On A Bridge

October 10 is World Mental Health Day.

Early on an October morning (5 years ago today) as I drove to work in the rain, I sat at a red light in the center of my hometown. There are two routes that will get me to work in about the same amount of time. One route is more miles, but there are more highway miles, so it takes about the same time as the other way. On any given day I might take either route. But on that morning, I felt oddly compelled to take the slightly longer of the two. As the light changed, I took my hand off the turn signal and drove straight ahead, wondering why I had chosen that path to work that day. “Maybe there are more beautifully colored trees on this route. Their colors look even brighter in the rain,” I thought. 

Autumn is my favorite season – at least until a cold winter makes me yearn for Spring with its miracle of tiny green shoots rising from the soil. But once Summer brings fruit from my garden and the days grow too hot for my liking, Autumn once again becomes my favorite – the choruses of color singing from the hillsides, the crunching of maple leaves under foot, and the treasures held by seed pods during a cool walk in the woods – these are a few of my favorite Fall things.

True confession? It was Columbus Day – a holiday that shouldn’t even be a holiday, but since it still was, everyone else at my house had the day off. I had to go to work and I even had to get to work earlier than usual. And I was whining a bit about it. It was cold, dark, and rainy.

Without much further thought I drove to work on a dark and rainy Monday morning (trying not to complain.)  About 20 minutes later I drove onto the French King Bridge and wished it weren’t rainy because the view from that bridge has delighted me since I was a child. If you aren’t familiar with the Bridge, it’s worth the drive to Gill, Massachusetts. Just take route 2 and keep on going west. You’ll come to a lovely bridge spanning the Connecticut River. To the north and south you can see the hills rising on each side of the river. And in early October those hills are absolutely stunning; crimsons, golds, ambers, with a few evergreens scattered upon them. But today it was rainy and especially in the very earliest light of the day, I wasn’t expecting to see a view that would take my breath away – but I was wrong!

Halfway across the bridge, I noticed a person standing on the sidewalk, leaning on the railing, staring down into the Connecticut River, 141 feet below. It was still barely light out. The rain was quite steady. While the foliage may have been beautiful, this person on the bridge certainly didn’t appear to be taking in the foliage. 

As soon as I got to the far end of the bridge so that I could park safely, I did so. As calmly as I could, I walked out onto the bridge toward them, dismayed by how many people drove past me. I wondered if anyone else would see this scene and recognize that something looked wrong. Perhaps the police would be among the cars driving by. Maybe some passing motorist would call the police. “Didn’t they put cameras on the bridge a year ago?” I thought as I walked quickly, trying to appear calm.

The usually calming sound of the rain was periodically interrupted with the whoosh of passing cars passing by. When I reached the person on the bridge I saw that it was a man – a young man – in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, clutching the railing, gazing downward. He was facing north (my favorite of the two views.) For the first time since I parked the car (did I lock the doors?) I thought about what I would actually say to him. “QPR,” I thought. I know QPR. I teach QPR and they say it works, right? This morning calls for something that really works. Q-P-R!

Q is for Question

My choice of question couldn’t have been simpler. “You OK?” was an obvious question and a question to which I already knew the answer. Obviously, he wasn’t OK, but he answered without turning directly toward me, “I’m fine.” In some ways, neither the question I asked nor the answer he gave really mattered. I knew he wasn’t OK when I asked if he was and I knew he wasn’t “fine.” I also knew, whether he knew or not, that I wasn’t leaving that bridge without him.

P is for Persuade

I placed a hand on his rain-drenched shoulder and said, “You don’t seem fine, my friend, and I’m going to be right here until you decide you’re ready to walk off the bridge with me. I’d really love to get you a coffee someplace drier and maybe we can talk. You must have a lot on your mind.” 

I’m not certain how long we stood there together. We spoke a little, but I’m very sure that I didn’t say any magic words. To persuade him I suggested that whatever situations in his life seemed overwhelming right now were probably situations that could be worked out, negotiated, or somehow navigated (whether I knew how or not.) 

Question – Persuade
(You OK? I’m Gonna Stay)

The presence of a person – a complete stranger – seemed to persuade him. Standing in the rain demonstrated sufficient care to change a young man’s mind. After a while, he decided that walking off the bridge with a stranger was better than jumping off alone.

Question – Persuade – Refer
(You OK?
I’m Gonna Stay
Let’s Get You on Your Way!)

R is for Refer. Before I could get him that cup of coffee, a family member arrived and together they agreed to go to the hospital to seek appropriate professional help. I was relieved to watch them drive away and deeply grateful that they were going to be in good hands. 

I was also deeply thankful for the simple and effective QPR training that I once received and now provide to others. By some spectacular coincidence I was allowed to be “in the right place at the right time.” QPR gave me a succinct and simple plan that allowed me to step into the path of a soul in peril and “do the right thing.”

Lessons from the Bridge

(in rhyming pairs because I guess that’s how my brain works):

Try to hear, Dear. When “something” nudges you or suggests you take a different route to work (or to call someone who’s ‘on your mind,’) please listen, please do it. For it might be the Universe or it’s Architect speaking to you.

To whine is fine – for a moment. I had a friend years ago who said, “It’s OK to visit the basement of pity once in a while, but let’s not move in there!”

But look for the beauty (or sacred duty) in the day.

Dare to care – love your neighbor. Some of the passersby didn’t see the peril, some saw the peril and didn’t know what to do, maybe some even saw the peril and didn’t care. Dare to care.

You will do – a police officer was among the countless people who drove by on the bridge that morning. In fact, that officer drove by twice. Whose job is it – to love our neighbors? Ill-equipped, untrained, plain ole you will do!

Don’t refrain from standing in rain – it falls from the heavens, brings life to he soil and hope to the parched. 

I came very close to never even knowing about that man on the bridge. God, or fate, or Spirit in the sky, or luck helped me to decide to take route 2 that day. This story isn’t about me. It’s about all of us and the life-changing, life saving good we can do when we dare to care. That’s the power of caring – the power of love.

I just happened upon a fellow who was literally on a bridge on a rainy Monday morning. But there are people in our path every day – coworkers, friends, family members, neighbors, teammates, and strangers –  who are on some sort of ‘bridge’ in their lives. And I’m more certain now than ever that by showing up and showing care you can make all the difference in the world.

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