This morning, I saw a young man, hanging dead from a tree.
It started out as a typical Friday morning. It was 6:45 am. I brought the "toys" today; weights, bars, balls and boxing gloves, to have my clients work at stations. I run Rock Solid Fitness, a women's outdoor fitness club, at San Francisco's Land's End. We run trails and hills and stairs on this rocky park of cypress and redwood. But this morning, the first client to arrive begged for a "wimpy" workout, so we headed out to Land's End trail. It was a beautiful morning, and I thought some deep stretching overlooking the Golden Gate as the sun rose was in good order.
Walking that path shoulder to shoulder with three of the amazing women with whom I begin each day, whose stories I learn, whose lives weave through mine with soft, smiling, shimmering threads. An evening at the theater was recounted, a daughter was praised, a mention of Bill Clinton's charm (if you were to meet him in person), a reference to Vince Neil.
Setting a quick pace, marching on, the stories continued. Looking forward, as I tend to do, I noticed an unfamiliar silhouette in those well-known woods. My stomach lurched, but only slightly, as I was unbelieving. A body hung from a tree, heels in the leafy ground. "Is it real?" I asked, as we moved toward him. Hands. Face. Body. It looked almost an effigy, a sick waxy joke, at the end of a rope.
We moved closer. And we moved quickly. There was no doubt he was real. There was no doubt he was dead. Clearly trained in knots, he had hung himself well in the night with a brand new electrical cord. A suicide. Finished.
He was young. Early twenties? Looking back, I wonder if he was younger, maybe in his teens. I don't meet Death often, but I suppose his mask makes one look older. Apart from being lifeless, he was everything a young man should be -- handsome, well-heeled, sporting backpack and iPod. Hood up over dark curly hair -- a San Francisco kid. His hands rested, resolute, at his sides.
Not one of us hesitated to touch him, to hold him, to relieve the tension that took his last breath. We four women strongly played our part -- mother, sister, tender, friend -- released him from his hold. Normally, I'm in charge. I'm the teacher. I'm the trainer. I give the orders. But something else took over here -- a solidarity among women. One a doctor, another a mother, all of us upright and bold. We didn't speak. We didn't need to, I guess. We understood that we wanted to get him down and we moved accordingly. The thick branch that held him was about seven-and-a-half feet off the ground. I got underneath him and lifted his weight as the tallest of us lifted the smallest of us to reach and unwrap the cable. We laid him on the soft, grassy earth. Our doctor checked his pulse, his pupils. I felt his fingers, tried to open his stiff hand.
I looked at the group, I knew none of us was carrying a phone. Addressing the three of them, I said, "You'll stay? And I'll go for help." Help? There was no helping this one. I would take the next proper step. I spotted a morning hiker, ran to him and explained the situation. I took his phone while he went to the parking lot to direct the first-responders to the trail.
911 answered immediately, but wanted an address. Frustrated, I asked to be connected to San Francisco dispatch, to someone who could listen to my instructions and understand where I was. I heard sirens within two minutes, hung up the phone, and waved the paramedics to the trailhead.
The first jumped from the engine to walk with me. "How do you know he's dead?" he asked me. "He's dead," I answered.
We left them to their work and deferentially gave a park police officer our statements. We were commended for staying -- merely for staying on the scene. Most people call and leave, he told us. Really? How can someone just walk away from the dead?
Because we took him down, we had to give detailed written statements. Our foursome huddled together in one car and rode in silence. There was a deep sadness and reverence among us -- among all of us. Even the paramedics and the police officers, who surely meet grief often, were dejected and mindful. Because of the hour and "remote" location, the scene was respectfully not tainted with gawking onlookers and gossip-hungry voyeurs. For this, I was grateful.
We handed over our statements, hugged each other hard, and dispersed. It was 7:58 a.m. I canceled my next class and the day's remaining appointments and sat in my truck for a while, looking out over the edge of the world. I wanted to shout out to everyone I love, "We belong on this earth! We are here for a reason! Stay here with me!" I decided I would do just that, in my own way. I would start with my husband. I drove home, vowing to better love those I love, as well as those I don't yet.
To the family of the nameless one, I am sorry I could not speak his name. Please know he was carefully and lovingly tended to when he was found. Four gentle, but rock-solid women, took him from that tree and laid him down to rest.
To the nameless one, whom I briefly held, I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the loss of those who loved you. (They did, of course, you know.) I'm sorry that it wasn't enough for you, here, now. Alas, you've moved on, young friend. You left your sorrow in that tree. Let your despair roll down those rocky cliffs, and be taken with the tide, pummeled and churned in the pacific surf, sprayed and splayed on the horizon, metamorphosed into air and light. Now do you see that you interrupted the rhythm of all things? If only you could have known how important you are to the fabric of this life, this place, you could have stayed, and lived your short life longer. You surely would have cried more tears, but you would have laughed more, you would have loved, you would have learned and lost and traveled. You might have started a business, a revolution, a country. You might have saved a life. I wish you would have. And now I wish I would have.