Bridges and Troubled Waters

For those old enough to remember the Vietnam war being brought to us, up close and personal, each evening on the six o’clock news on our TV sets, you will remember the daily “body count.” Each night our national TV networks presented the number of American soldiers killed the previous twenty-four hours, and the steadily growing cumulative total. That counter, little different in appearance from the odometer on our cars, probably did more to turn public opinion against that war than any other single factor.

And now, we are seeing much the same presentation, only this time it is the “odometer” of deaths attributed to the Covid pandemic. Although there is no direct equivalent this time to the chants from back then of “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” the result is much the same. The “Covid death toll” is constantly before us, though now on twenty-four-hour news, always very much on our national mind and decisions, affecting our very way of life.

Yet, there is another price we are paying, another “body count,” one that is receiving far too little attention. That is the drastic increase in suicides, the direct emotional, psychological, and economical consequence of our society being locked down, virtually under house arrest. “We the people” have to be able to function face-to-face, in person. We are not “wired” to deal well with isolation and loneliness. Some—far too many—are concluding such life is not worth it, and are  choosing to end it—or at least attempting to.

My daughter and her four kids, and I, the six of us here in Maine, have twice in just the past three months had direct exposure to such attempts.

Walking bridge over river
The Kennebec River Walking Bridge at Skowhegan.

I’ve shared the story with a few friends, but believe now it should be shared more widely. Omitting lots of details, the six of us, plus another friend, had shared a Labor Day weekend dinner at a restaurant on the Kennebec River in a nearby town. Afterwards, Deb and I were on the rather long walking bridge spanning the river near the restaurant, taking in the view, when we were distracted by a bit of a ruckus at the other end of the bridge.

A young man, late twenties perhaps, was physically restraining a boy who was screaming and fighting to get loose. The boy was fairly big, but likely only ten to twelve-years old. We went down to investigate, wondering if it could be a possible abduction attempt.

Once we reached them, we quickly learned that the boy had been on the railing of the bridge, preparing to jump. The fall, onto large boulders far below, would certainly have killed him. The young man, realizing what the boy was about to do, had pulled him off the railing. He was attempting to keep the boy from getting loose, fearing he would quickly climb over the railing and jump.

The boy was strong, and fighting desperately to get loose. He bit the guy rather deeply on the arm and broke loose, attempting to get back to the bridge rail. As he ran past me, I grabbed him, and wrestled him to the deck. He tried to bite me, but I was able to restrain him until the police arrived from Deb’s 911 call, just a few minutes later. They took him into custody, and that’s the last we heard of it.

Penobscot Narrows Bridge at Bucksport
The Penobscot Narrows Bridge at Bucksport, ME.

Now, just a couple of days ago, granddaughters Caitlyn and Asheley were driving over the grand, new Penobscot River bridge at Bucksport, taking a bit of a scenic route home from some shopping in Bangor. A car was parked, partially off the side of the lane, with the driver’s side door standing open. They saw that the driver, a woman looking to be in her early forties, or so, had climbed over the bridge railing and was standing on the edge, looking down into the river.

They pulled over behind the car, and stopped, uncertain as to what the woman was doing, and just as uncertain as to what they should do. By all obvious appearances, she was getting ready to jump. But as Caitlyn got out of her car, the lady saw her, looked rather shocked, then quickly crawled back over the railing, got in her car, and sped off.

There is no uncertainty in our minds that in those two instances, our being there, our unplanned and rather spontaneous intervention, prevented those two suicide attempts. It was entirely “coincidental,” just a matter of “being in the right place at the right times.”

Make no mistake. I’m not relating this to bring attention to me or my family, or to any role we may have played those two times. What I am attempting to make clear is that this nation is paying a toll for being locked down, kept from our businesses, our jobs, our schools, our churches, our families, our friends and loved ones. It is a toll that has largely been ignored by the media, and is only just beginning to be brought to our attention. But it is a toll that will continue to grow, and will be paid in many ways for the remainder of our lives.

In my eighty-four years, until just these past three months, I had never witnessed a suicide attempt, did not even know anyone personally who had. Now, in just three months, we were put in a position of being able to, by God’s grace and perhaps intervention, at least for the moment, keep that “odometer” from increasing two more counts.

Losing a friend, a loved member of the family, whether to an accident or some illness—including a global pandemic—is indescribably painful. But losing that person because they had, for whatever reasons, concluded that life was not worth the pain they were experiencing and chose to end it, carries with it a pain for those left behind unlike any other emotional pain we may bear. And it is a pain which time does not heal.

We as a nation should be horrified that such suicides are becoming so numerous as to become virtually “commonplace” even in a locale so sparsely populated as central Maine. When, I have to wonder, will we as a nation begin to factor that immeasurable cost also into the equations of our national conscience and decisions.

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