by Florence Caplow
And what other bridge spans such a doorway, such a mythic threshold? To the west, the expanse of the Pacific Ocean; to the east, San Francisco Bay, an inland sea ringed with cities. To the south, the white and shimmering buildings of San Francisco; to the north, tawny hills and mountain lions lurking in the chaparral. Cold green swirling water below a sky filled with birds. Those who cross the bridge cross between one world and another, held for a few moments in the numinous space between.
On July 17, 2006, I had my first chance to walk across. It’s a long way—more than a mile round trip—and the weather is unpredictable. Some days, a gale howls off the ocean as miserable tourists try to survive the crossing, like passengers on a storm-thrashed ocean liner. July 17th was a sunny, hazy day, and a friend and I decided to walk across.
It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at the southern end of the bridge. We parked and began our walk. Pedestrians are only allowed on the eastern side of the bridge, looking toward the Bay, although a blaze of misty light from the Pacific made me long to be on the west side instead. The broad sidewalk was crowded with walkers and bicyclists.
We watched squadrons of pelicans glide a hundred feet below us, their wings silhouetted against the dark water, as we talked about the bridge’s reputation as one of the world’s leading places to commit suicide. I had heard about plans to install nets below the bridge to catch jumpers, and wondered about the balance between protection and beauty, how that might change the feeling of being suspended over huge space, like a bird, like flying.
As we approached the mid-span, in the midst of an animated conversation, we failed to notice a commotion fifty yards ahead. Two policemen on motorcycles drove past, fast, and when we looked up we saw a motionless van in the westernmost lane. “A stall,” we said. “At least it’s not a suicide.”
But when we arrived opposite the green van, all the pedestrians were huddled together. When we asked what had happened, we were told that just moments before, someone had jumped from the west side.
So there we were, onlookers, while hundreds of feet below us a person died in the waves, or was dying as we stood above. A Coast Guard boat slipped from the small harbor on the north side of the bridge as the police interviewed witnesses and waved traffic around the van.
The van had stopped at the mid-point of the bridge. I noticed the light pouring like a benediction from the west, the ocean tilted like a mirror to the sun. The person dying below us had gotten out of the van and leapt over two railings, falling into that vast, wind-filled golden light, down through the air until meeting the water and, the next moment, passing out of life altogether.
It’s a strange thing, to witness a stranger’s public dying—both intimate and anonymous. Unsure what to do, I began the beautiful Tibetan chant of Om Mani Padme Hum, “Hail to the jewel in the lotus” —a chant of protection and blessing, and a reminder of the sacred always around and within us. My friend joined in, and we stood on the sidewalk of the Golden Gate Bridge, chanting for a dying stranger as the Coast Guard circled beneath and collected the husk of the person whose van idled next to us, its seat still warm.
After a while we continued walking, still chanting. With each repetition I sent my blessings to the person whose name we didn’t know, to friends and family who did not yet know what was coming, and to the circles of people who would be touched by this moment, including those of us on the bridge, the witnesses.
No one jumps alone. He or she takes down a whole world. It struck me that the suffering that had led to that jump might now be released, but the suffering of others was just beginning, had not even yet begun—the circles still only a moment away from the stone.
We chanted all the way to the other side of the bridge. While we chanted and walked, the van sped by us, back the way it came, but this time behind a tow truck. We watched the Coast Guard vessel make its way back into the harbor, far below. We saw the body, wrapped in a bright orange body bag, and we watched as the sailors unloaded it onto the dock. The wind gusted over the bag as the men quietly stood around it. Other pedestrians, oblivious to what had just happened, moved by us laughing, or leaned against the railing for photographs.
There’s a way, in extreme situations, that the mind plays a strange game. Maybe, I thought, we had imagined the whole thing. The oblong object in the orange bag was not a person’s body. Maybe no one had jumped. How could the world contain these laughing people and that body, nearly side by side? How could we know something that the people who loved that person did not yet know?
Later that day, and for days afterward, I considered this experience. My heart felt heavy and strange, then gradually lightened. Every day I scoured the newspaper and obituaries for some hint of the person who had died below us, even though I’d been told that the paper doesn’t publish stories on suicides on the bridge. I found nothing.
The word “suicide” does not appear in obituaries. There is an aura of shame around the word. But who are we to judge the desire to die? I think of people who live with nearly intolerable physical or emotional pain, people in circumstances that seem to require the endurance of a saint or a warrior, or both. I have a friend with bipolar disorder who struggles through alternating severe depression and psychosis, despite medications and regular hospitalizations. Every day she faces a mind that is unreliable to a degree I can barely imagine. Not long ago she nearly succeeded in a suicide attempt, and I understood that desire, even as I wished her a happier life. Even our greatest spiritual heroes grow weary sometimes. Surely that is no lack of courage.
And I wonder about the experience of the person who leapt over the side of the bridge, and why so many people are drawn to die in the waters beneath the Golden Gate, that place that seems to lie midway into a mythic and mysterious realm. I remember that the person jumped at the exact mid-span of the bridge—into the gilded light, not away from it.
He or she jumped toward the ocean, to the west—which, according to native peoples of the West Coast has always been the direction of travel for the dead. Whatever pain or hopelessness drove that person to die, whatever the experience in the flight and fall, and whatever pain it engendered, beauty also existed there: archetypal, poetic, and powerful.
I believe—or like to believe—that even though he or she chose to die, the choice was not entirely a dark one, that it contained also the deep desire for beauty, for illumination, and for the expression of courage. To go to this most beautiful bridge, to overcome the natural fear of falling, and to let oneself go into the golden wind of a late afternoon, sliding through the thin air into the great unknown: Who can’t see something noble there? Nobility exists even in the pain of a human life, which can reach such inhuman proportions.
Who are we to say that someone should continue to live in that pain, or that a person doesn’t deserve a beautiful death, however we might wish it otherwise? And since that death occurred, whatever we may think of it, surely we would want it to be blessed.
That day on the bridge, as we watched the Coast Guard boat search the water, words from an ancient Zen story came to mind: body exposed in the golden wind. A clear, strange thought rose with them: we are all, every one of us, falling from the Golden Gate Bridge. We’re utterly exposed and vulnerable, headed for the dark while we apply our makeup or prepare our arguments for the courtroom. Meanwhile, the ocean glimmers, the pelicans sail by, and the golden wind moves around and through us, everywhere.
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