Birthdays and Graves and Desecration

May 28, 2014.

Today is difficult, always is, celebrating the birthday of a child who is missing or who has died. Today Matthew would have been 27.  He may be 27 somewhere else, but all circumstantial evidence indicates he died at 20 years old.  Evidence indicates he died from a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.

For our family, it is tradition to honor our loved ones by including them in major events, such as celebrating birthdays or angelversaries, or just to talk, reminisce or catch up with family, by going to the grave, talking and leaving mementos.

Unfortunately our family does not have that option. Matthew’s body was never recovered so we were not able to bury him. His grave is below Lightpost 97 of the Golden Gate Bridge.  So a minimum of twice a year, we take at 60 minute drive, go through two tolls for $10, to park on the south side of the bridge.  We take our flowers and cards and walk the bridge from the parking lot to just beyond the south tower.

When we go out on the bridge, we  know people glance backwards because they are too polite to stare, most of them. They never engage us and leave us to our pain and memories.

Today was an exception.

When standing with flowers at Light Standard 97, I heard a construction cart drive by then stop. I turned to look and saw two men alight from it.  One young man stood close to me and asked if I was alright.  I understood they were concerned that I was potentially suicidal. I explained why I was there; why I had the flowers: no body – no grave – this was my only site to rest flowers.

Matt’s flowers

Matt’s flowers

He acknowledged my situation, realizing I was not a threat to myself and left me alone. I patted his arm and thanked him for his concern and checking on me.

After about 15 minutes of imagining Matt’s last few minutes before he died, standing at that railing, recalling his life with us, and wishing peace for his soul, I tossed the flowers over the railing. Except a few. They were tied to his birthday card. I always leave a card for Matt for the event that brings me there and always leave flowers.

Matt’s Birthday Card

Matt’s Birthday Card

I walked slowly off the bridge, avoiding eye contact and just staying within my personal zone.  As I came to the bottom of the path near the new pavilion, I noticed a woman with a helmet and wearing a green jacket.  She was standing and waiting. Apparently for me. When I came to the end  of the walkway she stepped sideways towards me and asked if I was the one who left the flowers on the bridge.

I said I did and she offered her most sincere condolences on my loss. I explained it was my son’s birthday; “how old?”; 27; “what a blessing you had him for 27 years”. No, he was 20 when he died, but yes that was a blessing. “Even a short blessing can be enough” – it was everything and we are grateful to have had so much time with him.

She let me hug her in gratitude.

“Matthew”, I said to myself, “You were always a blessing and thank you for sending this woman to remind me how much you mean to the world, even a world without you.”

I carried this thought in my heart as I walked to my car.  I park away from the bridge, because I always need time to regain my composure.  I usually head home but today was slightly different.  I had the goal of looking at the Vista Point at the North end for a potential site for a memorial or retreat for families who lost someone to suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge.  The bridge district refuses to allow a memorial of any kind, except for one of “their own”.

The Vista Point is CalTrans property and it isn’t clear if they have restrictions on memorials.  So when leaving I crossed the bridge and headed to the Vista Point.  On my way I noted that the card and flowers for Matthew were no longer on the railing.  This was unusual – the district usually waits several hours before taking down his memorium. This couldn’t have been 15 minutes since I left. Broke my heart to see them gone so soon.

When I arrived at the Vista Point on the north end, I walked around at the area north of the restrooms, where there are simple native plants. In the parking area opposite me were two bridge patrol cars and a highway patrol car. Two officers were out of their cars and all were chatting.

As I was taking photos of the area I noted a jogger pass me and approach the officers. I heard the jogger say, “I just want to thank you for taking down the flowers. I just couldn’t go past that again. It would be too hard for me.”  That is my best recollection of his statement. It took me 30-60 seconds to realize he might be talking about my flowers for Matt.

I turned and approached the officers and asked, “I overheard what the man said. Were those my flowers and card you took down?” These two officers were clearly caught off guard. They said yes, offered their condolences on my loss and I asked what their reason was for removing them.

“Our concern is if someone sees something like this it will create a situation where they might want to jump.” My head screamed – Seriously??? Someone would look at that card and realize how much the family was impacted by the loss and see how much the person was loved…if anything, they would NOT act on their feelings.

But I let that go in the moment. “Well, as long as you have a reason.” was all I could say.

The officer asked if I would like what they removed – Yes, I would like to give the card to my other son – and they gave me both the card and flower – “We really didn’t want to throw this away.”

I thanked them and left but felt terribly offended. Not by the officers’ action but by the stranger who was offended by my offering to my son. Perhaps it could be emotionally difficult for him to see and realize someone’s son died there, but obviously he didn’t even consider what it took for the family to place it there.

Did it not cross his mind that we would rather NOT come to such a public place to be with our child?  Did he not consider how difficult it is for family to be in the midst of tourists and joggers and bicycles and  cars and noise to be at a gravesite?

The flower and card were obviously there to honor the dead.  Yet he took it upon himself to have it removed. For selfish reasons; because it made him uncomfortable.

This is clearly an act of desecration. He took away the “sacredness of this site”.   For the thousands of lives lost at this site, it is most certainly sacred.

There are hundreds of families like ours, where we have never recovered the body of our loved one.  There any tens of families whose religion requires burial in consecrated grounds, else the soul of an unburied body would never find peace. Yet this jogger could only think of himself and how this expression of love offended him.

I was completely at a loss of understanding for all of this.  With all the encouraging and loving actions of the day, they felt smeared and besmirched with this action of degradation against my son, and against all those lives lost at this site.

This only reinforces the need for a site for families like ours; a site for reflection and remembrance, where we can grieve in semi-privacy and not offend those with gentle constitutions with our gestures of love.

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