I saw a man die yesterday. It is morning, 8:30am, and I’m probably the only person who has to go to work on Labor Day, because when I get off the blue line at Jackson, all the streets are empty, and there’s no line at the coffee shop I go to every Monday morning. I’m walking East to my bus stop and stop myself from stepping into a distinctly red, syrupy puddle. I’ve seen blood on the street before, trails going in and out of buildings, at bus stops, outside broken windows. I convince myself it’s not blood. Someone spilled something. It’s a melted popsicle. I see another puddle and it’s still not enough for me to viscerally react, I’m still more worried about getting to the corner until the bus comes, but when I finally reach the apex, I see there’s a body laying on the concrete, people have crowded around to observe in silence. An ambulance has been called. I am frozen. Yes, I have seen puddles of blood, countless times, since moving to Chicago five years ago. Never have I seen the body that goes along with it.
I have had a pronounced fear of death ever since I read the Vonnegut novel Galapagos at the age of 19. In it, a chemical called ice-nine freezes the remnants of human civilization. It does so simply by being touched; anything that touches it turns to ice, and anything that touches that then turns into ice, and so on. When the ice-nine is dropped into the ocean, everything is pretty much done for. The slaughter is accidental, but the main character’s love interest touches the ice intentionally, yet carelessly, with a naive smile and laugh, and turns into a preserved statue. She shows only shallow emotions towards this decision. I remember reading this in Grant Park after class one day and becoming utterly paralyzed by hopelessness. I remember this moment as the first time I distinctly thought about my own death occurring one day, and wanting it not to happen.
On Labor Day, 2012, I am 23, and death is still on my mind constantly. As I am crossing the street some 30 feet from the corner where the body is laying, two young men are arguing about what they just saw. One of them claims, nonchalantly, “He’ll live, though. He’ll be okay.” The other immediately becomes enraged and starts shouting. “No he won’t, motherfucker. Have you seen how much blood he’s lost? He just had a seizure.” As he shouts, I look back at the fallen body, witness the only movement I’ll ever see from him–he turns his head slightly, towards the shouting, and lifts his hand, as if to protest this stoic logic. This movement is an act of defiance. But by the time the ambulance comes, he is no longer moving. The EMT’s lift him onto a gurney, wrap his entire body in a white sheet, covering his bloody face. I look at the motorized scooter he must have fallen out of, the wicker bicycle basket fixed to the front. I start crying, and am unable to stop for most of the bus ride to work.
The last time I was strapped into a gurney, it was the day after my 21st birthday, and I had been locked in a windowless room at Northwestern Hospital for some 16 hours. The mistake I made was admitting to a counselor at my school, a stranger, how could I have trusted her?, that I had gotten into a drunken argument with my boyfriend and swallowed a fistful of pills. Codeine. I am not sure why I did it–neither the admission or the pills–because I was fully aware they would not be enough to kill me. At age 14, it was an entire bottle of Ibuprofen. When I told my mother, she couldn’t believe me, that I hadn’t even gotten sick. At least three times, ages 16-17, it was entire packages of Benedryl. Later I learned the amount I had taken was only enough to kill a lab rat, that it was physically impossible to ingest enough to die, but it left me sleeping for something like 48 hours straight, which is a different kind of suicide. April 12, 2010, when they strapped me into the bed, I was more horrified of what would happen in the coming days than I was of death. It was the week before finals. I had papers to write for my class, a conference with one of my professors, my first event as president of a student organization. Of course none of that mattered when I had taken the Codeine, but because it hadn’t done anything, it mattered immensely. When they finally took me away, my boyfriend, who had stayed with me the whole time, who was the main reason I was there in the first place, almost started to cry, instead turned around, tore a water fountain from the wall. He came to visit me each day I was there.
In high school, after continuous attempts at death met with continuous short-term hospital stays, I had a therapist tell me, “If you had wanted to die, you would already be dead.” I remember being baffled at this accusation, insisting, “It’s true. I don’t know why I’m still alive.” Although I no longer want to die, and haven’t for a long time, I stand by that rationale. I know what I wanted in my heart. There are other reasons for my continued existence–an aversion to violence, self-inflicted or otherwise; the laws of chemistry.
In the hospital, I eventually get transferred away from the third ward, which is for people who are decidedly out of their heads, to the second ward, which is for people who are comparatively normal. According to Illinois law, I am required to be detained here for five business days, and being that I spent all of Monday in an E.R. and was only admitted at 2am on a Tuesday, that means I am here for an entire week. I see a lot of faces come and go during this time, because most people were admitted of their own accord, truly desperate in the face of real hardships–their wife has left them, their house is getting foreclosed, they’ve relapsed, again, and want to die, but are possessed by a rationalization that the moment will pass. If someone takes away the blades, the sharp corners, the bras with wires, the booze, for just a few days, they can get through it.
One of the women I meet is named Flora. Admitted of her own accord, unlike me. She is smiling almost the whole three days she is in the hospital. I learn she is from Puerto Rico, lives two blocks away from me, has two daughters who she takes to Chuck E. Cheese every weekend. She works for the CTA driving the blue line, the train I take to and from school every day. Eventually, I learn why she is in the hospital–“I killed a man.” She admits this during a session of group therapy. This is the only time she isn’t smiling. “He jumped in front of my train. I didn’t have time to stop. There was nothing I could do to save him.” Because of this reminder of the fragility of life, the permanence of death, she now also wants to die. Her superiors at work suggested she come to the hospital; apparently it is protocol for train operators in her position. The group therapist repeats some dribble about how it isn’t her fault, she isn’t a murderer, and Flora just smiles and says, “I know,” so we can move on to the next person. The object of blame is not the crisis at hand.
Earlier this year my roommate Kevin was on a train delayed because of a similar incident. He learned that, despite the high volumes of CTA suicides, you don’t die immediately when you jump in front of a train. Instead, your body gets entangled in all the wheels and gears. The CTA calls in a specialized crew at this point, and someone comes down with a cellphone and talks to the twisted body, offers them a last phone call. Most of them refuse. The train pulls forward, the body falls apart, pressurized hoses wash away the evidence. It happens every day.
On my way home from work yesterday, I retraced the steps I had taken that morning, feigning routine. The square of concrete where the body laid is still wet, evidently washed clean. The motorized scooter with its falsely joyous basket is gone (to where? I’ll never know). I look for the puddles of blood and see deep red stains, unnoticed if you weren’t looking for it; I witness many people walk right over them without noticing. I realize then, I could have chosen to take his hand, offer some sort of comfort in that moment. Instead, I crossed the street, averted my gaze, tried to hide my tears, because I didn’t know where they came from, and I wanted to show some semblance of respect, unlike all the others gawking.
My fear of death comes mostly from a fear of lack of control. That my final moments will be pensive, unsure, all too final. When I was growing up Catholic, I had a fear of hell that kept me alive. In maturity, I don’t contemplate the possibility of an afterlife, so it has nothing to do with my continued earthly existence. My fear of death is not so much marked by a confrontation of the unknown, but by the other side of the coin–my life, and how it will be left behind. I doubt I will ever attempt suicide again the way I have in the past. I don’t hate myself. I am not, fundamentally or existentially, unhappy. In the past two years, I have faced more tangible difficulty than at any other point in my life, and have never reached for a bottle, to repeat the same mistakes, but faced them all, head-on. My sister recently referred to me as “a formerly suicidal, but great artist.”
By the time I get to the blue line platform and stare down the tunnel, waiting for an approaching light, I consider, for a moment, for a flicker, throwing my body in front of the train. Then, before I think of my mother, my friends, how my roommates will pay the rent without me, I remember Flora, and think better of it. It is only a passing thought, one I have so often, I am sure everyone has so often, it need not be taken seriously. This is not enough to answer “yes” when someone asks if you’re suicidal. This is just another expression of being human.
Still, I am afraid of what my mind can rationalize, should I ever feel I’ve lost control of my life again. There is nothing I fear more than to be the body on the sidewalk, one others watch stoically, gawking at the spectacle, my loved ones, nowhere, no one even taking my hand or offering me a final comfort. I don’t think I am a threat to myself when I say I would choose a shotgun in my mouth over that fate.
I can’t really explain why I starting crying yesterday morning, why I couldn’t stop. Someone I relayed this story to suggested that it was because I was showing compassion at a moment where no one else demonstrated any. She may be right. I still feel that my tears were for myself before anyone else.
In Galapagos, the dead narrator is offered a chance to proceed to the afterlife by entering a blue tunnel–his only chance for the next million years–and he refuses, wanting to see how the story plays out. My exboyfriend and I agreed how nice this fate would be, being able to watch the world unfold for eternity, but have no part in it. Sometimes, it feels like we are dangerously close to this in life. You buy the same coffee you drink every morning, from the same coffee shop, and it tastes the same. You worry about getting to work on time, complain about having to work holidays, or weekends. It isn’t until the body is on the corner, in front of the train, until the body is your own, still breathing, that you become lucid, realize this is life we are living. Some are never confronted with this lucidity. One wonders, then, what is truly the need for death.