How witnessing a shocking suicide on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge—and talking the dead man’s father through his grief—helped me understand my mother and the lifelong pain she has lived with.
I hadn’t intended to drive across the bridge that puffy blue-sky Monday morning. It was an accident. I was visiting the East Bay for a weekend personal development workshop and planned to see a friend in Berkeley. I got on the freeway, humming along to a radio station and realized I was in the wrong lane, going towards the city. I took a deep breath and said to myself: I guess I’ll see San Francisco today.
Driving up the rise of the bridge after pulling out of the tollbooth, a car swerved in front of me to avoid the parked car to the right. I braked hard, thinking there had been an accident. Then, in what seemed like slow motion, I watched a man walk to the edge of the bridge, climb onto the railing, spread his arms wide as though they were wings and step forward. It didn’t occur to me that I was seeing the last seconds of a man’s life until I saw his head on the other side of the railing. He had walked off the Bay Bridge.
I panicked and tried to keep control of the car once my brain caught up to what I had seen. I fumbled for the tangled cords of my cell phone headset and called 911 while crying, downshifting and trying not to veer off the road. The operator asked me questions as I drove slowly, carefully. Too slowly.
“What’s your emergency?”
A man jumped, off the Bay Bridge.
I’m going towards San Francisco from Oakland.
“Where was he on the bridge?”
Closer to the Oakland side — not near the island. Much closer to the east.
“What did he look like?”
Uh. He was a guy.
Umm, maybe 30s? 40s? 50s?
“What color shirt was he wearing?”
I floundered. I was getting this wrong.
I have no idea. I have no idea what he was wearing.
“Anything? What color?”
No idea. Maybe it was a sweater. I volunteered lamely as I went into the Yerba Buena Tunnel.
“Ok, let me get this through to the Coast Guard. Was there a car on the bridge?”
Yes, yes there was a car. I felt relieved that I could say something definitive. There was a car.
“What kind of car?”
I have no idea. Tan maybe? It had its hazards on.
“Do you want to give your information for a report?”
Then I saw San Francisco.
If you have never been on the Bay Bridge driving towards San Francisco, the eastern span is nondescript, industrial grey with crisscrossing girders until the yellow-lit Yerba Buena Tunnel. You emerge from the tunnel next to the city, with tall buildings opening along the right. This span of the bridge is taller here, with graceful lines that spread like a fan across the jagged buildings. It is stunning.
On this day, when I had not intended to cross the bridge, when I had watched someone end their life, when I was trying not to hit anyone as I careened off an exit to a parking space — on this day, the view was beautiful.
I sat in my car shaking. I didn’t know his shirt color. I think he was wearing a sweater. Why didn’t I know what he was wearing? I did it wrong. The Coast Guard was looking for his body in the water, a color would let them look for him. I didn’t realize I would need to remember the color. I should have known. But how do you know when you don’t know what you need to pay attention to?
A parking enforcement cart came by and I got off the phone with my dad so I could tell her why I was a mess. “What would make someone want to do something like that?” she said, shaking her head. “What on earth would make someone want to jump off a bridge? That’s just terrible. You sit here as long as you need.” I sat in the car and tried to breathe. Looking up I could see a small patch of blue between the glass-lined buildings. Cities can look like cathedrals with their tall spires reaching towards the sky. I was exhausted as the adrenaline wore off.
* * *
My mom raised me to believe that to be a whole person, you have to do your human homework. It doesn’t matter if it’s psychotherapy, meditation, shamanic drumming or energy work, just do something, anything that helps you deal with your shit. Which was why, when I believed myself to be broken, I did weekend workshops like that one in the East Bay. We processed emotions and worked through old hurts. It helped me in the last exhausting years of graduate school to deal with a lingering sense of unworthiness and the shame of being thirty-something, overeducated and single.
Bodywork was on mom’s list of things that would help and I tried all kinds when I moved to Sacramento, several years before I saw the man jump. I got Reiki energy work and massages from a man who had the demeanor of a teddy bear. When the weather was nice he would set up the massage table out in the canopied garden with the birds chirping and the fountain gurgling.
After one session, I asked how he got started with Reiki and he described the incredible sensations that came after his first attunement. He was meditating and saw himself on the Bay Bridge facing the span that looks over the city. He saw himself jumping off of the bridge into nothing. He shook his head slightly as he remembered it. “I felt like my body dissolved into everything. It was incredible. I realized I was nothing and everything.”
* * *
I shared the story about the man’s suicide about a month after it happened at a dinner party with mom’s friends. It was the holiday season and when one person was attentive and kind, the story tumbled out of me until the whole table was listening. I told them I was having flashbacks. I wasn’t sleeping well. Sometimes I would close my eyes and see the man’s figure with arms outstretched as I was falling asleep. In my dreams, I was at the base of the bridge watching as he fell in extended beating moments. When I saw his form falling toward the ground sometimes I would jerk awake and have to calm myself before I could sleep. Sometimes he drifted slowly down through the mist towards the water; sometimes his legs were moving; sometimes he looked like a bird. The light made the mist look chalky and white.
Mom looked pained and stayed quiet as I talked. That evening had been hard for her. She had just come back to the U.S. after five years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and Mexico and was trying to figure out her next steps.
We broke from dinner to clear the dishes and I saw Mom’s face lined with pain. I felt a rush of guilt. “Mom, I know this is hard for you, I’m sorry to bring it up.”
She looked at me with a combination of fear and tenacity. “Beth, it just SCARES me. Suicide… It just… It makes a mess of everything it touches.”
I should have realized the conversation would have been hard for her.
* * *
It took me a long time to realize that not everyone has a mother who carefully avoids talking about her own mother, or who gets angry when she hears about suicide.
When I was twelve, mom looked at me one day with anguish on her face. She walked out the door. That evening I saw the phone cord stretched into the dining room and heard the muffled sound of her crying. Another time, I quizzed my mom while drawing a family tree. She gave me all of the family members on my grandfather’s side and when I asked about the other side, she got quiet. She gave me a few names but got impatient and mumbled something about that part of the family being “crazy.”
While I knew that my grandmother had died when my mother was young, it wasn’t until my early twenties, just after college, that I learned the full story. I had moved in with Mom to figure out what I was going to do with my life. She had recently moved to a house in Sacramento next door to her friend Barbara. They were like siblings and cut a hole in the fence so they could treat one another’s houses as their own.
I started retreating to Barbara’s house because mom and I were fighting so much. Mom didn’t like the guy I was dating and I didn’t understand why she hated him so much. Barbara was neutral as she puffed on her cigarette over breakfast. The funny thing was, I told her, Mom and the guy had a lot in common. They both had difficult childhoods, they both grew up working class and they were both trying to find ways to deal with their shit. Oh, and he had lost his mother too. I dodged Barbara’s cigarette smoke while chewing on a bagel.
“Do you know what had happened with your grandmother?” She asked.
I got confused. “Grandma?” My grandmother lived in Santa Rosa.
“Your mother’s mother. Your grandmother.”
“Mom never calls her my grandmother.”
“She is, she is your grandmother. I’m surprised she never called her that around you.”
“I guess Mom never wanted to think of her that way. I mean, I don’t really know much about her. I don’t know much about how she died.”
“Well do you want to know?” Barbara asked.
Yeah, I wanted to know.
The story is simple, but not easy. Mom came home after school when she was twelve and saw her mother sitting on the bed wearing nothing but a slip, clearly drunk. Mom said something to her about how she couldn’t stay sober, then went to her bedroom and slammed the door. My grandmother shot herself. Mom heard the shot and found her dead.
Suicide makes a mess of everything it touches.
* * *
A few months later, on Mother’s Day in Sacramento, mom picked me up when the sky was still murky, handing me a T-shirt to put on. I had moved out of her place a few months before and we had stopped fighting as much. She had found work, which made her easier to be around. She was right about the guy; I wasn’t dating him anymore. We walked towards a group of people in a park holding pink flowers and daisies. Mom loves daisies and commented on it. More people gathered and the group swelled. We marched towards the capitol, yelling chants and carrying signs while the rain misted around us. The road in front of us had people as far as I could see. We reached the steps of the capitol and listened to forgettable speeches.
We were stopped by press with a video camera. Would we like to talk about what we’re doing here? Mom put her arm around me and talked as the light shined in our faces. She asked me to do this with her for Mother’s Day. She asked me to march with her against gun violence. Her mother died because there was a gun in the house. Her mother died because there weren’t common sense protections such as a gun safe or a lock. She was awkward but passionate and waved the hand that wasn’t tucked around my waist as she spoke.
When we saw the news later that night, the clip was a mom taking her daughter to the Million Mom March on Mother’s Day. They don’t mention my grandmother’s suicide or mom’s passionate beliefs. In the video, I look soaked and stare wide-eyed into space as she talked.
Years later, I realize that this is the only time I have ever heard her talk about my grandmother’s suicide without anger.
* * *
My cell phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize. On the other end, the man introduced himself as Grant. He got my phone number a few months before from the California Highway Patrol report after the suicide on the bridge. I had said I was willing to talk to the family. Could I talk now? The man who jumped was his son.
Grant knew it must have been hard. His son had schizophrenia and had been struggling with the mental illness for decades. About six years earlier, they had reached the end of the medication options. His son had a very hard time knowing he wasn’t going to get better.
Mental illness is so hard, Grant said. It had been such a long journey only to find that there wasn’t anything else they could do; the illness was just too powerful. “We tried to give him as much as we could,” Grant said, his voice pragmatic and weary. “But at some point he had to make choices on his own, he was an adult. He drank a lot and got in fights. It got to the point where we just hoped he wouldn’t hurt anyone or take someone else with him when he went.”
His son had a hospital bracelet on when they found his body, so they figured he checked himself into a psychiatric ward the day before he died. If you check yourself in you’re allowed to check yourself out, so he guessed his son had been hearing voices again. They liked to go to a spot near Yerba Buena Island where they would look out and see the bay. Once, he had stood on the beach next to his son while he was talking to the voices. It was so strange, he said.
I imagined Grant shook his head as he spoke. His son was probably headed there, to the island, when he ran out of gas on the bridge.
I said I could tell him what I had seen if he wanted. I told him I had been on the bridge by accident. I told him about veering around the car and slowing down. I told him that his son had stepped up on the ledge, how quick it had seemed. I told him how his son’s arms were stretched wide as if he were trying to fly. I told him that I got the sense he had been walking towards something.
Grant was quiet. He hadn’t heard that his arms had been stretched out wide. The pitch of his voice was ending the conversation. He had wanted to tell me about his son so that I knew. He didn’t want me to be burdened by his son’s death. It sounded like he was putting the paperwork in order, taking care of the mess left behind.
I heard his voice break as he said his last words to me: “And now you can be free.”
* * *
Grant’s son, a man who I saw for only seconds at the end of his life, stepped off the railing as though he were walking towards sunlight. At the time, I was finishing my dissertation and trying to find an academic job, petrified that I would make the wrong move or be judged unworthy. Yet here was a man who was certain in his spine, with wide arms to trust the air. I saw him walk towards possibility, towards something hopeful even if it was the terrible hope of something that was not this. In his father’s voice, I heard the sad resignation of a man who had been grieving for his son’s life as much as his death, who was helpless to relieve the pain and who refused to give up even when it was hard to love his son. He had to watch as his son fought, made mistakes, caused pain. He had sadly and lovingly picked up the shards his son had left behind.
Mom and I never talked about my grandmother’s suicide. I’m not even sure if she ever knew Barbara had shared the real story with me. Instead, she and I tiptoed around the emotional shrapnel of my grandmother’s mental illness. I’ll never know what my mom saw when she walked past that doorway. I wonder if she remembered the suicide in the same visceral way I remembered Grant’s son’s death. I wonder if she had dreams like I did. I wonder if my grandmother’s shoulders were curved inward when she died like Mom’s are when she gets tired. I wonder if Mom remembered the color of her slip, or the look on her face, or the way her body fell.
That gunshot ripped into my mom’s Catholic guilt and fueled anger that she turned inward. Her mother chose to leave her behind. No therapy could undo the images, no energy work could counter the idea that she caused her mother’s death, no affirmation could tell her she was loved. I knew this from a lifetime of being around my mother’s pain, scarred by her own guilt as she loved me with the fierce protection of someone who never wanted to leave her children the way she was left.
It’s hard to live with choices you never made. I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me. I am a woman who drove across a bridge on a Monday morning; I am the grandchild who wasn’t yet a dream. Yet I felt their loss as if I had known them. I knew the last seconds of a man’s choice to jump into the void. I lived with a mother who had witnessed her mother’s choice to leave her behind. I could see the heart-rending pain of the suicidal choice, the terrible mess each purposeful death created. Yet, I can’t escape the feeling of awe. They both walked towards a beautiful unknown, trying to escape profound pain. They didn’t know their death would affect me, an unknown intimate stranger.
* * *
The last words my mom’s friend Mary said to her were “I love you Margaret, but you have to be better about keeping in touch with us.”
Four years after that day on the Bay Bridge, mom and I were back in the Bay Area. She was visiting from Chisinau, Moldova where the Peace Corps employed her. Her friends had been emailing me about her lack of response to their emails. “Is she OK?”…“I just haven’t heard from her”…“She used to write those long emails when she was in Guatemala”…“I miss her.”
“She’s bad with email.” I told them. “I can’t even get ahold of her. She doesn’t really check her email.”
“How is she doing?” they asked. “She’s really happy,” I responded. It’s true; being in Moldova made her as happy as I’ve ever seen her. She loved working for the volunteers and learning about a new culture. It was so much better than the year after she returned from being a volunteer. Her friends staged an intervention that year to get her to do something, anything other than crossword puzzles on the couch. She worried constantly, smoked too much and was impossible to be around. She flatly refused to drive anywhere — a woman who used to work for a car company deciding that she doesn’t drive. She called me once to ask how to order checks from the bank. I reminded her that she had taught me how: call the bank, order new checks.
During this visit, Mary’s husband Jim made us one of his trademark over-the-top gourmet dinners drawn from food magazines with his scrawling print all over them. This one was a crepe-like fish dish with a rich, white sauce. It felt like any other meal with friends. We laughed, we made fun of each other, we complimented the chef. Just like any other visit with friends who are family. The next morning, mom and I were in the hotel setting up her new computer. She complained of a headache and sat down on the couch while I got her a wet cloth for her forehead.
A few hours later, I was slumped against the wall in the hallway of the emergency room, while an ER nurse held me up by my waist. The doctor had just said that the brain aneurism was probably fatal. I hear the words “second opinion” but hear no other words even though he is still moving his mouth. I had always thought physically collapsing upon hearing devastating news was overplayed but I had no control. My body didn’t have bones.
Mary and Jim met me at the hospital and we waited to transfer Mom to a neurosurgery specialist in San Francisco who could tell us more about the aneurism. It took time to find a full-fledged nursing team for the ambulance since her condition was critical and when the team arrived, mom’s blood pressure was too low for her to travel. The three guys on the EMT team waited with us — two men who looked right out of the military, with crew cuts, and the nurse, who was an African man with a slight accent.
Mom’s legs started twitching, the nurse said that was a good sign. They twitched more. She used medical terms for why her legs were twitching. I didn’t understand. Hours stretched out. I cancelled my plane ticket home. I called my brother as he was racing to the airport. Jim brought me food I couldn’t imagine eating. I stroked mom’s hair and talked to her. The machine had a tube to breathe for her and I wondered if the steady rhythm calmed her as much as it calmed me. Mary talked about a beautiful necklace at the museum where she was a docent. We had planned to go there that afternoon.
The ER nurse recited Mom’s vitals in medical shorthand and the African nurse repeated them back as though practicing lines for a play. She corrected him and he repeated it back. It was time to go. He repeated it one more time. I asked if I could travel with them, they nodded and one of the crew cut guys pointed me to the front seat. I hugged the ER nurse, she hoped it would end up all right. Looking back, they must have known: the twitching legs, the plummeting blood pressure, nurses walking out too quickly, looking away. Mom was loaded in the back and crew cut was calm as he headed down the hill and onto the freeway. The steering wheel looked too big for him as he maneuvered around frozen cars scattered by the siren.
We navigated the toll both in an orchestrated chaos and I saw the girders. We were on the Bay Bridge, going the same direction as I had been going years before when Grant’s son had walked off the bridge. This was the place where I had witnessed a suicide, the same experience my mother had spent her lifetime trying to heal. Mom could never talk about the turmoil of shame and anger that came from her mother’s death. I wasn’t able to explain my sadness and melancholy to her. Some spans can’t be crossed.
As we drove, tears were dripping off my face, my chest tightened. I gasped for breath and put my hand over my heart. It hurt. God it hurt. I tried to breathe and it pulled my heart into more pain. I could hear motion in the back and turned to see the side of the nurse’s head. The radio squawked and crew cut spoke into it.
Time suddenly slowed and for no reason I could explain, I felt a lifting feeling. I looked out to the water, Yerba Buena Island bubbled in front of us. I felt as though I were in my mother’s body and her legs were made of wisps of cloud instead of flesh. I could feel her drifting into the air, as if she were flying out the back of the ambulance composed of nothing but wonder and awe, as if she had turned into smoke and the tendrils got bigger, too big for the body she was in. Too big for her body, too big for the ambulance, too big for the air around her. Suddenly we were moving too fast to contain her. She was like a dreamy wisp of something, nothing drifting into space, into air, into the water below us, into the people around us, the buildings, the bridge itself.
I was crying but I felt relief. She was amazed and I could feel beauty and love as though it were trying to touch everything at once. It overwhelmed her body and this place. She was letting go. I wasn’t ready. I just wasn’t ready. There was no way I was ready, but there was nothing I could do.
* * *
Beth M. Duckles is a writer and ethnographer currently based in Portland, Oregon. She holds both a Ph.D. in sociology and a first degree black belt in Aikido. Find her at http://beth.duckles.com or on twitter @bduckles.