by Matthew Heneghan
I have seen and felt the roar of fire, burning with a limitless rage. I have seen murder of the young and old. I have witnessed the newly born, and my hands have held the recently dead. I have been to apartments where the only accessories are burnt spoons and diseased needles. I have watched while others say their final goodbyes to a loved one, just as I have stood in the company of brothers, whilst we say goodbye to one of our own. That last one I have done more than I’d like. I have rushed in with everyone else fleeing. I have done these things, because it was my job. Oh, Jesus, it was.
It’s 8:30 in the morning now, but I have been awake since four 4:26, and although early, I just cracked a beer. I woke up being able to taste, and smell, the putrid stench of death and damp earth, and I need to get rid of it.
Yesterday, I went to the local watering hole, not for my usual dose of medicine, but to meet with friends for coffee. Just two guys and a girl, sharing a booth and filling it with laughs – not a bad way to spend an afternoon. We sat and joked and hurled the occasional good-spirited insult. The conversation shifted and evolved, one thing to the next, until my friend brought up a recent news story here within our city: a body found submerged within a pond at a local park. She explained how this grizzly discovery was made right behind her house. I struggled to listen as she spoke, not because she or what was being said was boring, but because my mind, as it often does, started racing – remembering.
As she told us further details that I assumed she learned from the tabloids, my mind wandered further away from our conversation and deeper into remembrance. I’ve gotten pretty good, though, at faking a conversation, using filler words to feign attention: Oh yeah, yep, I know eh, for sure. So I masqueraded my way through the conversation as though I was there, actively partaking in the moment. But I was miles away.
Those details, a body submerged within a coffin of water, instantly made me recall The Jumper, a casualty of the high-level bridge that connected the north and south ends of the city where I worked as a paramedic. The bridge claimed so many that the city attempted building fences atop the railing to deter would be jumpers. It was not a successful campaign. Eventually a crisis-line phone was installed on the bridge, in hopes that the desperate would use it. In 2012 alone, there were fourteen suicides from the bridge, in a city of just over a million people. One of those casualties was The Jumper – that’s how I remember him.
I cannot recall any demographics, other than that he was male and he wanted to die, so he jumped. He jumped in front of everyone: Police, Fire, and us, the paramedics. Landing with a finality beyond doubt, he had succeeded in his spectacle. He was gone. When I say gone, I do not just mean in the figurative sense, but also the literal. His body did not come back to the surface. A frenzy of uniformed personnel scoured the river backs, while others rafted along the river and a helicopter searched from on-high. But this yielded no results — the body simply vanished, just as quickly as the life had.
The body would be found, though, washed ashore some kilometers later. Police and Fire crews radioed us to respond and confirm the obvious – death. We descended the steep embankment, toward the river, toward the body. I got close enough to see the bloated, waterlogged body, grey and pale, lying on the ground, close to the waters edge. All I could smell was damp soil and death. Even the newly dead have a scent.
So as we sat in the booth talking, this was all I could think about. I couldn’t shake it. I was nauseous, just as I had been on that day. I did not get a refill on my coffee, and I was all too quick to change the topic.
Which leads me to this morning, awakening to the smell and taste of death and earth, when a beer this early doesn’t seem so bad.