I think I understand it more now, I don't like it, but I get it.
For years Benny's attempts and final success at ending his life bewildered me. I could never get into his head and rationalize how it made more sense to be dead than alive? I could never think of anything Benny had to fear so tremendously that not being alive seemed attractive. There's no doubt that he lived on the very edge most of his life. He always had trouble understanding what was normal and why he really wasn't. But that had been going on for 54 years before he broke his leg.
Two and a half months ago I was hiking next to a ridge near Farmington New Mexico. This ridge had hundreds of images scratched into it by the historic Navajos and prehistoric peoples before them. This was my third day walking along this ridge taking photographs of the petroglyphs.
In one area I was between a bunch of huge fallen boulders and the cliff face. I was working my way through a couple of those boulders to continue along the cliff face when I realized I couldn't go any further, there was about a 15 foot drop off in front of me. I turned to go the other way and my boot slipped on the rock I was turning on. Apparently there was dirt on the rock I didn't recognize as it was the same red color as the rock. My foot slipped into a crack and I went down, my foot not turning with me. I heard the bone crack as the pain reached a threshold I'd never experienced in my 66 years.
I fell into a bush, not just any bush, a fiercely attacking thorny bush. And I could do nothing but lay there with those thorns stuck in my arm, face and neck while I recovered from the excruciating pain of my cracked fibula. When I could get myself together, I got up on my arms moving forward a few feet and dropped again in an area that was more grassy. There I laid until the pain had waned and I had an opportunity to consider my next few steps. It was clear I was going to need to call for paramedics. But they would never find me behind these rocks.
I begin to crawl, using just one knee and my hands and arms, until I got to a more visible area just on the edge of the rocks I was behind. Using the end rock to brace myself I stood up on 1 foot. I found that I could lightly put weight on the other foot if It was straight. If it angled either left or right even incrementally, the pain was severe. I walked and crawled the distance down the hill to where I felt emergency personnel could spot me.
Now I've been holed up in my house for 2 1/2 months. And yes, I understand how stir crazy my cousin must've been! Added to his already slippery grasp of what was normal and what was a little 'out there'; what was good and what was bad; and what his purpose on this earth could possibly be, I can now understand more clearly how he had been driven to his final actions. Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not headed towards suicide, I'm already planning my next hiking expedition. But I can see how Benny thought he had no alternative.
While Benny was holed up in his little one bedroom apartment in Pasadena, I remember a couple times a week running over to his place and picking him up to go for a drive somewhere, or a walk around the extravagant City Hall near his apartment. Sometimes we were going to eat, but more often we just went driving somewhere. Up in the mountains behind Pasadena, on Pacific Coast Highway along the oceans edge, even down to San Diego. He would sit on the seawall on Coronado Island overlooking San Diego Bay and the San Diego skyline. We would have confusing conversations, often with him laying around Broad Street in the sand. It was during these conversations he would often smile. We did that drive more than once, which would usually eat up a day.
But despite all these drives and walks and dinners and lunches, that still left hours and hours of Benny by himself in a tiny apartment on the fifth floor of his 60-year-old building. He would sit on the sofa next to the window, gazing out at what he wanted to participate in, normal life. He must have imagined hundreds of frightening scenarios in that addled brain of his. Sometimes he would call me, say my name, but nothing else. He just wanted to connect.
On the second Thursday in February he called me. It was cold that day in Pasadena and he wanted to go to our favorite place in San Diego. "I know this is a busy time of the year for you. I just thought, it's so cold and windy, you might like to get out in the sun."
He had that confused also. February was not busy for us, but this time of the month was. He knew the first 10 days of the month was when we did our accounting, but he had it all foggily mixed up in his head. I immediately told him yes, I'll be over in about a half an hour. I called my manager and she assured me they could handle everything. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Benny spotted my red pickup as I turned onto his cul de sac. He was huddled at the top of the stairs and now made his way slowly down to street level, handling his crutches carefully. By the time I pulled up to the curb, he was waiting to get in. He tossed the crutches in the rear, sat down, fastened his seatbelt, and turned to shake my hand. Benny and I always shook hands.
I made my way to the 5 Freeway and soon we were passing the beaches in Orange County. At Capo beach I got off the freeway and onto Highway 1 so we could drive along the water. Capistrano, San Clemente, Trestles Beach, The nuclear power plant and then the Marine base. As we began passing the San Diego County beaches, he started talking. He'd hardly said a word the first 45 minutes of the drive.
He asked me about my sister, my brother, my parents. He talked about some of his friends in his apartment building. He had the oddest group of characters for neighbors & loved every one of them. They were a tight group, but they didn't have the day-to-day sanity that Benny felt like he needed now. Ever since he'd broken his leg he reached outside his little group. I knew he felt like he was losing his grip. I wasn't sure I was helping him hang on very well.
When we started driving over Coronado Bridge I saw him smile. I was pretty sure that was the first smile of the day. We parked near the ferry and got out to slowly walk up and down the paved path along the beach. It was sunnier here and not as windy. I think he felt warmer, without his topcoat and only his Hoodie on.
We sat down on a bench overlooking San Diego Bay and the city's skyline. He leaned back on the bench with his eyes closed, and I left him alone. I wondered what was twirling around in his big brain, but he wasn't sharing at the moment. He looked up at me and said "I want to lay down in the sand". And he did.
Next, he wanted to take the ferry. We bought round-trip tickets and went across to downtown. I was occasionally taking photographs of him with my iPhone. As I look at them now, Benny on the ferry, walking along the sand with the skyline behind him, and staring at the Coronado Bridge as we crossed the Bay, I wonder if these were Benny's last happy moments.
He sat on a bench now looking across at Coronado, while I walked up to a stand to get us hot dogs. When I got back he was gone, crutches abandoned on the bench.
I pretty much knew where Benny was. In the 15 minutes it had taken me to inch up in the line behind the hotdog stand, buy the hotdogs, dress them, and walk back to the bench, he had shed most of his clothes and jumped into the Bay. Benny was a pretty good swimmer, he had swum on our high school swim team. I looked hard across the choppy surface of the Bay between me and Coronado. I did not see a person swimming.
Four hours later I got a call from a Rescue worker. Benny was in their office. He was cold, but okay, according to the woman I talked to. About the only thing they could get out of him was my cell phone number. I ran down the sidewalk on the San Diego side of the Bay to the offices I'd been directed to. As I headed down the 4th floor hallway, I saw Benny rocking himself on a bench, wrapped in a blanket. I tearily sat next to Benny, my arms full of his clothes and his crutches. He initially smiled at me, but seeing my eyes asked me, "what's wrong Ralphy?"
"Nothing Ben. You cold?"
"No. Patsy gave me this nice blanket."
Patsy was sitting in a folding chair facing Benny. She stood and shook my hand then turned and said, "Benny, follow me and I'll show you a place you can get dressed." I followed them to an office where Patsy showed Benny into a bathroom. He hobbled in with his dry clothes.
She turned to me and smiled. "He told me he wanted to go back to Coronado but you'd left."
I shook my head, looking at the floor, feeling again I might cry. "I was 15 feet away, in the line at a hot dog stand. How did he swim, with that cast on?"
"Not well. They found him not that far from where he went in. The current just carried him further in. He was laying half in and out of water, asleep and shivering."
"I was so scared. I thought . . "
Patsy grabbed my shoulders, "He's okay. But you should get him to his doctor, that cast is a mess."
Patsy's cell phone rang, and she walked away to talk on it. I thought about how I had felt just a few minutes ago when I thought Benny was gone, laying at the bottom of the bay forever.
Benny and I had grown up together. We were born in the same hospital, delivered by the same doctor, two months apart. At that time we only lived a few blocks from each other and spent most of our free time together. 17 years later I left Pasadena to go to college in Northern California. For the next 25 years I worked in the bay area until 10 years ago I bought my own business back in Pasadena.
Through the years I had visited Benny and his family many times, usually two or three times a year. One of my jobs even took me to Southern California and I never failed to spend some time with Benny while I was there. Despite the strange actions and thinking of my cousin, he was still one of my favorite people to be with. It wasn't until he had a stroke when he was 59 that his outlook changed. Perpetually depressed after that, I was there for him, not for me.
Two weeks later I had to go to the annual exposition of businesses related to my field. It was at this exposition that I typically picked up enough leads to last me a year. I would be in Boston for six days, so I spent the weekend before I left with Benny. I brought him over to my place and we spent lots of time exploring the trails in the hills behind my house. From the very beginning there was nothing Benny and I enjoyed doing together more than hiking.
It was while I was at the exposition, the very last day, I got the call from Benny's baby sister. Benny had figured out a way to climb up on the roof of his apartment building. Sallie Ann told me he had fallen off. I thought it was good that she and the rest of Benny's surviving family members thought of it that way.
But I was certain I knew what really happened to Benny, and all I could hope was that wherever he was now he was happier. For years now I've had dreams of Benny laying in the sand on the beach in Coronado Island California. Looking up at me on the bench, closing his eyes to allow the sun to wash over him, and smiling. I'll always remember Benny smiling.
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