Taking The Fall

My husband and I were at a wine tasting when it happened. The expert wine blogger — pompous and fuller of himself than the chardonnay — was pontificating at such great length we began to get restless and a little disruptive.

A wine tasting. You’re always doing something else, something not terribly serious or important, aren’t you, maybe even acting inappropriately, when another human being decides she can’t go on. She took off her shoes, climbed up on a bucket, and jumped off the balcony of a high floor in our building. She hit the ground so hard she shattered a metal grate on the sidewalk.

We have a new community in our building, the beginnings of a vertical neighborhood. The woman, we quickly learned, didn’t live here. She’d been staying at the nearby hotel. She was looking for a new place to live. She’d liked a condo on one of the high floors and asked if she could stay there alone to enjoy the sunset. She had paused only a few minutes before she jumped.

Everyone who lives and works here was horrified and shaken. A few were angry. Why here? Why our new neighborhood? We talked, we shook our heads, we shrugged, we asked questions that couldn’t be answered.

Days passed and a shadowy outline emerged. She was 60, a doctor from another state. She had three grown children. She had told the man who showed her the condo the story of her life, her hopes to start anew. Then she’d hugged him when he left. He realized, when he identified her body, that he’d been the last person she ever touched or spoke to. Unlike some of the others, he wasn’t angry. Just sad and philosophical. Your life touches other people’s, he shrugged. You just never know, do you?

Most of us Googled her name. Once I’d seen her photograph, I kept seeing her face. She was similar to me — a professional woman, roughly the same age, a mother of grown children. If I’d glimpsed her, could I have seen what she had in mind? Of course, I couldn’t have. I recalled a good friend who killed himself a few years ago. I thought I’d known him well — but I’d missed the depth of his anguish and depression. I thought I was so sensitive and perceptive, but I was wrong. I was like the townspeople in “Richard Cory”, oblivious and easily fooled.

I’ve been depressed enough at times in my life to understand why someone would want to kill herself. It didn’t make me angry, it simply made me sad to think of how much torment she must have been in. I’ve also come to believe that a person intent on suicide will complete the act, one way or another, that you can’t always save another person.

More than anything, what I didn’t understand was why she had come so far to kill herself and why she had chosen such a public venue. Weren’t women usually more private and discreet? Did she realize how much her act might upset the young storepeople on the ground who witnessed her death?

Oh, hell, I knew nothing. But I keep seeing her face. When did she make up her mind, finally? And did she regret it in those brief seconds she had left once she jumped?

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

See another post on the maddening impermanence of enlightenment



18 comments… add one
  • Oh, what a sad story. And yes, I’ve researched the subject. Women who commit suicide usually choose non-public venues and they almost always choose less bloody ones. These stories always make me sad. I’m often reminded of the story of one of the widows of a 9-11 victim, who committed suicide in their country home that Christmas. As a person who has dealt with family depression and episodes of depression, I can really relate to the sense of despair these people must feel.

  • Sheryl Link

    What a tragic story. It’s so sad that no one could have saved this woman, and frightening to think of the despair she must have been feeling to not only kill herself but to do it in such a public way. Shivers…

  • Cindy A Link

    I have spent a lot of time wondering why someone would choose such a final path, but in the end, it was their choice to make. I worked for a crisis intervention telephone service years ago. The thing that struck me was that most of the suicidal callers were of a higher intelligence than the normal population. Maybe they were thinking too much and had weighed the pain of their current life against the alternative.

  • This is so sad Ruth. I think if this happened in a place where I lived I would be asking the same questions. It’s too bad she could not find another solution. So sad.

  • Appreciate the Simon&Garfunkel reference – and I often think about the few seconds of thoughts that pass through people’s minds before the end. Do they regret it? Are they relieved? No one ever knows. Makes me think of Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down (always love his stuff, read it if you haven’t yet).

  • I think I’ll be hearing “They say he has a brother somewhere, who should be notified soon” in my head all day long. You simply never know what is going on with anyone else’s life.

  • I’m so sad that happened. Suicide is devastating. There’s always another choice. Poor poor woman (and a doctor! With three kids!). Poor you too.

  • How sad. I hope you’re doing okay.

  • It seems to be the season of suicides and every time I learn about another one I’m left wondering why and what might have been done to help the person who felt compelled to take their own life.

    When there are kids involved — or if the person is a kid themselves — I find it particularly troubling.

  • Ooph. What a sad situation. I feel terrible for her, of course, but I also feel just awful for the family left behind.

  • Marie Link

    You are right – we are all so intertwined, even with those we don’t know. And our actions have effects we can never see.

    In addition, I have to share this story, as yours brought it to mind. Last October, I met and became close to another woman at a weekend-long wedding we both attended. At the end of the weekend, I figured that I should tell her that I was going through chemotherapy – I didn’t want her to think that it felt like we were close but I was keeping this big secret from her.
    After I told her, she shared that she had a spot on her liver.

    I am so used to people trying to reassure me that things will be all right that I interpreted her statement in my self-centered way.
    Three months later, I learned that she had shared with me something that she had shared with no one else: She had an inoperable tumor on her liver. She died about one month after that.
    I often wonder – was she looking for someone to talk with about this? How could I have missed such a huge opening? But I did. And it totally challenged the view that I have of myself of being a good listener and at least somewhat sensitive and in-tune. Maybe her gift, one of her gifts, was a wake-up call to me to try and listen better.

  • all the more reason to share kindness along the way, I think. if someone is intent, I agree there may well be no way to stop him or her. but there are steps along the way, even though we may not be aware of it, when a kind word may turn a course.

    reading this also made me wonder if you know Judy Collins’ book Singing Lessons? written after the suicide of her adult son.

  • Without going into the longer story, I tried suicide once. I had just wanted to go HOME. Yes, that Home. Yet, my well-researched lethal brew eerily put me to sleep instead. After awakening, I realized I had a psychiatric appointment to keep that day. I confessed my deeds of the previous night to my psychiatrist with a voice that, to me, seemed to originate behind me. I knew better than to confess to my doctor, yet out it came. I was immediately placed in an asylum for my own protection. There, I learned about the shoddy listening skills of much of the staff. Many of the patients thought I WAS staff, took to me, following me around like little ducklings, even securing transfers to vacated beds in my 4-bed dorm room. I personally helped many get better care and go home. I felt alive, really alive! After 53 days, the head psychiatrist up and discharged me. I privately believe she viewed me as a threat to her and the “system.” From all that, I learned you can’t go Home until He’s ready for you to return. Suicide is useless. If a suicide succeeds, then that person’s ticket Home is punched and ready, weather that person ingests poison, rides in a car that is involved in a crash, cuts across the yard in a storm or momentarily rises in a battlefield. When it’s your time, a venue is opened exclusively for YOU. Therefore, too, I have realized grief is really a self-indulgent emotion feeding off one’s own sense of loss and should be dispensed with quickly.

  • b condra Link

    No. She didn’t regret it. Some days it’s harder to find a reason to stay alive.

  • I have felt that way. And I have spoken with others who feel like taking their lives. My realization was that I would give my life for my children. Going on–living life–may seem harder than dying. But think about the people you love, those who would be crushed if you died, and show your love for them by going on.

  • Cindy A Link

    Oh, Winston. Grief isn’t self indulgent. It’s an outward focus on someone else, someone who may not have known how much they were truly loved. Besides love and forgiveness, grief is one of the best traits of the human soul.

  • So sad. I, too, have been in the throws of depression enough to understand why someone would want to “move on.” I always think about the M*A*S*H episode where some young soldier kept trying to kill himself and finally Col. Potter said, ok, let me help you. And then the soldier started fighting FOR his life. I wonder if the same would be true for this woman, Ruth. If someone had said, ok, let me push you, would she have realized that maybe life isn’t so bad. But you’re right – once someone decides, there’s often no way to save them.

  • I think it’s quite hopeless to try to find a rational explanation for extreme actions like jumping off a high building. Suicide can be a rational act, I suppose, in cases where somebody is dying of some painful disease or has such pain in his life that he can’t go on. But jumping from a high place, being conscious on the way down, and making a mess when you hit has got to be the result of some kind of serious chemical imbalance in the brain.

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