What I witnessed happened over two years ago. I have, to a certain extent, come to terms with the experience. One thing I can say is this: the man left this world peacefully.
It was a cold Sunday afternoon in December. My nephew Daniel and I went for a walk to a place I call La Catedral. It is on the shore of the river Rhone, a natural sanctuary with no stonewalls. There is something both eerie and beautiful about La Catedral. Trees stand as islands surrounded by water, some have fallen, brought down by the steady erosion from the river’s current. It had been a spectacular evening walk, the blue-pink sky, the freezing temperature, the fog rising over the water, the silence, the sense of an ending.
And then we spotted him. Something about him felt immediately wrong. He was a man in his late 60’s. He appeared withdrawn, out of touch, lost in some reverie. He was not wearing a coat, only a shirt, and what seemed to be slippers. It was freezing. He stood by the water, staring at a swan. It was almost beautiful. Almost, because something wasn’t right. Was he mentally ill? Had he walked away from a hospital? My body sensed danger. My mind thought differently, it said meditation, contemplation; it instructed me to respect his space. Part of me wanted to run and protect, another to let be; strange, to be pulled in separate directions.
He stood on the edge of the pontoon, a platform loaded in summer with sunbathers, now empty. He was next to an SOS sign and bright red rescue buoy. I asked my nephew to take a picture of the sign so that we could check if the emergency number is 118 or 116. We might need to dial it, and I was no longer sure. He took the picture and we zoomed it. A beautiful image, we later agreed. You see the man from behind, his arms clasped at the small of his back, a posture of deep contemplation. Next to him, the immaculate white swan. The dominant grey and blue tones from the water are broken by the red of the lifebuoy. Aesthetics have no morals.
We sat on a bench from where we could observe him. I did not want to leave. “I recently saw a British anti-suicide campaign,” I told my nephew. “The ad shows people standing on a train platform waiting for a train. A woman’s voice announces through the loudspeaker that the train will be delayed, the usual stuff, usual reactions of annoyance. But then she continues speaking, she says there was an accident, a woman attempted suicide, jumped on the train rails. The woman did not die. The lady on the loudspeaker pauses and then carries on, “I know because I am the woman who attempted suicide, my name is Laura.” The ad shows the facial expressions of those waiting for the train, they change dramatically as they take the message in.”
Daniel’s face too had changed. He had been playing with the lid of his camera while keeping an eye on the old man and listening to my story.
The ad ends by saying “If you see a person who appears to be in need, tend to her, she probably does need help.”
Finally, I walked down to the river, over to where the man stood.
“Ça va, Monsieur?” I asked him if he was well. I searched for his eyes.
Why did I hesitate? What would have happened had I approached him a minute earlier? He was dreamy, serene, absent. I am no longer sure what he responded. I told the police he had said, “Pas trop.” Maybe that is indeed what he said: no, he was not ok. I stretched my hand to hold his arm. I touched him.
“Vous n’avez pas froid, Monsieur ?” I asked him if he didn’t feel cold.
At that point, he turned away from me and walked towards the metal ladder on the dock. And then slowly, his back to the river, he descended the ladder into the water. I knew he would die.
I dialed 118 right away. The buoy holder was marked “Post 16”, there was no mistaking our location. The firewoman on the phone told me her colleagues were on their way.
As the man went into the water, I ran to the end of the platform screaming, “Restez avec moi monsieur, restez!” I begged him to stay by my side.
In vain. Once in the water, the man calmly, soundlessly, glided his arms apart from each other, as when swimming breaststroke. He then laid his head down on the water, face down, like on a pillow, he surrendered himself to the water. His gesture was gentle, determined, and tranquil. He never raised his head again.
From the dock, in stark contrast, I called him at the top of my lungs, begging him to live. My nephew too was yelling, he had run downstream in an effort to reach him.
Daniel later pointed out to the contrast; a man peacefully and resolutely embraces his death while two onlookers determined to save him, scream breaking the quietness of his act. But, is suicide ever peaceful?
It took the rescue team seven minutes to arrive. I dialed at 17:07; the call lasted 42 seconds. They then called back at 17:10 — that must be the protocol — and arrived exactly four minutes later at 17:14. That is seven minutes to see a man descend (or is it ascend?) to his death. The rest is noise. The firefighters arrived, from both shores. An ambulance on the opposite bank of the river and a boat on our side. Failed efforts to bring him back to life. He was put on a stretcher and onto the boat, which crossed the river. He was loaded onto the ambulance. The rescue team told us we had done the right thing. And we were left alone.
I tried to understand. Who was he? What drove him to surrender? Who had survived him? I thought of calling the police to ask for the man’s name. What for? And what right did I have to this information? In the days that followed, I searched the newspapers for a note on the suicide, I looked for death notices, read obituaries. I found nothing.
It’s been more than two years. I will never know what made him take the decision he took. Some say that suicide is never a decision, but rather an act of despair. But was it not the utmost test of determination — to choose not to struggle, to walk into cold water, and die? Just like that. All I know is that the man whom I saw take his life died peacefully, non-violently. That is what I wish I could tell his relatives.