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Fire Escape

by Chris Eble

My coworker’s cell phone rings. His regular job is to oversee maintenance projects at the infrastructure division of Deutsche Bahn, the national German railway company. This call is different. It’s an emergency. A “PU” as they call it - Personenunfall, an accident involving a person. It’s his job to respond as part of a rotating on-call team.

Just moments before we were talking about Corona and the easing of restrictions the German government and individual states recently instituted. Specifically that relatives are now able to visit the elderly or sick in nursing homes again. His mom currently lives in a retirement home outside of Stuttgart. My mom is in a psychiatric institution. We’ve both had no physical contact with our mothers in over 8 weeks. Only brief visits mediated by a glass door, lasting minutes.

It’s pouring outside as he gathers his things: boots, jacket, safety vest, car keys. He knows what will await him at the scene. He doesn’t seem bothered. I ask him if he is not scared. “No”, he replies with a smile on his face. “This ain’t my first rodeo and you have to somehow take it lightly, otherwise you won’t be able to cope.” Without hesitation he goes on to describe the typical situation. Flesh wedged underneath train carts. Victims sometimes still alive as rescuers attempt the impossible.

He takes off, leaving me behind at my desk. Stunned. How could he talk so nonchalantly about all of this? My thoughts are scrambled, images of my mom arise.

When we were adults my mother confessed to us that she used to walk the train tracks at night, contemplating suicide. While we kids were sleeping in our beds. She never brought herself to jump. She would find other methods later in her life, succumbing to the pains of her depression. Yet, every time she was brought back from the dead.

I try to return my focus to the work at hand. Someone calls me on the phone, my attention shifts but I cannot shake how much the last few minutes have stirred things up.

After two hours or so, my co-worker returns. A man in his thirties stepped in front of a regional train near Somerrain station. The deceased wore a wrist band clearly linking him to a mental facility nearby. He died immediately. “He was from the ZfP Bad Canstatt,” I hear my colleague say.

I shudder. ZfP! The same non-profit organization that operates the facility my mom is currently being treated at, albeit in a different city. Another employee steps into the office and jokingly says, “Another basket case, huh? Had one yesterday escape from the same place, also ending his life on the tracks”. My god, I had no idea this is so common. He proceeds to say that in his first year as an on-call emergency responder he had six such cases. The other co-worker chimes in stating he had over 30 in about 6 years.

I cannot fathom that. So many suicides. How many more must occur every day, every week, across the most dense railway system in Europe? Relatives and loved ones left behind, wondering what could have been done to prevent it. The traumatized train conductors and first responders. The despair and utter sadness that drives people to this last resort of the mind. The harrowing grief about their own existence!

My mind immediately jumps to the content of a podcast I listened to, literally, a day before what has occurred today at work. In it, the poet and writer Ocean Vuong speaks so eloquently about suicide, and the bewilderment he felt when his uncle took his own life:

[…] I remember, when I heard of his suicide, I was a student at Brooklyn College in New York. And I went for the longest walk. And I kept seeing these fire escapes. And I said, what happens if we had that? What is the linguistic existence of a fire escape, that we can give ourselves permission to say, “Are you really OK? I know we’re talking, but — you want to step out on the fire escape, and you can tell me the truth?” And I think we’ve built shame into vulnerability, and we’ve sealed it off in our culture […] We police access to ourselves. And the great loss is that we can move through our whole lives, picking up phones and talking to our most beloveds, and yet, still not know who they are. Our “how are you” has failed us. And we have to find something else.

As my co-worker proceeds to get out of his rain drenched coat and boots I can’t help but think about Vuong’s metaphorical fire escape. What is it my mom has been trying to say for so many decades? What is she ashamed of? Do I really know who she is? Has my “how are you” failed her? I feel such sadness and grief rushing through my body. I try to keep it together, scrambling to find something else to pay attention to.

Minutes later, I find myself alone at my desk, lost in thought. Rain continues to fall down hard outside the windows of my office. I think of my mom, again.

Fire Escape:

A way to exit the building of your soul without killing yourself.

A way to express the darkness in your soul.

A way for others to rescue you, safely lowering you to the ground.

If you need to talk with someone about suicide any time - day or night - call the National Suicide Hotline at:



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