A Silent Offering of Hope and Help

A desperate young woman needed his help. But would he find the words to save her?

- Posted on Jul 17, 2013

A comic-book-style illustration of Craig Pennington & the young woman he helped

I almost didn’t see her. I was heading into Pittsburgh, across the bridge over the Allegheny River, late for work, and she was little more than a shadow by the seven-foot fence that lined the edge. But I got a feeling that I’d missed something.

I tapped the brake, adjusted my rearview mirror. Then I saw what I had missed—a young woman climbing over.

I knew the stories about desperate souls who came to the bridge to take a fatal leap. Sometimes the police talked them out of it. Sometimes. I felt my throat clutch.

I was the last person who should be on a bridge with a suicide jumper. I was beginning to think I couldn’t do anything right. Just speaking up in class was hard enough. I was struggling to survive my sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh.

The only job I could get to support myself through school was at Burger King. And I was failing at that. This wasn’t the first time I’d been late. My boss was fed up. “If you’re late once more, you’re fired,” he had told me. “End of story.”

I looked around. No other cars in sight. If I called the cops, would they get here in time? I had to do something. Now. But what? Why me? I pulled to the shoulder. Lord, I’m such a screwup, I’m not who you want for this. But if you can give me the words to say, I’ll say them. I’ll try.

My hands shook. I flipped on my emergency blinkers, zipped my jacket and climbed out.

The jumper had scaled the fence, swung over, and was inching down the other side, dangling perilously over the dark, swirling water. Her long blonde hair blew in the bitter wind. She was young, probably only a few years older than me. Petite, dressed in a black hoodie, dark jeans, sneakers.

Slowly, I approached. I didn’t want to spook her. She was shivering violently, from the cold or fear or both. About ten feet away I glimpsed her face. Her makeup was smudged from tears. She turned. Her pale blue eyes locked with mine. Neither of us said anything.

What could I say? One wrong word, and she could let go, plunging to her death. Don’t speak. Don’t move. Listen. The words came to me as if from a third presence on the bridge.

Time stopped. I was close enough to reach out and touch her hands, the knuckles white from clinging to the fence. But I didn’t.

I’ve had enough. Her lips didn’t move. But I heard her, through the lost look in her eyes. Her pain seemed to flow into me, and all at once I understood. Her troubles were deep, much deeper than mine, and yet they were the same. They came from fear and pain and hopelessness.

But she didn’t want to do this. You just don’t know what else to do, I thought, and I knew she heard my thought. Somehow I was positive of that.

Suddenly I spoke aloud. “Climb to the top,” I said. My voice sounded far away, like an echo. For a long moment she did nothing. Then one hand slid up, and the other. That’s it. Good, now step up. She found a toehold.

Her arms started to shake. Our eyes locked again. I sent her another thought. You will not fall. She calmed down; her breathing slowed. Carefully, she made her way to the top. She paused, straddling the fence. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She looked so tiny and helpless.

I’m alone. I have no one. I heard her thoughts as if they’d been spoken aloud.

“Will you come with me?” I asked, my voice again sounding like that strange echo. She nodded faintly, and lifted her other leg over to my side. She slid down to the pavement. Safe.

I took off my jacket. My size XL dwarfed her when she pulled it over her shoulders. “Would you like to sit in my car, where it’s warm?” I asked. She nodded. We climbed into the car. I started the engine and cranked up the heat.

The only sounds were the wind outside and the heat blowing. But I heard her. Please, give me some time. I waited silently while her emotions settled.

Finally I spoke. “I don’t know your story and you don’t have to tell me,” I said. “May I call the police so I can make sure you are taken care of?”

It was a while before EMS and a squad car arrived. They escorted the woman into the ambulance and said they would notify her family. “How did you know what to say?” one officer asked me.

Say? I’d barely said anything. Everything had happened in a silent way. The officer scratched his head. “Well, whatever you did, kid, you did everything right.”

Everything right. That was a first. It made me feel good, even if I couldn’t explain it. There was a power out there on the bridge with us. I got to Burger King two hours late. My boss met me at the door. “What are you doing here?” he asked, frowning, hands on his hips.

“I’m sorry I’m late again. I guess you’re going to fire me,” I said.

“Late? What do you mean, late? Your shift’s tomorrow. You’re not scheduled to work tonight.”


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