Things Undone - On Suicide and Other Things Undone
By Joaquin Roces, Marines
Writing Type: Prose
Elizabeth L. Fontain Memorial Award
By Joaquin R Roces
VA Medical Center - Reno, NV
The sun melted in the sky like a pat of butter on a stack of momma's flapjacks.
I stood on an empty sidewalk staring up at a monolith of concrete, iron and steel. There was a storm rolling in over the Sierras like spilled molasses. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my upturned face and the cold bite of the wind on my cheeks. My therapist explained that contrasting truths that occupy the same space are called a dialectic.
The gray concrete parking structure loomed above me. At seven floors, it was not the tallest building downtown, but it was tall enough. I looked to my left and right at the empty streets and buildings. I thought it was eerie for a midweek lunch hour as I walked into the cool shade of the first floor. Like the streets, the floor was void of any cars. I had been here before and knew there would be no easy way out.
I walked seven steps from the sidewalk to the first rise of the concrete stairwell that would carry me to the clear blue skies of the seventh floor. I remember my first son learning to walk in our apartment living room, struggling with balance and unsure footing, his chubby little arms held out for balance.
The second floor was 23 steps. I remember my stepfather pinning my shoulders to the floor and pummeling me with his fists. The musty smell of the carpet and the syrupy sweet smell of rum and coke on his breath.
My days were usually measured within those steps. Some days I was at 25 steps, and others I was at 128. I counted the steps in my mind as I rose floor by floor, each one as empty as the one below. The wind became louder and more forceful as I climbed, rushing through the empty floors. The fifth floor was 85 steps from the sidewalk. I was a varsity lineman running 40-yard sprints in the August heat my senior year in high school.
At 122 steps, I emerged from the sheltered darkness of the stairwell. I blinked in the bright light; my eyes took a second to adjust. I was face down in the middle of the rodeo grounds in Nixon. I pushed myself up spitting dirt from my mouth. It was my first bull ride and I lasted a full four seconds. The bull had reached the far end of the arena and was circling around.
131 steps took me to the ledge on the seventh floor. My drill instructor was pinning my head to the floor of the quarterdeck with his hand. He was screaming at me about my underwear not being folded correctly as my warm spit pooled on the cool concrete floor.
The wall was about four feet high and two feet wide and was made of unfinished concrete. This had been the barometer of my life the past two months. Zero was the sidewalk and 131 was the ledge on the 7th floor, a hundred feet above the sidewalk. I had been here a dozen times already. Like before, the streets were empty, and all the businesses had shut down because of the pandemic. Over 150,000 were already dead, and the death toll continued to climb. Everyone was at home behind locked doors under a nationwide quarantine. Casinos, restaurants and bars were empty, and businesses were closed and shuttered.
I was standing in the ocean as a young boy. I was squinting at the yellow sun. It seemed to shimmer and pulse in the sky. I blinked against the salt and light. In the distance a small narrow dugout canoe with double outriggers headed out to the open sea. There were three men in the canoe paddling hard against the waves. The outriggers were made of large bamboo stalks lashed to the rigging. It was a sliver of wood that rose and fell with the swells. I could feel the tug of the tide against my small frame as I watched them slip into the distance. My small legs buckled against the pull of the sea. I felt the sand being sucked out from beneath my feet. I saw something in the frothy swirl of the sea, and I look down.
I turn my head to the west and there was still snow on the jagged peaks of the Sierras. Like the sea, the wind surges in gales buffeting me with its unseen force. The wind roars in my ears. I can feel the wind around me, against me, like a child standing in the sea, feeling the tide and waves surge against him. Salt stung my eyes. I saw a small jelly fish struggling in the maelstrom of the ebb and flow of the tide. It fought desperately to keep from being driven onto the beach. I reached down to save it, but the tide was retreating into the sea and sucking the sand from beneath my little feet. I was losing my footing, and the next wave toppled me over.
I was lost like the jelly fish being pulled out into the sea. My arms flailed and I kicked with my legs, but the undertow was too strong. The sand swirled around me in the emerald waters, sparkling in the translucent light. The sea rolled over me like water spilling over a glass table, its roar distant and muted. My tiny hands grasped at the sandy bottom. A dark hand cut through the murky waters and grabbed my wrist. I could feel the strength in it as it pulled me upright. I once again found my footing. I gasped for air as my father smiled down at me, the sun a halo behind his head.
I remember, with a smile, when my girlfriend paid for para sailing in Tahoe for my 13th birthday. I was strapped to a glider tethered at the end of a nylon rope 70 feet above the lake. A speed boat towed me across the lake. But all I heard was the roar of wind. My girlfriend waved from the boat, and I think she was smiling. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind. Am I flying or falling?
I face east and turn my back to the coming storm and the impatient wind that pushes at my back toward the ledge. Its cold fingers trace geometric patterns on the back of my neck, a sharp contrast to the warmth of the melting sun in the blue sky.
I am at 130 steps. I close my eyes to the sun and feel its warmth spreading across my face--on my brow, down the bridge of my nose, onto my cheeks. On the back of my neck and on my bear arms, I feel the cold bite of wind. I feel grains of dirt peck at my skin. I hear nothing but the roar of the surf. I try to think of that child on that empty stretch of beach. But I cannot.
Instead, a Marine burdened with gear and sweating beneath a steel helmet and a Kevlar vest is wading ashore in Beirut. We walked onto the beaches amidst topless Europeans and speedo clad men. Overdressed, my boots heavy with sea water, my legs struggling in the loose sand. I climbed the barrier wall at the end of the beach. The bare concrete was warm and rough like sandpaper on my calloused hands. My therapist calls this being “mindful.”
I hoisted my wet heavy legs over the wall as I pushed myself up with my arms. my shoulders heavy with the things I carried. A small boy watched me as his ice cream melted into his tangled fingers. He dug his toes into the warm sand, and he spoke to me in French, "Qu'est-ce que tu fais?" I reply, "I am saving you."
I stand on the wall, the sun warm on my skin, the salt of my sweat stinging my eyes. The storm is coming.
The wind lashes at me and I sway with each push of the wind, like seaweed swaying with sea.
Chickarelli called after me, his tanned face smiling behind oversized aviator classes. He was our radio man. Innocenzi, Bailey, Moses, Greaser and 237 others would never leave Beruit alive. Chick died in Korea in 1986. Digger and Johnson died in a helo crash in Pillar in 87. We retrieved their bodies. Rother died in the desert outside Twenty Nine Palms, forgotten and abandoned by his unit. Mike was shot by a 12-year-old in a middle school playground. Wayne committed suicide on the rez, and Baird died in a diabetic coma at the VA in Frisco.
The boy asked once more, "Qu'est-ce que tu fais?" I am trying to save you, but I am so tired.
The storm's cold kisses on my neck bring me back to an empty world. The wind lashes and snaps at my clothes. I sway in the wind like seaweed. I stare across at my reflection on the hotel window across the expanse. This is 131. I slowly breathe in, deeply, I feel my chest expand as the cool air fills my lungs. I roll my shoulder back, filling myself with air. You can turn back at any point between zero and 131. But 132--there is no turning back from 132.
I keep my eyes fixed on my reflection on the window. My knees feel weak, and my stomach feels like it will float out of my throat and rise up into the sky like a para sailing kite. I feel the sand beneath my bare feet being pulled away, grain by grain. I am slipping away.
My eyes are closed, and I feel the jerky stop-start tug of the rope on my harness. The boat is reeling me in. I am like a child who just learned to fly. The whole world lies before me. I am grinning ear to ear, and I can see my girlfriend smiling and waving at me. I can hear the mechanical whirr of the winch and the hum and splash of the boat. She is smiling and saying something. I am trying to hear what she is saying. I see her lips move and I hear the words seconds later. “I don’t love you anymore.”
I open my eyes and I see my image on the window fall from sight. I exhale. There is a squeak of rubber and again the rush of wind roars in my ears. I know right away this is a mistake. I want to undo it, but there is nothing to hold on to, nothing to grab at, but air. I flail and kick like a small boy lost at sea. I know then that nothing can undo what I have just done. But still I believe. I want desperately to believe that something, some universal, divine power, will save me. I see the jelly fish struggling against the sea. I feel myself being pulled out into the emptiness. I am waiting for the hand to save me. Someone. Anyone. Save me from myself. I desperately want to be saved, but…
A small boy walks out of the surf hand-in-hand with his father. His life is a story yet to be told. Their footprints lie side by side in the wet sand. The boy looks up to his father and smiles at him. The little boy does not notice that next to one of his footprints lies a small jellyfish, like a dropped egg, cooking in the sun.
Author's Note: I am a disabled veteran living with PTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder and chronic suicide ideation. I have had 10 attempts in my life with four of them while I was on Active Duty. My most recent attempt was this year back in April during the quarantine. I have been processing that recent attempt and am still working on it with my therapist at the VA. This is a piece that I have come up with as I am sewing it all together. After reading a recent "USA Today" article about a veteran who committed suicide after being turned away by the VA in Washington D.C., I decided I wanted to come forward and share it. That unknown veteran's story could have been my story, I have been admitted to the VA Emergency Room at my VA here in Reno for a past suicide attempt. Our experiences and outcomes were vastly different even though we engaged in the same Veterans Administration Medical System. I realize all too well, every time I wake up 22 veterans have committed suicide, and by the time I go to bed another 22 have died. I am not writing these to raise awareness - that doctor at the Washington DC VA, has probably had more "awareness" than most doctors and people around. I am writing this to prevent veteran suicides. Our society is plenty aware of the numbers. The problem is society sees it as numbers. I see faces. Friends and comrades. I see my own face. I am one of the 22.