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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
People usually just ask me where the bathroom is or if we are hiring. Sometimes they ask where they can find the latest Dan Brown novel or “that book they just talked about on NPR.” On this day in late 2007, however, while I worked at the front info desk at Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., a frazzled-looking young guy stood silently in front of me.
“Do you need help?” I asked.
He shifted his weight from one leg to the other. “I’m going to go jump off the Burnside Bridge,” he said.
Every cell of my body lit up, but something in my head told me to play it calm.
“Why are you going to do that?” I asked. About 15 feet in front of me, three cashiers worked a small but steady line of happy book buyers. I leaned in a little, trying to create a private space between us. He was wearing a T-shirt and no coat, not enough clothes for the chilly fall day. He smelled toxic. But I could tell he was handsome. I could picture him in a cheap and earnest suit.
“Nobody needs me,” he said.
“Who’s nobody?” I asked. But then I wondered if that sounded insensitive.
“She won’t let me see my daughter,” he said.
I noticed a customer coming my way for help. “Hey, what’s your name?” I asked him, and he told me it was Chris. “Stay right here, Chris,” I said. “I want to talk to you more.”
All he had to do was walk out the door, take a quick left, walk 10 blocks down Burnside, and find a high place to jump. But he stepped back and waited as I helped one, and then another, customer.
When I had finished, I called him back over to the desk. I called him by his name. He told me his girlfriend didn’t want to see him anymore. He told me he’d been up for three straight days, wired on some kind of drug that must have been mixed with something else. He seemed just as surprised about this as I was. “Maybe I should get a book,” he said, and for a second, I thought everything was going to be OK, but he grew anxious again. “I gotta go somewhere. I have to lie down or something.”
He took a few steps toward the door. “Wait, Chris. Hey, hold on,” I called out. When he turned toward me, I could see the color drain from his face. He looked like he was already dead, like he had washed up on the banks of the Willamette River with his eyes open and his body bloated. There was something inside him that I couldn’t stop. “Let me call someone that can help you out,” I said. I was fully aware that I sounded like a character in an after-school special. I was using the non-threatening, sterilized language of the do-gooder. Plus I was saying his name a lot, which I always thought sounded unnatural. (“Hey Chris, can I help you find a book?” “How’s your day going, Chris?”)
I called one of the managers to the front desk and walked over to Chris, standing between him and the door. “I think you need more time to think,” I said. “I’m sure that no one wants you to die.”
He took out his wallet, and I thought he was going to give me something. His ID and credit cards, his money and a pile of tattered Post-It notes. But he took out a photo of his daughter and showed it to me. I was glad he didn’t hand it to me. It meant he still wanted to hold on to things.
At that moment, the manager walked up and gently ushered him into the security office to talk. Thirty minutes later, an ambulance arrived, and Chris was carried out on a folded-up stretcher. He was going to be OK, at least for today.
Afterward, I felt such a strange pride about the whole situation. It was an endorphin rush that shook my voice as I told people about it. “I talked a guy out of killing himself today,” I told them. Or, “I saved somebody’s life at work.”
Maybe I was saying these boastful things because it just feels good to help another human being. Or maybe I was saying them because by then my own life was spinning out of control.
I had been with my girlfriend for about five years, and I felt myself becoming more and more unhappy. It was almost like something had physically happened to me — like I had been in a car accident or suffered a concussion from falling down the stairs — and my chemicals had been jarred somehow. I woke up depressed. One morning, while my girlfriend and I were out eating breakfast, I began crying without knowing why. We paid the bill and sat in my car talking about therapy, about help, about what might be buried inside me.
On the day I convinced Chris not to jump off the bridge, I thought maybe I turned a corner, maybe I could embrace positivity again, maybe I could hear the words I had said to him: “I’m sure that no one wants you to die.”
I went to my friend Lynne’s house and told her what had happened. She and I had a complicated history. I’d briefly been close to her at 19, but we’d lost touch over the next 20 years. She had recently moved to Portland with her husband, and our connection had rekindled. I thought of Lynne often. We exchanged emails almost daily. She told me about problems with her husband, and I confided in her about my own problems and the uncertainty in my life.
The more time I spent with her, the more conflicted I became. I felt a sweet glow of nostalgia with her, and we talked about the small town where we both grew up. I sensed a pull toward her, even though I knew she wasn’t right for me. Not as right as the girlfriend I already had whom I had built a life with and whom I was more compatible with and more attracted to.
As I was telling Lynne the story in her kitchen while she washed dishes, I broke down and cried. Like that morning in the restaurant with my girlfriend, I wasn’t sure why it started. But something broke inside me, and I was gasping for air. I closed my eyes, but tears still poured out. If I shut them tighter, my eyelids would have blown up like water balloons. My whole body shook, and I felt like collapsing.
I felt Lynne’s hands on my shoulders. My arms reached out blindly, wanting to pull her to me, wanting to be held. I felt my knees bend, and then reflexively straighten up. I thought of what it would be like to bend my knees on the ledge of a bridge. Would I actually jump, or would I just lean forward and fall? Would the freefall be scary or thrilling? I could imagine my body twisting and somersaulting until it shattered against the water, but I couldn’t fathom what would be going through my mind.
“You did a good thing,” Lynne said. “You saved a life.” She put her sleeve up to my face, softly brushing away my tears. And then her husband walked in the door, home from work.
I wondered if I would see Chris after that. If he would stop in the store and thank me for saving his life. I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to. I looked through the newspaper more carefully for the next few days, lingering over the obituaries. I never heard a thing.
I split up with my girlfriend shortly after that. We had gone to see a couples’ counselor who was far away, in an unfamiliar suburb. I felt uncomfortable and confined during the session. On the drive home, on the freeway, I told my girlfriend I was giving up on the relationship. I drove to Powell’s and got out of the car, and she moved to the driver’s seat. We were both crying, barely able to talk. I knew I was being an asshole. I was going back to work, like it was a normal day. I did all this on my lunch break.
We would talk about her moving out, how we would separate stuff, and how we would tell my son, later.
My son. I had a son. He was 14 when this happened. I told myself that he was resilient. I had broken up with his mother when he was about three, and then I married someone else that same year. Five years later, my wife asked for a divorce, and he had an ex-stepmom.
He was a good kid, but I worried I was setting a bad example. Telling your kids about another break-up is wrenching work. It’s like you’re looking at a younger version of yourself and confessing that you are weak at heart, that failure is inevitable, and that sometimes you try so hard and want to seem heroic but you are not. I am weak at heart. I have failed. I am not heroic.
My girlfriend and I told my son, and we could hardly breathe. He sat there with an earnest look of concern. He tried to form a comforting smile on his face. I wasn’t sure if the smile was for us or him. That was probably the saddest moment of my life.
The next day at Powell’s, I was on auto-pilot. Completely numb. I was in back where we sort through books. A woman I work with whom I barely know put her hand on my shoulder. I think she could sense something was wrong. She asked if I was OK. I said the words, “Not really.” Then I started weeping.
By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, I had decided to write my will. I wrote it like a letter, like an apology. It almost felt ridiculous to say who got what. I didn’t have much to give, anyway. Books to that person, CDs to that person, my crappy dishes and old computer. My clothes. Whom would I put in charge of distributing my clothes? Who would want to wear the clothes of a sad, dead man?
The girlfriend I had broken up with had a friend who’d (sort of) committed suicide a few years before we met. He was a policeman, and one night, after an argument, he went to his girlfriend’s apartment and waved his gun around, distraught. He turned the gun on himself, and it went off. His girlfriend tried to help him, but it was no use. The girlfriend told her friends afterward that she tried to hold his head together. The girlfriend told people she heard the sound of his blood glugging out. The girlfriend would later tell people that she could no longer listen to the sound of someone pouring wine.
After the funeral, his friends split up his possessions. My girlfriend got a bunch of his CDs. They were mixed into our combined music collection when we lived together. They had his name written on them. She would never sell them. Sometimes we would listen to them with just slightly more reverence than usual.
One of the strange things about this guy’s death was that it was on a New Year’s Eve, which was the same date I was writing my will on. It’s the day when you look back at the year and try to figure out if it was good or not. This was not a particularly good year for me. I mean, part of me realized that I had taken some important steps to learn more about myself, but another part of me knew I was hurting the most important people around me and that I was worn out. I thought to myself that the bad stuff in my life outweighed the good and that I had turned into a negative force. I thought maybe this was where it should end. I told myself I had done all I could do in my life. I knew how Chris felt now. Nobody needs me. I wanted to get it over with.
I didn’t know how I would do it, though. I was by myself on New Year’s Eve, and it was early evening. I didn’t have a gun, and I didn’t think I was strong enough to plunge a knife into my gut. I didn’t think I could hang myself because I don’t know how to make a noose out of bed sheets. I thought drugs would be nice, but I didn’t have enough money to buy sleeping pills. I had imagined, during an earlier depressed period, that running into traffic would work. Maybe I could jump off an overpass into traffic. But what if I didn’t time it right, and I bounced off someone’s hood and broke my back instead? What if I became paralyzed?
I sat in the dark most of the night wondering what to do. I thought about my parents and what they would say if I died. I was never that close with my parents, so I came to the conclusion that they wouldn’t care. I mean, they would care, but it wouldn’t shatter them. I thought about my friends and concluded the same thing. I’m not sure why, but I figured they would be sad for a few fleeting moments and then they would move on. These were my pity party thoughts.
My son was a different story. I couldn’t pretend this wasn’t going to affect him. All I could do was think of my son in the future and imagine what it would be like for him to always tell people that when he was 14, his father committed suicide.
Fourteen. An age when every emotion you feel is magnified 10 times over and misunderstood 100 times over. An age that will be frozen in time if anything terrible happens within its sweaty, painful, pubescent months. Those teen years are when the scars happen. The scars you have to tend to the rest of your life, hoping they heal or fade away.
I grabbed a photo album full of school pictures and snapshots of my son. I thought about Chris showing me the photo of his daughter and how he wouldn’t let it go.
My son looks like me when I was a kid. You can see it in photos. There were some old photos of me mixed into the album I was looking at, and I held them side by side with photos of my son. We had the same pimples, broad shoulders and awkward grin. Our clothes were even sort of similar — mine from the 1970s, his from the 2000s. You can even see how we had the same toys: Hot Wheels and Legos.
I showed him “Star Wars” when he was 10, the same age I was when I saw it. I showed him Winnie-the-Pooh and Little Critter books. I played football with him in the park. I taught him how to hit a baseball. We wrestled in the living room. I took him to Dairy Queen, and sometimes we walked to get doughnuts on Saturday morning. I played board games with him, and even though I don’t like board games, I was glad we spent the time together.
I wanted to do more with him. I wanted to teach him how to drive. I wanted to give him money for a date. I wanted to go to his graduations. I wanted to give him advice on something. I wanted to go to a bar with him. I wanted to do something for him that would always be there. I wanted to make him proud of me.
Just after midnight, I went to bed. I had decided to tough it out. I decided to live. I sent my son a text message as I listened to people celebrating outside my window. It said: Happy New Year. Let’s make it a good one. I love you. Less than a minute later, he responded: Love you too.
I got in bed and wrapped my blankets around me like I was in a cocoon. I let those words sit in my heart for a long while. I breathed in deep, sucking in gulps of air and crying more. Then I tried to make my mind go blank until the morning. I pretended that everything would be OK when the sun came out.
The next morning, I woke up and shaved and took a shower and drank my coffee. I went to work and took my position behind the info desk. The store opened two hours late because it was New Year’s Day. Customers came filing in, looking for books, looking for stories. Looking for the bathroom. I sat there, feeling fresh-faced and feeling like a survivor. I was ready to help anyone who needed it.
Kevin Sampsell lives with his wife and son in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of the memoir, "A Common Pornography" (Harper Perennial), the editor of the anthology, "Portland Noir" (Akashic), and the publisher of the long-running small press, Future Tense Books. More Kevin Sampsell.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)
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