I stood mid-span of the Golden Gate Bridge, gazing down at the waves far below. The site was infamous for suicide jumpers who kept the Coast Guard small boat station busy year-round. The majority achieved their goal of death when they hit the water at a force similar to running into a cement wall, or drowned from the severe plunge into the frigid, rough waves sweeping out to sea. Less than two percent survived the fall since the bridge opening in 1938.
A sailboat bucked against the current on it’s way out of the safety of the Bay into the ocean, the bow dipping into the waves and then rising back up and throwing great sprays of water towards the couple in the cockpit. It was just one single boat and not a fleet. It wasn’t a race and the wind was relatively light. Still, it brought back memories of exactly 20 years ago that day.
I thought how easy it would be to hoist myself over the rail and free fall into the same water that took my father’s life. I closed my eyes and conjured the scene I had created in my mind over the decades.
Daddy and his best friend were sailing their second double-handed ocean race together, this time in Greg’s newly purchased 24 foot ultra-light sailboat. As they sailed towards the start line off Crissy Field the winds continued to build, yet they weren’t concerned. It was fairly standard for small craft advisories to be blowing on San Francisco Bay and the course out the Gate, around the Farallon Islands and back. And there was no word of delay or warning from the race committee, who monitored the weather forecast. It should make for a fast but wet race.
The boat had cleared the protecting landfalls of Point Bonita and Lands End when the crew realized that they couldn’t handle the huge swells pushing them further asea. The now gale force winds wouldn’t allow them to turn back towards the Bay. Daddy stayed on helm as Greg reached for the VHF radio and called “Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is Bad Sneakers. We are in distress a mile west of the Gate, course heading 270 degrees.”
They never heard the Coast Guard Radioman reply as a 20-foot wave crashed down on the little boat from the stern, snapping the mast and throwing them across the cockpit. They were tethered with life jacket harnesses and leads to the railing and Daddy tried to find the release pin but the boat was sinking fast. His last thoughts were of his family as he was sucked down into the dark, cold water of the Pacific Ocean.
“Excuse me, Miss,” the man said softly. “Are you all right? Would you like to talk?”
His voice pulled me out of my reverie.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t see you. I was pretty deep in thought, I guess,” I said with a smile. He was at least in his mid-70s with a knit watchcap pulled over grey hair.
“I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Noel, a Bridgewatch Angel. We’re volunteers that chat with visitors. I saw you standing alone and thought you might want company,” he replied.
“I’m Heidi. It’s the anniversary of my father’s passing. He sailed under this bridge and into a storm and we never saw him again.”
“I can’t imagine how painful that must be. But there’s always hope and I can help you find resources,” Noel said kindly, stepping closer to me.
“Help? I don’t understand? There’s nothing anyone can do; he’s gone,” I replied, a bit befuddled.
“Heidi, life is always worth living, no matter how sad we are to lose a loved one,” Noel said, placing his arm on the rail next to me.
“What a strange man,” I thought, my eyes drifting to the patch sewn on his windbreaker. It featured a symbol of the bridge span with angel wings emerging from each side of the mid tower and his name embroidered below. It suddenly dawned on me: he was a volunteer with the bridge suicide watch.
“Oh, Noel! I don’t have a death wish and I’m definitely not suicidal. It’s been 20 years and I’m just spending the day honoring his memory and love of the sea,” I laughed nervously, my voice slightly wavering, as I stepped back.
“It’s okay to ask for help. I’d like to stay with you until you feel better or perhaps walk you back to your car? Did you drive here with someone?” he continued, positioning himself between me and the rail.
“That is really not necessary. I’m leaving now and am fine to walk back alone. Thank you for your concern,” I replied tersely. Cheeks flaming, I quickly turned and walked at a brisk pace that I was sure he couldn’t keep.
I didn’t look back and was relieved to find no sight of him when I finally reached the path leading to the parking lot. Just as I reached my car, a California Highway Patrol cruiser pulled up next to me.
“Hello, m’am, just checking to make sure you’re all right,” the officer said through his open window.
“I am fine. Really. Really fine,” I said, both embarrassed and afraid I was going to be taken into custody for looking suicidal. “I’m heading home. Thank you.”
The officer extended his arm with a smile, “Here’s a card with hotlines and my number. You never know when you need someone to talk to.”
I took the card, unlocked my car and gave a little wave before climbing in. When the cruiser had driven away I allowed my heartbeat to slow down and read, “Deputy George Jackson, Golden Gate Bridge Suicide Prevention Unit.”
A wave of emotion rolled over me and I rested my head on the steering wheel, letting the tears spill down my cheeks. Even after 20 years I still missed my Daddy so much.
“I really wasn’t going to jump, Daddy. But thank you for sending a few angels to visit just in case I got the notion. How about we go for a walk on the beach instead?”
Written July 2018 for To Live & Write in Alameda’s monthly “Alameda Shorts;” Read at August’s event at Books Inc.
If you have a writer’s soul and live in Alameda, please join To Live and Write in Alameda (info available via the link or in the Facebook group)! No experience necessary … members range from those who dream of writing the Great American Novel to published authors. No dues … unless you choose to be a Cohort as I am … many free daily/weekly meet-ups, reasonably priced workshops and focus groups and retreats, and tons of encouragement and support. Do it … you know you want to!
This is a true story and took place on April 10, 2002. I don’t remember the name of the Bridgewatch Angel or Highway Patrolman, so those names are fictional (and actually the first names of my father’s brothers for this story’s purpose). I was not suicidal and had walked over the bridge many times, remembering my father. But there are many that visit with the intent on taking their life. Following are resources for those considering suicide. As the men told me that day, life is always worth living and there are people who care and are ready to help.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 for free 24/7 crisis support in the U.S.
Psychology.com: Free licensed therapist referral, self-help library.