It's hard to ignore something that pops up repeatedly. It all started a couple weeks ago when I met Phillip. I was finishing up a project downtown when Phillip happened to walk up to me inquiring about any nearby facilities to dispose of garbage that had been collected along the river. I wasn't able to answer his question, but it opened the door to a conversation that is still going on.
It turns out that Phillip is one of the many homeless people living in Richmond. He is one of the panhandlers that you may pass while you're busily driving down Richmond's streets. Having grown up in Richmond I've always known that almost anywhere you go you are bound to end up at a red light with a pathetic looking person holding a sign asking for money, food, work, anything you might have. Being in this situation has always made me uncomfortable, at times trying to use that little piece of metal along the side of the windshield to block eye contact with whoever this person might be. I'm not sure what it is that has caused me to have these uneasy feelings. Is it something my parents may have said when I was little? Is it our society that assumes these folks are untouchables? Is it knowing that I have a roof, a vehicle, some money, my own pack of cigarettes that makes me feel guilty? Is it that I know they are hungry and I'm not going to offer a dollar?
Whatever it is, I've ignored the whole topic until I met Phillip. We exchanged phone numbers that day and later that evening I was invited to have dinner with him and his friend Patrick*. Not knowing what I was getting into I ventured into the woods and we hung out for a few hours talking about anything that came up. I'll get back to this soon, but why I'm writing now is because of a topic that has come up repeatedly in the last few days alone.
Since Thursday suicide has been the topic of discussion more times than I care to even think about. It started with a friend asking what the meaning of "Adam's Song" by Blink 182 was. Later there was a discussion on the radio about it. Even later that evening I received a text from Phillip that he was going to commit suicide. I didn't know what to say, I've never received such an abrupt call for help. I said what I could, that it's not up to you to decide when your mission on earth has been fulfilled. That you need to be strong, hang in there, that people care about you and would be upset if you do this.
Phillip had received a call that his girlfriend had been killed in a car accident. Completely destroyed and in inner turmoil he decided that he didn't want to live anymore. He reached out to the only person that had taken time to listen to him. We talked things over and he made it through the night.
The next morning, Friday, Phillip called to let me know that he was okay. He told me of a man that had visited him that morning on the street corner that he was panhandling on. He had been there about five minutes when a well dressed middle aged man came to him in tears, asking "Why shouldn't I jump off this bridge?". The man's wife had just filed for divorce and served him with a restraining order. He seemed to think that his life was over, that it was up to him to end it. They talked for a few minutes, Phillip offered his story about his recent struggle with loss and suicide. He offered him a few kind words and watched him walk off wiping tears from his cheeks. That was yesterday at 10:30am.
During this time I am working, running all over the Richmond area getting things together. I had a job in the West End, made it to Innsbrook to buy a used digital camera for Phillip, then to Colonial Heights to replace some emergency lighting in a pizza joint. I planned on going back up Route 1 to swing by Chesterfield Trading Co to check out tools, but there was some sort of incident on Route 1 and I took a detour up 95N. Approaching 895 I looked over in southbound traffic and there were about 15 police cars in the left hand lane, with a bunch of officers standing at the front of the cars holding a yellow plastic tarp to the jersey wall. I look up and more officers are on the 895 bridge looking down on us. I knew immediately what had happened.
Someone jumped. Someone took it upon themselves to decide their life had no more meaning or purpose. How could they have known what opportunities may lay in the days ahead? Who did they leave behind? Who, if anybody, loved them? Did they have children? These are the thoughts running through my mind. I wasn't bothered by the fact that there was a body on the highway. I was angry. I was angry that someone took the easy way out of trouble.That was 3:00pm.
I carried these feeling with me back to Richmond. It was Friday evening when Phillip told me his account that morning. I didn't mention mine until this morning, Saturday. Had we came across the same person? We talked about it. I said it shouldn't be, the suicide victim was from Chesterfield. Phillip said the guy he met mentioned he was from Chesterfield. I asked his name, he said he regrets he didn't ask.
Late yesterday Phillip's girlfriend's mother called him to let him know that there was a mix up with the id cards in the car accident, his girlfriend was not dead but in critical condition in a D.C. area hospital. She called again at 9:30 this morning to tell Phillip that his girlfriend hadn't lived through the night.
As I've been writing this I've been in phone conversation with Phillip. I'm encouraging him to stay strong, that it's the end of a chapter, not the end of the book. I've asked him not to get drunk, that the alcohol will only intensify the turmoil and grief in his mind. I remind him that people care about him, that people will miss him. Do not surrender!
Only time will tell how the wounds heal. I'm not sure what's happening, only that this has been forced upon me so much in the last few days that I cannot ignore it. I must write, hoping that through my words someone may find encouragement to keep going. Do not surrender!