Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Tale of Thanksgiving, or, The Body on the Pavement

Dear Readers,

I apologize for my prolonged absence, but I have been in the throes of a major home renovation project, which has left me among the poor (no, wait: very poor) and befuddled masses--as anyone who has undergone such a process will fully understand.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving (which by the way I will celebrate this Saturday with an American friend and our families, Turkey Day being alien to the Bel Paese), I shall recount to you a true story of something that happened to me. I recently e-mailed this story to a friend, but then thought that perhaps you may find it of interest as well.


Sometime last spring I was pedaling home from work on a gloriously sunny afternoon, at about 2pm. I was on Via Lamarmora, on the outer edge of downtown Florence, still within the ring of where the old city walls used to be. It was quiet--there was, strangely in that instant, no traffic on the street. A little ways ahead, I saw a body on the pavement, face-down in a fresh, spreading pool of blood.

The first thing I thought was: mafia hit. (Too melodramatic, perhaps, I know). No one was around--it was eerie. Then, as if from nowhere, a man appeared and began looking the body over. I realized that I had slowed way down, and was approaching warily, yet magnetized by the scene. The man glanced my way and saw me, then began walking swiftly toward me: "I saw him--he fell out of the window!" he shouted. I looked at the body--it was a young man, I couldn't really tell what age, maybe 25. He had light brown hair, and wore a dark sweater and jeans. He was still alive: after being so still he had slowly begun to move his head back and forth a bit, and one arm and one leg, ever so slightly. His other arm was limp, the bone at an ugly and impossible angle, clearly broken--and his other leg twisted almost backwards. He began to moan softly.

"Did you call an ambulance?" I asked. "Yes, I called right away. He just came out the window! I was going by on my mo-ped and heard a thud--and there he was! It was just a minute ago!"

I looked up and indeed, there was an open window--on the fifth floor of the apartment building. By now some passers-by had gathered. The pool of blood fanned out steadily from the guy's face, and he continued to mew and slowly writhe. The mo-ped man tried to talk to him, to no avail. We knew not to try to move him; we looked on, helpless, waiting for the ambulance.

A small unmarked car sped up and stopped--it was a doctor in jeans and a t-shirt, apparently the first to respond to the call. He rushed over with his kit and went to work, taking vital signs, inserting an IV. After a few interminable minutes, we heard the wail of the ambulance, and two pulled up, their teams spilling out in a froth of fluorescent orange and white--and the sidewalk, so eerily silent before, burst into life and the hurried business of first aid.

I had been barely breathing, I think, my eyes glued to that young man, and only when the rescue teams started their work did I feel myself take a deep breath. They gently rolled him over and his face was smashed and smeared with blood. They were tearing his clothes away and hooking him up to all sorts of tubes, working with methodical, yet swift desperation. More crews arrived: the police, more medics, traffic cops. The police busted into the apartment to see if there was anyone up there who might have pushed the guy out the window--in a minute an officer hung out the window and gave the all-clear. Neighbors had begun to gather and there was a young woman sobbing. The traffic cops were diverting the buses that had begun to pass. I kept looking up at that window. Did he jump? Did he fall out? Was he drunk or on drugs? A rumor went around the crowd that he had fallen out by mistake, had somehow lost his balance. I was thinking, "What? Like he was maybe hanging curtains or something and just--oops!--fell out the window??! A 25-year-old??"

And still they worked on him, there on the pavement. "Why don't they take him away?" I thought. It went on and on. I couldn't move. My adrenalin was pumping, emotion rising in my throat. He just looked so unbearably sad and alone there, crumpled on the sidewalk like a pile of dirty laundry. If he had jumped, what made him do it? How could anyone throw themselves out a window? I suddenly noticed that he had lost one sneaker in the fall, a well-worn Nike, dingy white with a black swoosh--it lay a few feet away from him: forlorn, desolate. His unshod foot, the one that was still able to move, wore a twisted navy-blue sock. It had a hole in it, at the heel.

Well, my heart broke over that shoe. From some unbidden source, a tidal wave of compassion welled up in me and threatened to bring me, too, to the pavement. Buddhists and yoga practitioners speak of the power of the one-pointed mind. In those dramatic moments on the street, I tell you that my whole body was tense with straining toward this other human being; my mind was knife-edged, utterly one-pointed. Every cell in my body vibrated as I focused, unthinkingly, on that poor soul. Everything else fell away. I felt, too, that somehow my presence was necessary--I had to connect to him, send my prayer for his recovery on invisible channels that crossed the street and fed into the tubes that were trying to save his life.

At last, they prepared him for transfer to the hospital. He was carefully wrapped in huge sheets of something that looked like silver foil, and lifted onto a gurney. He was moaning very loudly now, the pain ripping through him and oozing out of him in spurts and spasms like blood. It was ghastly to behold. They loaded him into an ambulance, the doors snapped shut, and it roared off. The other vehicles left: police, medics, traffic cops--they shot away in their cars and on their motorcycles, to attend to other business, other emergencies. Those of us that had gathered were left there, in sudden silence. The sun was warm and bright. An almost bereft feeling rippled through the crowd, like the faintest of breezes, and we slowly dispersed. My heart was thumping in my chest. I felt spent and exhausted. I got on my bike and tried to ride home, but I kept stopping, trying to catch my breath and calm the adrenalin bubbling inside of me. My body was shaking. I finally made it.

The next day, I scanned the paper for news of him. I read that in Via Lamarmora at 2pm on the previous day, a young man, 18 years-old, had apparently jumped out of the fifth-floor window of his home, intending to commit suicide. He lived alone with his mother--who was separated from the boy's father--though she was not home at the time he jumped. It was not apparent why he did it--he had no known emotional problems or bad habits, no trouble in school or with girls. Though everything was done to stabilize him at the scene, he had suffered severe internal injuries and died shortly after arrival at the hospital.

This stayed with me for months, dear Readers. The image of that poor, broken body lying alone on the sidewalk haunted me--he was so utterly alone. But it ran deeper than that. I wondered at the depth of despair that could drive someone to throw their body and soul out of a window to crash onto the cruel pavement five storeys below. I marvelled at the courage it took that young man to leap into the abyss and free-fall toward a hideous death. Why did that same lion's share of courage fail him in life? Fail to help him face whatever tormented him? Fail to assure him that things were bound to get better, if only he persevered?

I am so very very sorry for that boy. Every time I pass that building and that spot on the pavement in front--and I pass it every day--I think of him. The image remains. And at the same time, I am thankful that my life has not known the kind of despair that makes jumping out of a window a less courageous act than facing down and conquering that same despair, and enduring. I hope that no one I care about ever experiences that kind of hopelessness.

Yours in gratitude,





  2. Lovely, dear E, as always.


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