Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Overnight, chapter 4

For all chapters, go here.

Heading west on Denny Way towards the Seattle Center and not yet to mile 17, I realized there was simply no way this was going to be a 20 mile walk. I was devastated. I had told everyone I would walk 20 miles, I had told myself I would walk 20 miles. My feet were pounding with pain, I was somewhat bleary, but I didn’t want it to end. I was kind of angry about it, actually. I ended up passing the 17 mile mark about ten minutes before entering Seattle Center so it worked out to about a 17.5 mile walk.

As I entered the Seattle Center, I was greeted with more volunteers cheering me on (I think I was coming to the finish line much earlier than most people). I was also greeted with the bags that had been decorated to memorialize the people who had died by suicide. I had written about Rick on one of these bags but here were hundreds of the bags, lining the walk, each with a candle inside. All these glowing things, each with someone’s name on them. People finishing their walks slowed down to look for the bags they had made. Some found them and were camped in front just staring, sometimes talking a little. There were so many bags.

“To Mom, we love you and we miss you.”
“Eric! You are always in our hearts!”
“For my friend, Crystal.”

And this one:
“To Jill’s husband, your wife and family miss you very much.”

I didn’t stop to read very many of them because I decided that I simply wasn’t done walking yet. I hadn’t come to Seattle to walk 17.5 miles; I flew across the damn country to walk 20. So after the finish line, I just kept going. I walked out of Seattle Center and started heading downtown on 2nd Avenue once again. The roadside mileage markers had long since been removed so I just calculated on an average 20 minute mile and figured I’d walk 25 minutes then turn around and walk another 25 back. I mean, sure I could have factored in walks to the car and stuff but that doesn’t count. That’s not the rules.

Thing is, walking through downtown at a little past two in the morning means closing time at the bars. Drunks spilling out into the street, kids out partying screaming out plans for where they’d go next, various dodgy looking characters with whom one best not make eye contact. The entire variety of intoxication. I’d never been more sober.

I had never walked this far in one stretch before and by the time I was heading back to the Seattle Center, I was in pain with every step. But I got there. I walked the 20 miles. It didn’t make Rick’s death any more bearable, the extra 2.5 miles didn’t prevent any more deaths. But it was a promise I made that I had to fulfill. I can’t really think of any symbolic relationship between this and the struggles of suicide survival. Maybe they’re there, who knows. But just as I didn’t want to look out at the water during the walk (that’s where Rick’s ashes were scattered), I didn’t want to really think about anything other than the walk.

Returning to the Seattle Center at 2:40 in the morning, I grabbed a plateful of food, a mylar blanket, and a free T-shirt and sat down. Then I covered my face with the T-shirt and collapsed into, oh, about seven minutes of uncontrollable sobbing. Then I dried off and ate the food. Good food.

Eventually I got up to go look at the bags again. There were hundreds of them, each memorializing someone who died, who devastated their families, who caused a chain reaction of despair that will never end, who tipped a domino that will ripple through their families and hurt family members who haven’t even been born yet. These bags all glowed in the pre-dawn darkness. They weren’t ghosts, they weren’t the people who had died. They were bags with candles in them.

And the bags shouldn’t have been there. I mean, I’m glad they were for the purposes of the walk; it was incredibly powerful and poignant. But those people should have been at home in bed. Mom, Eric, Crystal, “Jill’s husband” should all be home in bed. They should wake up hours later and have some breakfast and read the paper and then go to the park or maybe a movie. They should hug their kids, kiss someone, learn a new language. They should dance. Instead, they’re a bag on the grass.

When people ask me how many people were walking that night, I quote the figure of 1200 which I heard somewhere. “That’s great”, they inevitably say. And yeah, that’s true, it’s great that there is attention for this problem. But they shouldn’t be there. They shouldn’t need to be there. That was the first line spoken at Rick’s service in Seattle. The pastor said, “We shouldn’t be here.”

I looked through many bags, trying to find Rick’s. But I gave up after a while. He was in there, someone else had surely seen his and missed their own bag that I saw. Rick was in there, part of this terrible club, part of this sea of bags, this sea of souls with Eric and Crystal and Mom and Jill’s Husband and Kurt Cobain and Chet Baker and Spalding Gray and Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf and Elliott Smith. Here’s a picture I took of someone I never knew:

I returned to the building where people were resting and recovering. I watched through some huge windows as the sky turned a lighter blue. Dawn had arrived. A closing ceremony was held. A girls choir sang. The two walks combined, New York and Seattle, had raised something like 3 million dollars. The money would go to prevention programs, psychiatric research, and other avenues to understand and stop suicides so fewer bags and walkers would be needed one day.

I’ve been sitting here at a keyboard trying to think of what to say in the What It All Meant part at the end here. I think it was a political act, I believe that if depression/mental health/suicide got the attention that drunk driving got, there would be fewer deaths. It was personal, of course, as I awakened to this vast network of people sharing this common experience.

But more than anything else, it was gaudy. It was tacky. It was a little obnoxious. And that’s a really good thing. Here were people in these beads marching through a city, not disruptively, but acutely and glaringly present. And they were speaking about this unspeakable act. They took their horrific pain and put it on display. Depression is a lonely place and so is grief. For one night, it was placed in a community of darkness, pain, and ultimately daylight.

Next year, the walk is in Washington, DC.

Here’s Weekend America’s story on the Overnight.
Here’s Weekday on KUOW talking about the walk.
Here's a really interesting article in the NYT Magazine.

Build the fence on the Aurora Bridge.

Thanks for reading.



Tina Rowley said...

John, you are so right. You should never have been on that walk, and those bags should have had lunches in them. And the people the bags were for should have been doing anything else. But I am so ____* you did that walk and so ____ that you have written about so vividly and movingly.

*The word was going to be "glad" but, really, that's not the word. Instead there's a blank space with a bag with right word in it.

Well done. Bravo. Love to all you Moes.

Emily said...

Thank you for writing about your experience with the walk. I never go to those sorts of things anymore -- peace walks, crop walks, AIDS walks -- because I'm a big wimp and I get caught up in my own discomfort and start bitching non-stop inside my head. So it's poignant for me to read how upset you were that the walk wasn't longer, that you needed to make the walk the length you'd expected it to be, that it felt like a promise, and that fulfilling the promise opened the door for the release that followed. I'm not sure what the metaphor is, either, but thanks for the opportunity to ponder.

Had I been there, I'd have been wearing the green beads.

Lindsay Evelyn said...

I really didn't expect that I would, but by the time I got to this last chapter, I was crying.

I'm terribly sorry for you, your brother, and your family. Thank you for writing something beautiful about it.

Green beads for me as well.