essays kaddish in two-part harmony

on suicide

Just when I was feeling all kadished-out.  Just when I thought I couldn’t write another thing about death, death and dying, loss, grief, the ones I love, terrible events …  Just when I thought that the kaddish project — our kaddish in two-part harmony — had done its job a few months shy of a year and that I, at least, was done with it and healed —

A friend got one of those phone calls.

And it reminded me of an event many years ago.

He was an Aikido partner.  Preparing for his black belt test. And something went terribly wrong. He found himself on foot at the Golden Gate Bridge looking down at the water. On the ocean side, not the bay side.  And the water beckoned him.  He described it as an ‘opening’ — the sea simply opened up and invited him.

And somehow, he didn’t jump. He went home instead — and told somebody.

We worked in teams, keeping watch over him in shifts. Making sure he wasn’t alone. Making sure that he kept doing life. Kept preparing for that black belt test. Stayed away from the Bridge. I asked him what made him turn back that first time.  He said his frig was full.  He was a neat freak.  He didn’t want food rotting in the refrigerator in his apartment after he was gone. Everything would have to be perfectly in order.

My reaction to that was to keep bringing perishables and filling that frig.  We all became vigilant.  Silly, maybe — but it worked for a while.  It served a double purpose.  He didn’t have much money and was grateful for the food. And there was just no way he could ‘go’ while that frig was full.

Months passed that way.

His black belt test was getting closer and closer. He was pretty sure he was going to fail.

One day I guess the rotation of friends got messed up and he slipped away.  And you guessed it. He headed straight for the bridge.  He walked out onto the ocean-side walkway as he’d done before, and looked down.

The ocean had shut down its opening. He just wasn’t invited any longer. He got back in his car and drove home. His worried friends greeted him with relief.

I’m not sure he’d realized until that moment that he did have friends, and friends who cared. He’d always been a fairly grouchy guy, a bit of a pain — but one of those friends that you love for their grouchy ways (or more than tolerate, at the very least). He was funny. He was talented. He passed his first dan test just fine.

And changed his life. And moved away. And wasn’t grouchy anymore. And many other ands …

And once a year, for many years, on the anniversary of that last trip to the Golden Gate Bridge, when the waters below turned him away and refused him — he would call each of us and express his gratitude.  His tormenting demons were gone, and he was left okay.

Until this one event I had thought that suicide intervention wasn’t really possible. That if someone wanted to ‘go’ that nothing really could stop them. And that perhaps they had a really good reason for letting life go. And that such decisions should be respected. Psychotherapists work quite hard to turn people around in this — but for our friend, psychotherapy once a week (or even every day) would not really have helped. It just wasn’t enough.

It’s not that I think a full frig with potentially wasted and rotting food in it is the answer. Not at all. Nor am I sure that the ‘it takes a village’ approach is always warranted or successful. I don’t believe being a sympathetic listener is the answer. Or reasoned argumentation. Or inducing guilt for all those left behind. Or any number of other species of interventions. I don’t know the suicide literature. Don’t know the theory. Don’t know the intervention methodologies taught to hot-line volunteers or activists.

The only person I ever knew who committed suicide actually begged me for a ride to get to the City. I was running a conference at UC Berkeley, and I was just annoyed. It wasn’t my job description to get people rides across the Bay. Or anywhere else, for that matter.  But she got that ride somehow. And then she jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge (the bay side). And survived.

They brought her to the psych ward in the City. And there — under all that supervision — she succeeded this time.

I have no idea how we found out at the conference. No idea how we began piecing her story together. No idea how to understand any of it.  All I know, is that in Golden Gate Park there’s a bench with her name on it. In loving memory, it reads. The bench sits under a beautiful sakura, not far from my house. And sometimes I walk over and just sit with her. And sometimes I try to ask her questions.

What could we have done? What just might have helped? Was life all so very bad? Wasn’t there something … ? Over and over and over again.

Silly, I know. And no, I’m not going to say it helps.  And no, I don’t get answers. And no, it doesn’t help at all, I think. But I still do it.

The only thing I’ve come up with is that despondency can shift, and it can shift quite suddenly. We can fall into that pit of despair, and we can find that we’ve snapped out of it.  And there’s the full range inbetween.   Pain can be unbearable, but it also can be lifted. Or it can be unbearable, and we choose to bear it. With humor even. Sometimes. Sometimes not.

I offer a kaddish for the friend of my friend. I don’t know what happened. I don’t even know his name. I only know that tonight my own friend is in pain.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

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