I do not know her name.
It doesn’t matter.
What does matter is her story.
I was taking Cynthia home Saturday evening after we had dinner and did some shopping. It was 7 p.m. and a steady rain was falling as we crossed the double tracks heading south on Industrial Park Drive. Out of the corner of my eye in the darkness I noticed a small white sedan that appeared to be along the side of the tracks.
After making a U-turn at Van Ryn Avenue and passing over the tracks again it was clear the car was stuck on the tracks. We pulled onto the area by the entrance to the Tidewater Bike Path. Cynthia called 9-1-1 while I ran to the car.
The lady was distraught. After I asked her what was wrong she started the car and said she had to get out of there. I tried to guide her but she had sunk her front right tire into the crushed rock alongside the outer rail while her left rear tire was jammed between two ties and pushed up against the steel rail.
I tried directing her to try and realign the wheels. I pushed on the car as she had it in reverse. All this time rubber was burning. When it was clear it was futile, I said she had to get out of the car.
She declined saying she was staying with it. Then just before Cynthia joined me in the rain the lady made a few comments about life in general.
As Cynthia calmly talked to her I tried to wave other people down to help to try and move the car. Eventually a gentleman did stop and a few minutes later the police arrived.
It took a little doing but the police — who had alerted Union Pacific to hold train traffic — were able to get her out of the car. A tow truck was in route.
What she shared exactly as I talked with her, when Cynthia tried to calm her down, and what she said to the police is relevant but inconsequential in the big picture.
The lady was simply a fellow human overburdened with what life had pitched her. She was viewing life through a prism that had distorted light into darkness. The irony of the moment was significant. While what seemed like three-quarters of the world we call Manteca was wrapped up in the joy of the season whether it was watching the twilight Christmas parade just blocks away, holiday shopping, or enjoying time with family and friends here was a woman who felt no joy and saw no hope.
It was a sobering moment.
The greatest gift we can give people is being there for them. Define it by the degree of “there” that you wish — love, friendship, or simply caring for a fellow human being you may never meet again. It can be a pretty bleak and desolate feeling to believe you are in a place that is pitch black and there is no way out. Thinking that no one cares and that the next sunrise isn’t worth it is a pit no one should be allowed to fall into and not have a hand extended to them to let them know they matter.
Suicide is something we don’t want to talk about. I’m not referring to assisted-suicide as the debate is framed today but the fact people consider and successfully act on taking their own lives because they are convinced they have no one to turn to or that no one cares.
We spend a lot of time and energy in political rage over how weapons are used in murders and how best to prevent them. Yet when it comes to suicide it’s a borderline taboo subject even though we all have the ability to have an impact on reducing suicide numbers by how we treat and interact with others. There were 17,284 murders in the United States in 2017 compared to 47,177 suicides.
I know many of us like to think suicide is a personal choice. That really isn’t debatable. What is debatable is why we feel as a society that a human being lost to suicide isn’t on par with one lost to murder. Perhaps at one time or another we have harbored thoughts about taking our own life. Few of us probably never seriously contemplate actually murdering someone.
Live long enough and you will have your life rocked by a suicide.
I’ve had three such instances including one that is way too painful for me to share. That’s not to downgrade the other two losses but the closer you are to someone the more it slams into your inner being.
One suicide was a gentleman in his 50s I thought was a fairly successful and happy person. He had a loving wife, two teen kids, was a fellow Rotarian and worked for the “competition” — another newspaper — on a part-time basis. Gary was also a devout Methodist and served as a minister on a part-time basis. He also taught adult school including at Folsom State Prison. He was also rather scholarly as you could strike up a conversation with him on anything from Yeats to the nuances of the Treaty of Versailles. He was sharp witted and had a wicked dry sense of humor. Although I was quite content proceeding on the path I was at the time, I thought Gary had a successful “man for all seasons” type of life and was satisfied if not outright happy with life.
Then — for me and perhaps everyone who knew Gary — one rainy night seemingly out of the blue he walked into his garage, put a gun to his head, and ended his dance on earth.
Perhaps there is nothing I could have said or done. For what it was worth I should have told him — and done so more than once — how I thought he had his act together.
The other suicide was a 19-year-old by the name of Josh. A common acquaintance connected us because Josh liked to bicycle but did not like riding alone. At the time at age 31 I was bicycling every chance I could squeeze in.
We went on perhaps two dozen rides, primarily in the mid-day as the daily newspaper I worked at was one of the last afternoon papers meaning I had a bizarre schedule of working five hours in the morning and another four or five hours at night covering city councils and planning commission meetings throughout South Placer County.
Josh talked non-stop about his day, his problems, and things that enthralled him. I mostly listened as we rode. It may surprise people but when I’m bicycling or jogging I prefer being solo and not talking. It is a rather self-centered and selfish stance in the overall scheme of things.
Outside of the first ride together the acquaintance arranged, Josh always called to see if he could go riding with me. I never called him. The age thing wasn’t really awkward. It’s just that I preferred bicycling solo.
We hadn’t bicycled for seven months or so when I happened to run into his mom and asked how Josh was doing. She took me aside and told me Josh had committed suicide four months earlier. Before I could tell her how sorry I was to hear that, his mom was thanking me for all the time I spent with Josh as he always was excited to go riding with me. She explained that Josh was kind of a loner and that he liked the fact I listened to him and treated him like an adult.
The loss of Josh — just like Gary — was a horrible waste. I get that suicide is a personal decision but it wouldn’t have killed me to have called Josh when he didn’t call me to ask if he wanted to go for a ride or to tell Gary that he was someone I admired.
Would it have made a difference? I don’t know.
But sometimes to rewrite someone’s game plan all it takes is being there just like Cynthia was when the woman wrapped her arm around her and told the officer “this is my friend.”