the motor mouth began again. “We thought it was fake”—heave—“but it was real.”
A police officer came up to the father and took him aside for a statement. We thought it was a joke I heard him explain again, and I felt sick. There was nothing funny about the scene. Just below us, an old man’s body lay between the sets of tracks. He had not been simply struck and thrown clear; at some point during the night, the man had placed his neck on the metal track, allowing one of the passing trains to sever it cleanly from his body.
I looked over at the father, who told the officer of his discovery with an unmistakable swagger. Such bravado. I wanted to throw him off of the bridge. The older boy smiled and patted my dog.
The younger boy stared at his shoes.
* * *
“What did you think of when you saw it?” a friend later asked.
“Chickens,” I said, tapping my fingers on my kitchen table and staring at the refrigerator. “I thought of chickens.”
* * *
I had thought of chickens as I walked from the police scene, in the absurd way that a mind in shock can think of such things. I thought of my grandfather taking his axe to them, how the bodies would take off running without their heads, how I used to revel in the slaughter.
Confronted with human tragedy and I had thought of chickens. I feel nothing but shame thinking back on it. But I had thought of a thousand things that day, and it wouldn’t be fair, I try to reason, to judge myself on that initial image alone. I had compassion. I thought of the old man’s family, if he had one, how someone would surely mourn him. I thought of the train engineer, unable to stop. Had he even seen the man on the tracks? Did the train even make a perceptible jerk as it severed the man’s head from his body?
I once read that when confronted with something entirely new, the brain will search its memory banks for the closest equivalent experience in order to make sense of the unfamiliar. That knowledge was a small comfort to me as my brain made bizarre connections, desperately linking images into morbid constellations. I thought of all of the implements of death: the electric chair, the hangman’s noose. I thought of the guillotine, of heads rolling away from the chopping block, of the five seconds legends say a disembodied head could live on with some degree of consciousness, five seconds for the dead to curse their executioner with still-living eyes.
Five seconds. I measure this time with my footsteps whenever I return to that railroad overpass, trying to understand the suicidal impulse, trying to imagine the thoughts of a dying brain. This used to be a simple thought problem to toy with as I walked. But the problem has become much more personal these days. Understanding is still elusive. Walk with me for a moment.
One Mississippi. . .
My father attempted to take his own life just before Christmas last year. The plan was likely months in the making, as there were obstacles to achieving this goal in the veterans home where he had been living: prohibitions on having sharp implements and the like, given his history of self harm. But somehow he had managed to procure a pair of scissors, which he had stashed away in the false bottom of his rolling tray table, out of sight of his nurses. When he finally decided that he had lived with enough pain, he wrote a note of apology to me, plunged the shears into his abdomen, and eviscerated himself.
Two Mississippi. . .
My father's wounds were discovered before he bled to death or was overcome by infection. He was sent out for emergency surgery, then airlifted to a more advanced facility in Pittsburgh for further treatment. He pleaded with me on the phone that a hospital worker held up to his ear. "Please," he said. "Just let me go."
Three Mississippi. . .
I once listened to a bridge jumper describe the moment he saw his own hands slip from the metal railing of the Golden Gate Bridge, committing himself to a suicide attempt that would ultimately, miraculously, fail. His final thought was “Oh my God. This is a mistake.”
Four Mississippi. . .
The decision to try to save my father's life rested with me, his only next-of-kin. The doctors explained that he had both do-not-resuscitate and do-not-intubate orders, which I would need to override in order for them to operate. I knew my father's wishes well, and I understood the desperation that drove him to attempt to end his life. His world had been reduced to a hospital bed. He lived with constant pain and an oppressive sense of hopelessness. I thought aloud while on the phone with the surgeon: Am I obligated to honor my father's wishes to die, or to honor your duty to heal? All the while, the bridge jumper's words turned over in my mind.
I let them operate.
Five Mississippi. . .
My father survived the surgery and was lucid but tired when I finally arrived in Pittsburgh from my home on the West Coast, two days before Christmas. His guts were contained in a clear silicone bag that rested on top of his abdomen. I noticed that his dentures had been left behind at the veteran's home, and I fussed about this: "Why didn't you tell me you needed your teeth?" Such a silly thing to say, in retrospect, as some of my final words to my father.
Two days after Christmas, my father fell into some kind of delirium. He had not eaten for days. The doctors were calling me, constantly, wanting me to authorize more tests, a feeding tube, more desperate measures. Competing narratives played in my head:
Oh my God. This is a mistake.
Please let me go.
I felt, absurdly, as though I were trapped in that old riddle about entering into the land of liars and truth tellers. How can you know if there's anyone to trust?
The suicidal brain is one that is devoted to the literal interpretation of suffering. There's little room for nuance. A life spent in free-fall becomes a leap from a forty-story building; one spent submerged ends in the water. The old man on the tracks--I wonder what he suffered, how betrayed by his own brain he must have felt to have resorted to decapitation as a method of suicide. And what to make of my father's method? It was a simple manifestation of a life that had gutted him. He was never one for subtlety.
Whenever I feel compelled to sit in the dark aftermath of my father's death, I try to imagine what dreams came to him in the delirium of his final days. Like the old man on the tracks, afforded his five seconds to reflect on his life, what images lived in that space between the here and hereafter?
I'd like to believe he returned to his boyhood, joyfully playing in the dusty North Carolina heat, unencumbered by any of the burdens he would bear later in life. Or maybe he spent those final moments with me, riding horses around our Pennsylvania farm all those years ago, in a span of time that was idyllic, if only for a moment. I'd like to believe our brains perform some ritual of kindness for us, preparing a peaceful send-off in the end.
It's been many years since I stumbled upon the scene of the old man's suicide on the train tracks. Sometimes I think of those two boys who had discovered him--the young one in particular, who couldn't stop staring at his shoes. I feel a certain kinship with him now, both of us having been forced to look at things we never should have seen. I've become a mother since that day, and my new instinct is to worry for him. I want to tell him a story about the man's final moments. I want to reassure him with some fanciful tale of what awaited the man in those five seconds--not suffering as he might have imagined as a child, but some kind of rapturous release from a troubled world. Would he find comfort in this version of the story? Would either of us ever find a way to believe it?