The Great Butterfly Eruption
Maybe I packed a little too much. After all, how much whisky did I really need while 12-miles into the Sierras?
You’re right, I’ll deal with the extra weight.
Each step up the final series of switchbacks seemed to make my backpack heavier and heavier. I was taking it literally one step at a time. I cinched my pack every 10-paces or so. But nothing took away the pain from my hips. The right thing to do would be to stop, tighten up all of the straps and continue trudging up the mountain. But a vortex of endorphins had taken over. My back was soaked from the sweat. The dull pain on my lower back was tolerable, but not ignorable. As I sucked from my Camel Pack straw, which looped over my left shoulder and conveniently clipped near my chapped lips, my nostrils gasped wide for air in between gulps.
I placed my left hand on a cold vertical rock slab and leaned into it, which took some weight off of my achy shoulders. After several gulps of well earned river water, I took a deep breath as I tilted my head back, then rotated it on it’s axis, left and right. Damn that felt good.
Sometimes when I’m in the middle of a tough backpacking trip the physical pain makes me wonder why I continue to plan these friggin hikes, I stay focused by daydreaming. One daydream: I’m in a zombie apocalypse running into the woods for safety and a new life. Another daydream: When the trail is narrow and tight, I find myself time traveling through a worm-hole. Blue streaks of warped starlight zip by me; Destination unknown.
On this particular water break, I don’t recall what I was daydreaming about. The switchbacks had taken a toll on my psyche. Getting to the top was my only thought. I was so focused on the trail, on my feet, on each step, that I did not bother to look up for the last 3-miles since the sharp incline began.
Finally, with my left hand on that cold vertical rock slab, I looked up.
The yet unseen valley that served as my backdrop was now in my full frontal view and it was in-freakin-sane! The trees that lined the hills, as countless as the blades of grass on an open field, swarmed the mountainsides. Each rolling hill descended further and further until it was devoured by another hill, with its own infinite number of trees, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on….………
My eyes were on autopilot as they traced the vast and majestic valley. They began at the horizon, where the last hill dipped into the earth. My eyes slowly made their way to closer hills, all the while swinging from left to right, scanning silently, taking in the beauty. As they focused on the valley floors just below my resting point, the reality of how high up I was became palpable. I dared to stick my neck out a tiny bit to look below. A sudden release of butterflies erupted in my belly. I smartly brought my head back, looked back out into the valley, and took a deep nervous breath.
In a split fucking second…
My worm-hole daydream had become reality. I was no longer there. On that sharp switchback turn where I decided to take a water break. Certain details took me back.
That nervous breath I took. My posture on the edge of that trail. My left hand supporting my weight on that cold vertical rock slab.
That butterfly eruption.
It took me back to a rooftop in the city months back. When my best just wasn’t enough.
Seesaws of Anxiety
There he stood. With his toes hanging over the ledge of the roof. His breath was labored. His back slightly arched. He stood there looking down, with his right hand supporting his weight on an adjacent building. I looked down onto the parking lot that waited below and communicated with another officer. From the ground he was asking him not to jump. The moment I looked over the ledge, the height made me feel as though a thousand butterflies had been released into my stomach.
I nodded at the officer below. Our team was set on the roof. We were ready to do what we always do. Talk this guy down. After all, he just wanted attention. And we were expert communicators.
Our team of police officers consisted of 6 cops. One officer stood near the ledge and kept in constant communication with the officers at ground level.
Two officers angled on the man. They took turns trying to reason him down. This would also, in theory, provide a great distraction for the 3 remaining officers who stood by on the ready for their opportunity to snatch the man from the ledge. A team of medics waited on the stairwell ready for our hero-moment and to provide any medical help should anyone get hurt.
The man on the ledge was a White guy. In his mid to late 50’s. Grey hair. Spectacles. Your average looking Joe. He was visibly nervous. He mumbled to himself and had sweat running down his left temple. I was one of the three officers on the side, ready to grab him at the right moment.
I cant remember this man’s name. Let’s just call him Larry.
“Larry. Larry, please. It’s not worth it. You can get through it. This is not the answer.”
Larry’s eyes were transfixed on the ground below. But they were well aware of our distance from him. We attempted to slowly close the gap by taking a small step towards him. His eyes darted in our direction as he motioned with his left hand for us to stop. He immediately threatened to jump. But he never said a word. He did so by bending his knees and spring loading his legs. We complied, and he stood back up, always keeping his back slightly arched.
“Larry. Larry don’t do this to your children. They need you. Who’s going to be there for them. You can get help. Things can get better, Larry. This isn’t the answer.”
We were being fed information on Larry’s situation. He was depressed. His wife was not surprised and always wondered if he’d go through with it. Larry had two children at home. It was Thanksgiving Day. A day of family and togetherness.
“Larry, don’t do it. Listen to me, Larry.”
Larry leaned forward.
Larry crouched into a squat. His legs trembled as he leaned even further. His right hand always on that adjacent wall.
“Larry please don’t. Larry. Larry don’t!”
He straightened his legs and leaned upright again. His eyes continued to move quickly from over the ledge and back to us. The officer’s voices relaxed. And the pleading began again. Officers took turns trying to talk him down off that ledge.
“Larry. Trust me when I tell you I know what you are feeling. I’ve been there before. I know what it’s like.”
He never communicated directly with us. He looked over at us only when he felt us trying to close the gap. And even when he looked over, he never looked at any of us directly. His eyes were empty. They raced left and right, left and right. Glassed over and lost.
“Larry. Don’t do this to your children. They need you. We can get you help I promise you. Let us help you. Your wife is on the phone. Please, Larry.”
Again, Larry began his slow crouch as he simultaneously leaned forward with trembling legs.
“Larry…Larry please don’t. Larry don’t do this please.”
Over and over, Larry repeated this ceremony. When he gained enough courage to visualize his jump he would bend his knees and lean forward. The officers’ voices intensified and went from reasoning to blatant begging every time he would be on the point of jumping. And over and over again as he stood back up the officer voices calmed back down.
Like a seesaw of anxiety, an authentic and nerve-wrecking type of anxiety of true life and death. We were getting more and more desperate with each swing of his behavior. Every time he was about to jump, he threw us into a breathless moment of anticipation until he stood back up and slammed us back into deep sighs of relief.
Larry leaned slowly.
Larry crouched as he did several times before.
The Superman Chronicles
As a kid I used to love Superman. I used to lay face down on the couch and stretch my arms out in front of me. I would pretend I was looking down at the city for injustices. All the while making wind noises with my mouth. WHOOOSSSSSHHHH!!!!!
Sometimes my eldest brother would lay on his back and I would jump on him so he could catch me. With his legs bent, my stomach would rest on his shins while he held my little forearms with his hands so that I could stretch out and position myself like as if I was Superman flying in the air. I would pretend I was looking down at the city for injustices. All the while making wind noises with my mouth. WHOOOOSSSHHH!!!!
In the blink of an eye…
In the blink of an eye I was an adult. Instead of reaching Superman dreams as a kid by way of the couch or my brother’s brace, I found myself all grown up. Only now I backpacked mountains to reach those heights.
As I looked over the valley, with my left hand on that cold vertical rock slab, I saw several swallows swooping in the air. They turned sharply and glided as they rode the wind. I wondered and daydreamed about how free it must have felt to be able to fly the winds that occupied that valley. Free from the oppressive gravity that made this climb so darn difficult.
Free. Like the swallow on the wind.
I closed my eyes and felt her wind caress my face. It cooled the sweat that formed between my backpack and my back, then chilled me for a moment. My eyes remained closed…
I made myself the wind…
The swallow on the wind.
And if I’m not mistaken, when I opened my eyes, a sudden smile shone on my lips. A gust of wind fluttered my blue REI polyester shirt. As I stood there I spread my arms like a bird, hoping the wind would make my daydream come true.
Into Valley Winds
Larry leaned slowly.
Larry crouched, just as he did several times before.
Larry sprung his legs straight and stretched his arms out to the side as he finally made the leap. He didn’t panic or scurry his limbs around in regret. There was zero buyers remorse.
In an instant, as Larry flew peacefully into the air, my instinct forced me to shut my eyes tight. I shut them so tight. I turned away and plugged my ears with my fingers. I guess I didn’t want to hear his pain. I didn’t want to hear the ground break his flight.
I looked up at my fellow officers, ears still plugged. I didn’t hear Larry land, thank goodness. But I did hear one of my teammates release an emotional explosion of grief. He yelled so loud and so painful that it stung the insides of my chest. It felt as though I had swallowed a light bulb, which exploded sharply inside of my chest at the moment he yelled.
One officer ran. She sprinted from Larry’s side of the ledge to the opposite side of the roof. Another officer chased in her direction.
I unplugged my ears and looked over at another fellow officer. He had tears in his eyes. He was shaking his head as he paced back and forth. I don’t know if he was talking to us, or talking to himself. But he kept saying how it wasn’t right. He kept mumbling about how it was not normal to see and deal with this kind of stuff.
I looked over at my last teammate. A Marine with plenty of experience of his own. He had both of his palms on his forehead, elbows pointing forward. His eyes swelled with tears.
There was a sudden surge of silence on that rooftop. The medics looked over at us from the stairwell. They were helpless with all of their medical equipment. There was nothing their modern medicine could do for us.
I remember breathing very deep and hard at that point. I could hear my breathing like as if my ears were plugged. I kept repeating out loud to myself, “Fuck……….Fuck………Fuck……..” I finally gained some composure. I kept telling everyone, “Don’t look over the ledge….Don’t look over the ledge….”
The officer that had sprinted was now being held by another officer as she wept. We all silently and in shock walked over to where she was being embraced. We huddled and held each other in a circle and told each other over and over:
“This is not our fault, guys.”
“We did all we could do.”
“His decision was made.”
“We did everything in our power.”
At that moment though, I didn’t know if we did. None of us did.
That blank, empty stare that once occupied Larry’s eyes had suddenly transferred from that ledge, flown into the air, crashed into the ground, and somehow made it into each one of our hearts.
I can still see it. I know the medics did. If you would have been able to look into our eyes at the moment we released our huddle, you would have seen directly into our hearts. And what you would have seen is exactly what Larry had in his…
Guilt, Grief & Our Walls of Support
Something happened on that rooftop. Something different. Something I have never experienced before. Judging from our collective reaction, no one else on that rooftop had experienced it either.
This NEVER happens to cops. Never.
During these types of radio calls, we are used to saving lives. We either talk them down, tackle them down, or show up after the deed is done. And usually, it’s a quick mental cleanup.
I don’t know if it was the yo-yo affect of the man going back-and-forth repeatedly from the cusp of jumping, back to standing straight. Maybe it was the fact that we were being fed facts on his personal life. Details like his children’s names and his wife’s perspective. Perhaps it was because of the holidays. Or maybe….maybe it’s how personal the pleading became, with each officer reaching deep inside from a personal chord in their lives in a desperate effort to find common ground with the man. I don’t know. Perhaps it was a mix of everything.
Even though this man’s decision was already made…
Even with the fact that his wife told us how this was a long time coming…
Even though we couldn’t find an angle to approach him because of that vertical wall which acted like a blockade…
The guilt that overcame us was real, intense, and overwhelming.
I could have done more.
I could have done more.
I could have done more.
To be honest…
It felt like I pushed him off that ledge myself.
We all look for comfort. Mostly in implicit methods. We all need support. Whether it’s from a giant rock on a viewpoint of a beautiful valley view. Or from the side of a building in the middle of the city. On that day, our comfort…our support…our rock…our “wall”…was each other.
Maybe we were not ready for the reality that the man would jump. Or, maybe we were ready, it’s all a bit confusing. Either way I think we were so desperate to save him that we did something we’ve been told from the beginning of our careers NOT to do…
We took it personal.
As much as we try to plan life, most of the time life plans us.
As much as we think we are Superheroes with uniforms as capes and Sam Brownes as our “Bat-belts”…I guess sometimes we forget.
Dedicated to those Superheroes in Blue who have dealt head-on with the demons of duty-related stress and left us much too soon by way of suicide.
(Click on page 2 of 3 below for commentary & Avenues of Help )