Saturday in the Park

I share our dog’s affection for Lakeview Park, its wide, smooth path rising and falling alongside three small lakes edged with reeds, a weeping willow, a dock, a steep hill. One Saturday morning in early October, as soon as the sun slanted through cold mist, we set off happily.

By the time we reached the second lake, my steps were heavy. Willie kept trying to tug me back to playful, but I could not stop reading—with increasing worry—the pastel chalk messages lining the path:

“Team Noah.”

“I love you Noah.”

“Always there for you bro.”

And in more grown-up handwriting: “I walk for Teddy and Noah, and for anyone struggling. My prayer is that those who are struggling know there is HOPE.”

At the end of the third lake, a pair of dates suggested that Noah lived only thirty-two years.

“The darkest hour of one person’s life is only sixty minutes long.” And a life should last longer than thirty-two years.

“Fly high.”

“Always in our hearts.”

“Larger than life.” People are, when they die too soon. I think all the time about four friends who killed themselves. We were not soulmate-close in life, just fond, but now all four tug at my attention, whisper to me, crack jokes. They all had wry senses of humor, which seemed a clever gift but now I realize was born of pain.

I know them better now. Absence has made their presence insistent. If they still lived, I would see them once in a good while, for coffee or a beer. Instead, I cannot shake them, because they should not have needed to leave. And because they stole themselves from the rest of us, I miss them all the more.

“Love is kind.” This is what haunts me the most: Was I kind? Was there a word I could have said that might have made a difference? I scoff at this inflated sense of my own role—but at the same time, I know what a difference even a casual comment from a stranger can make. People talk about it, those who go on living because somebody has changed their mind. The right word, and they stopped feeling helpless.

“The ones that love us never really leave, and you can always find them in here”—with a drawing of a big, lopsided heart. The handwriting on most of these messages looks young—extra rounded, or with crooked ascenders, not yet fully inhabited but already crashing into a grown-up’s despair. Are these kids trying to give voice to their own grief, I wonder, or are they saying what they wish Noah could have believed? One message after another urges hope, trust, or faith—are these virtues or talismans? It feels unfair, that some biochemical acid can dissolve them.

Morbid as Jane Marple, I go home and search local obits. Did this young man…. This is where language fails me. We can no longer say “commit”—that makes suicide a crime or a sin, and we are past that. Almost any strong verb is a problem, I decide, because it conveys such a sense of agency. Maybe we should say someone “gave in” or “succumbed,” as we do with physical illness? But that implies weakness against a stronger enemy. When the enemy is within, it is never that simple. Suicide requires courage, but it is a courage lashed to the mast by such ferocious pain that any alternative seems preferable. It is hard to call desperation a free choice, hard to think of yearning to die as anything but a dangerous and precarious state of mind.

Besides, with the friends I have lost, the suicide was, in almost every case, blurry. A death that was clearly wished for, yet might have gone a different way. An overdose that might have been caught in time; a fall that might not have been fatal; a drunken fire-setting that might have burnt itself out before it was too late. Several did not even leave a note, a manifesto, a final word of love or explanation.

Nonetheless, they are gone.

The sidewalk messages are still there on our next walk. I could be misreading this entirely, I remind myself. The kids might even be writing about the biblical Noah, setting out in his ark. (But what about those dates, and the dash between them that sums up a life?)

This time, the day is overcast, chillier, and I am in a bleak mood. I have been thinking all week about suicide. Not my own. But since the pandemic, doctors in the Barnes-Jewish Hospital emergency department tell me they are seeing more suicides and more attempted (rescued from?) suicides—also more overdoses, which might or might not be suicidal, and more gun violence, a recklessness that treats life as a crapshoot. Global stats are grim too, and the suicide rate is increasing even within the tightly ordered world of the U.S. Army. Life is tenuous right now for a lot of people, the threads that hold us here frayed by grief, job loss, fear, isolation.

When I take Willie back to the park the following Saturday, I am scared to look down—but wait, there are different messages now. A rainbow of them, freshly chalked, in penmanship that has had even fewer years to practice. Glowing with idealism, they embrace an issue about which I am profoundly ambivalent, reaching conclusions the kids find obvious and righteous. The entire two-and-a-half-mile path is lined with exhortations to “Love life” and “Fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”

“Babies rock!” one says, which makes me grin in spite of myself. These messages are definitely easier to read. “Babies! Woot Woot!” a kid cheers before another turns serious, writing that “at five and a half weeks, there is a heartbeat.” “An unplanned pregnancy saved us all,” says a sly theologian. Another, printing carefully, insists that “babies are innocent,” though someone using chalk of a slightly different color has inserted the other N, proving the point.

“All life is sacred” stops me cold. I felt that sure myself, once. “Why are we spending all this time debating the timeline and the terminology?” I used to ask irritably. “‘Cell cluster,’ ‘fetus,’ ‘baby’—it’s not as though anyone thinks it might turn out to be a canteloupe.” Viability did not matter to me; none of us are viable entirely on our own.

But there is a continuum, I would tell that younger self now—just as there is a continuum in what we kill to eat, and snapping an apple off a branch is different than slaughtering a cow, which is different than killing your beloved German shepherd, or a snow leopard, or your wife.

Nonetheless, reading the kids’ sweet slogans makes me feel gray and worn and jaded. I go home and settle in front of the fireplace. Eager for distraction, I open New World Same Humans, a thoughtful newsletter on trends, society, and technology. Advocating reforms that would train capitalism to think long-term, David Mattin writes, “The idea that we are tied ethically to those yet to be born is a moral intuition that is widely shared.”

I stare at those words for a long time, wondering how we can best care for future generations without erasing from consideration those who are suffering right now. Without erasing—

Erasing. The word jumps out of context and jolts me with a simple fact: It has not rained all week.

Somebody had to scrub away all those tributes to Noah in order to print these pristine chalk messages with their little wrapped packages (“Babies are a gift”) and heartbeat graphs. I pull up the photos I snapped and blow them up. Yes, there: a faint blue tinge, grief washed out of sight. A pale pink smudge that was once somebody’s heart.

I click off the phone without looking down. Could there be a sharper metaphor?

In an ideal world, you can give equal attention, equal respect, to every vulnerable life. There is room on the path. But as these kids will someday realize, the current world is far from ideal. There is such a thing as forced choice. And forced-choice questions are always the toughest.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.