The thing I remember the most were the eyes.
It was the middle of August, and we had just gotten finished with a routine call a for a woman who needed to go to the hospital for signs of a possible heart and/or panic attack (sometimes they present the same symptoms…). We were about a mile away from the station when they call came in over the radio: “306 from dispatch, stand by for a cardiac arrest”. I missed the details of the call (radio speak is a unique language), so as our driver hit the sirens on the Chevy Suburban I checked my phone for the alert details.
It was my first cardiac arrest, so I was preparing myself to grab the medical bag and the AED. But when I checked my phone, the description read “caller advises body hanging in a tree” — I had always associated a cardiac arrest with a heart attack, not a potential suicide. At that point I started preparing myself for the worst.
We pulled into a pretty busy park — there were some teenagers playing basketball on the court next to a small set of woods, and on the other side to those woods were some kids kicking around a soccer ball, a black SUV with red lights flashing, and a man with a walkie talkie in scrubs talking with a man walking two dogs.
As we stepped out of our SUV, the first thing you noticed was the smell. It smelled like roadkill that had been sitting outside in the sun for a few days. Even without seeing it, you knew what that smell meant. It’s the “how didn’t anyone notice this smell before?” smell. As we walked to the woods, it got stronger, and I was surprised the kids playing basketball weren’t gagging from it.
The man in the scrubs was a doctor and volunteer from a neighboring station who happened to be in the area when the call came out. He was talking with the guy who had the dogs, who was the one who made the call. The doctor said that there was a body hanging in the woods, but that he couldn’t find it. So the driver and I started looking from the edge of the woods. It didn’t take long before I heard our driver say “Found it, over here”. Hidden behind some low branches was a body hanging from what looked like a piece of webbing from leg-thick tree branch.
The eyes were gone.
They must have been eaten by birds, but where the eyes were was just black skin that covered his eyes and nose like a bandit mask. He was wearing a blue t-shirt with some brand name on it (Nike I think?) and jeans. He had his hair parted on the side, like Justin Bieber circa 2009.
It was surreal, in that it didn’t look real. I couldn’t believe this happened in a pretty well-to-do area in a pretty busy park where kids were playing basketball less than 50 feet away from a decomposing body. The sheen on the skin and stillness of it all made it seem like a TV or movie prop. Part of me wanted to get closer, wanted to keep looking. I wanted to know his story. How old was he (I’d later find out he was a teenager)? What was his name? Where did he come from? What drove him to do this? What was his family life like? Was this the best choice he could have made given the circumstances of his life? The other part of me knew the high rates of PTSD among first responders and didn’t want to risk that for the sheer sake of satisfying my curiosity.
When we found the body was about the time the police, paramedics, and truck company arrived. Our driver called the time of death with the police officer, and then our officer told us to get back in the truck and let the ladder company and paramedics deal with getting him out of the tree, since they had the tools to do so.
As we’re walking back to our vehicle, I hear my driver behind me ask “Is that your first death?”
“Other than my dad, yes. This is my first one as a volunteer firefighter”, I responded.
He told me that if I needed to talk about it, that he was there — or that anyone at the station would be there if I needed it. The officer told me the same thing when we got back to the station, and a month later there was even an official meeting with a member from the county’s Crisis Intervention team to make sure I was processing everything okay.
One of the things I mentioned to the Crisis Intervention team member was that watching my dad die kind of prepared me for what I saw. Was it a little more grisly? Yes, but there wasn’t the emotional attachment and the pain of watching someone you love slowly deteriorate until they pass away.
So, as sad as the end of this life was, it didn’t really have an impact on me like I thought it would. Going into this volunteer work I knew suicide was going to be something I was going to encounter. It’s a fact of life and there’s not much I can do to prevent a complete stranger from taking his life. I still have questions about this guy’s life, but I can’t change the fact that he took his life so it’s not something that I let bother me. I’ll never forget him though: I’ll always keep him in my memory as the first suicide I’ve ever seen.
I am a Father, Husband, Cowboy Philosopher, Volunteer Firefighter, and Professional Dilettante. I am nothing and I am everything. But when it comes to our relationship: I only wish you wonder and happiness.