I had just completed my freshman fall semester and I was at home in Philadelphia, on my way to my first day at a part time job I’d secured for the winter break. Standing on the platform waiting for the El, (short for elevated subway) at 56th & Market Streets, I noticed a girl standing next to me, to my left, almost shoulder to shoulder. There was nothing remarkable about her; she appeared to be around my age or perhaps a few years older, although I don’t even remember seeing her face. At the time it didn’t seem odd that she only looked to the left for the train, never allowing me to see anything but the back of her head. After all it was a Monday morning, during rush hour, and those of us taking Septa, our mass transit system, would always stare in the direction of a bus or train, as if we could make it arrive faster. I remember that day to be an extremely cold one and my thoughts were occupied by a number of things; money for school, my new job, the holidays…
After a couple of minutes I could see the El approaching in the distance, so I along with most everyone else on the platform began to move closer to the edge. And just as the train entered the station, the girl standing just inches away from me, placed both hands in her pockets and in the most haunting fashion, allowed her body to fall to the right almost in slow motion, landing on the tracks in a fetal position in front of the moving elevated subway train.
For just a second, I knew for certain that this was not real. I mean, it couldn’t be. I was not on the platform in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania waiting for the train on a cold Monday morning; I was not at home for winter break going to my new seasonal job; and most of all I was definitely not witnessing a suicide-just weeks after celebrating my 18th birthday. I suddenly noticed that as crowded as that station was that morning, in terms of what I had just witnessed, I was all alone. I was the only person standing to right of this young woman. Although there were dozens of individuals on the platform that morning, no one else witnessed her land on the tracks and no one else on this planet experienced the horror of seeing the exact moment this young woman’s life ended. I knew instantly that this image would be mine and mine alone. It was horrific and it wasn’t fair. And with that thought, just a moment after she jumped, I became uncontrollably hysterical.
I stood frozen, crying and screaming at the train that was now in front of me. The passengers on the train, unable to exit, were staring out the window at me, completely unaware that there was a girl on the tracks beneath them who just 60 seconds prior, was very much alive. An older woman standing several feet behind me began to pray loudly as she quickly embraced me, guiding me away from the train and toward the steps leading to the street below. As I was being led away, I caught a glimpse of train’s engineer walking off the train, quiet and emotionless among the erupting chaos. I remember feeling sorry for him. I’m sure he saw her face.
As I was being guided down the steps to the street level by the older woman who was now joined by paramedics and police officers, I couldn’t see anything. My only desire was to retroactively erase the image of what I had just witnessed by keeping my eyes sealed, even through my pouring tears. I could hear the crowd all around me. Some were asking what happened, others would answer, and the rumors began to assemble; “A woman jumped in front of the train!” “Her mother jumped!” “It was that girl’s mother who jumped!” “That’s why she’s screaming…her mother killed herself right in front of her!”
I don’t remember the ride or how I was transported to the hospital. I do know that the older woman must have accompanied me there, as my purse, money and belongings were neatly placed next to me when I awoke. I never saw her again. To this day, I am grateful that she was there for me.
A doctor asked me if felt up to speaking to a detective. Shortly thereafter a detective from the Philadelphia Police Department arrived, and he was straight out of central casting: long black trench coat, shirt and tie, looking older than his years, and noticeably tired. Not tired from lack of rest, but the kind of spent look on his face that indicated he had seen more than his share of human tragedy.
“Did you know the victim, Nichole?”
“Had you seen her before this morning?”
“No. Is she…, did she die?” The tears began to fall. I don’t know why I asked that question, I knew the answer. I saw it all. I guess I was just hoping for a miracle.
“Yes…I’m sorry, she’s dead. You can’t survive something like that. Uh…Was she carrying anything? A handbag…wallet, anything?”
“No she wasn’t.”
“Do you remember hearing her holler or scream out anything as she jumped? Did she say anything at all? We’re trying to identify her so that we can notify her family.”
“No, she didn’t say anything.”
“Ok Nichole, you may not know this, but did you happen to see what she was wearing?”
“A blue hat and gray coat. She was wearing a blue knit hat covering all of her hair and a long gray wool coat. And she was wearing pants.”
“Thank you. That helps.”
“Why would she do this? Why would she kill herself?”
“Well unfortunately Nichole, suicide is very common around the holidays. It happens all the time.”
The date was December 21.
Just before the detective left my hospital room, I reluctantly asked him if he saw her. He told me that he was required to view the remains, so yes, he had. I instantly understood why he was so tired.
My older cousin Dwight picked me up from the hospital and on the way home I tried to come to terms with what would now be my new reality. I had witnessed death that day for the very first time and it was in the most tragic and horrific way. I was the only one to see this young woman, this girl, this living human crushed by a train, and it’s an image I have had to live with my entire life.
Over the years I have wondered what led this girl to take her own life, and to do it with what I view as such an eerie resolve. In the moment, it seemed to be so easy for her, and yet her death, the death of a person I never knew has been rather difficult for me. I also wondered why she chose to end it so publicly. And why was it necessary for her to stand so close to me? Did she even know that I was there? Did she choose to stand next to me? And if she did choose me, why wasn’t I enough to at least give her pause for reconsideration? In Philly, strangers rarely speak, but maybe if I’d just offered a simple “Hi” to her, perhaps that would have been enough for her to spare her own life, and to spare me that morning.
No doubt she was tormented and whatever pain she was in, she clearly wanted it to end. Whatever her issues, the holiday season only served to magnify her emptiness. It’s possible she had been bullied or had been the victim of abuse; she could have suffered a devastating break up or learned that she was ill. Maybe she lost a loved one and couldn’t see her way out of the grip of grief. Or perhaps it was the dull, incessant ache of feeling unloved, unworthy and unvalued that left her broken and thoroughly convinced that she deserved nothing more than a very lonely death surrounded by dozens of strangers during rush hour.
She looked all too comfortable for the split second that her thin body rested on those tracks before her life ended. At that time, it was incomprehensible to me that she could be so deluded by despair that she felt her only respite to be the brief moment that she lay on cold steel. So there were years that I was unforgiving of her public suicide that I was forced to watch. In fact, my feelings toward the young woman that I never knew have spanned the gamut; from anger to sadness, from feigned indifference to deep resentment. But with time, life, and all of its lessons, I ultimately landed somewhere between overwhelming compassion and regret. I regret that she chose a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Most of all, I regret that she didn’t wait.
She didn’t wait to see the other side of pain, which is the kind of compensatory happiness that is not only wonderfully assuaging, but teaches you that there are no insurmountable predicaments. None.
She didn’t wait to see what seemingly massive problems would look like in the rear view mirror of life and how the farther one drives, the smaller they appear.
She didn’t wait to find out that sometimes what you believed to be the worst day of your life, in retrospect could have actually been the best day of your life. She didn’t wait to redeem the triumph that often follows the process.
She didn’t wait for the day that you can finally breathe again after experiencing paralyzing grief.
She didn’t wait to see how life would have inevitably provided multiple chances for her to reinvent herself, even after the biggest mistakes, deepest betrayals and the most devastating of failures. She didn’t wait to see what it feels like to win, no matter the number of losses in her past.
I wish she would have waited to see all the people who would pass through her personal filter until she finally collected a circle of true friends and family strong enough to provide her with the support and love that she lacked.
If she and I were anything alike, she was a young girl from inner city Philadelphia who hadn’t even lived yet. She probably never got to travel on a plane or even drive a car. If she were anything at all like I was at the time, she had yet to fall in true love and hadn’t been loved in return. She probably hadn’t walked down an aisle to receive a degree or a spouse. She hadn’t yet felt the kick of life growing in her womb and the miraculous way in which it changes everything. She didn’t wait to witness that same life reach for her with tiny outstretched arms as if she was the most important person on the planet. And she would have been. That alone has kept many alive.
Had she waited, in her future she would have witnessed the impossible, and I believe that the reversal of impossibilities makes one’s own dreams and desires tangible. If she had just held on a few more years she would have literally watched the world change. She would have experienced the inception of inconceivable technology like the internet and cell phones. And she would have seen the end of the Soviet Union and Apartheid. At that time, people whose diagnoses suggested a lifespan of only months, would now be living and thriving for decades. Had she waited, she would have witnessed the election of the first African-American president of the United States, and ultimately the election of the first female president. All impossibilities. Just as impossible as she believed her situation to be.
God knows I’ve done my very best to forget her. And although the image of her death no longer torments me the way that it used to, over the years I have thought of her frequently-usually during the times that I really didn’t want to. I remember thinking of her while parasailing in the Caribbean. I hated that she entered my thoughts during such a beautiful moment. Hundreds of feet above the bluest ocean and for a few moments my thoughts were of her. I thought of how beautiful life could be and how I wished she had been able to see this side of it. While honeymooning in Cabo, I thought of her during some quiet time on the beach. A year after her death I bought my very first plane ticket and traveled to California, alone. I thought about her then and I was pretty upset with myself about that. I always felt that I was being cheated out of my own peace of mind by allowing her to enter my thoughts, so in turn I really fought like hell to keep her out of them. Today, if I happen to think of her, I allow it and then I thank God for my life.
As tragic as her death was, from my perspective the true tragedy is all that the world lost on the tracks that morning. A human being whose existence served an unfulfilled purpose vanished that day. Her purpose on this planet was not to place a permanent image of a horrific demise in the memories of onlookers. She had a greater purpose, but she lost her way, as we all do; but sadly for her and her loved ones, she failed to find her way back. There are many who today we call great, who in the past have found themselves on a literal or figurative platform edge before assembling just enough strength to step back.
I never learned who she was, her age, her name or anything about her. To me she is still the silent girl standing next to me wearing the blue hat and gray coat, and all that I know is what I’ve derived from her death. In fact, it’s hard to think of what her name might be, without considering that someone named her. Someone who may have loved her.
Would it have changed things if she could have viewed her suicide from the vantage point of an observer? Possibly. Like so many of us, she probably cared far more for others than she did for herself. That morning was about ending her own pain, not causing mine. I think it would have meant everything or perhaps just enough for her to know that 26 years later she would be in the thoughts of a stranger. Someone who never even saw her face. I wish she knew then that she mattered. I wish she knew that she still does.
If I could rewind the tape back to December 21st, 1987, I would tell the girl on the El platform that it is possible to end pain without ending life and to allow her future to bring her the love she deserves.
I would tell her that the absence of hope is simply an illusion. Hold on.