maggiejumps

The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Spill

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It was the sky that made me rush through the farmers market. My canvas bag was stuffed tight with ripe tomatoes, cheese, meat, jam and bread, and I hurried to the car, tilting my head up every few seconds. The sky was such a gentle blue, dramatic in its softness. The air was sun-ripened, but not hot. There wasn’t even a cloud.

It was the kind of day that made skydivers, like me, drive 80 miles an hour directly to the dropzone.

My plan was to make sandwiches in between jumps. My friends, the other jumpers, always ate like crap. Bags of Funyons chased down with cans of Red Bull. Cold French fries. Slim Jims. But that day I was going to nourish my friends, take care of them.

It didn’t make sense when someone said my husband, then my boyfriend, a professional skydiver, had landed off the dropzone and was headed to the hospital. They had to be mistaken. I had just started unpacking the food. I had bread to slice. Jam to spread.

“Maybe you should go there,” a friend urged.

But if I went to the hospital, I thought, that would mean there is a problem. And there’s no problem. The sun was so big and bright, the sky so pearly blue.

Someone else sat down with me and explained what had just happened only a moment before. My husband had been shooting video for our friend, S., a longtime skydiving instructor. When S. deployed his parachute, somewhere around 6,000 feet, the canopy dove in a way it shouldn’t have. The two jumpers collided, both falling at dramatically different speeds.

I heard an ambulance scream down the gravel road, sirens and all. I sat and waited, stunned. I had a cell phone, but no idea who to call. Several minutes later, the ambulance drove past again. This time it had no siren. That’s how I knew this was something big. At least one person didn’t have to be rushed to the hospital.

“Which one died?” I said to the friend sitting next to me. He somehow knew everything I didn’t.

It was S. My husband was the one who lived.

*

For about a year after the accident, I tried to avoid TV shows or movies in which somebody died. I could no longer read sad books or look at the newspaper. It was difficult enough to have a friend swiftly ripped from my life. I didn’t need it to be my entertainment too.

That’s easier said than done, though. Death infused everything. Every drama. Every detective show. Every video game. Every page of the paper and grizzly segment of the TV news. It didn’t even matter that these things didn’t involve skydiving. Any mention of death, and I instantly associated it with that terrible, brutal, sunny day. Even a blue sky made me wince.

The month my husband spent in the hospital was also an exercise is distraction. I did yoga in the hospital hallway and maggie+jasoninexplicably bought a stack of books about Lance Armstrong. I thought a lot about the world. I considered what I wanted to create and contribute during this brief, wild, precarious life.

I was a journalist, the only career I had ever known or wanted.

I knew a lot of other reporters for various media outlets, and they badgered me for interviews about the skydiving accident — even while I was in the intensive care unit, waiting to find out if my husband would walk again. TV reporters came to the hospital dressed like friends. My voicemail filled up with interview requests instead of well wishes. A personal conversation with a colleague ended up in the newspaper I worked for. In trying to make some sense of it all, I added to the noise with a couple of columns — messy personal essays about grief and desolation and how quickly a life can end.

In the thick of my sorrow, I realized I didn’t want to be that person anymore. That person who doesn’t keep a respectful distance. That reporter.

*

This is something that has been on my mind ever since the Boston Marathon explosions. I am grateful I am no longer a journalist.

I still have the utmost respect for the profession. I know remarkable journalists who do important work every day. They mark history. They are the watchdogs of society. They capture and freeze this world at a moment in time. But I also know what it’s like to stand on someone’s porch after their loved one has died and ask, “How do you feel?”

How do you think they feel?

I am happy I didn’t have to stand in a newsroom after the attacks in Boston and scramble to get a local perspective on the bombing. I’m thankful I didn’t have to compete for the same quote that says the same thing all the other quotes have said: It was loud. It was bloody. It was horrific.

I remember when one of my colleagues was lauded for clinching the interview with a shooting victim that nobody else could get. How did she do it? She brought flowers to the hospital, where she pretended to be a family member of the patient.

I am relieved I no longer work in that world.

Maybe, after the accident, I no longer had what it takes. Maybe I never did.

*

Last week my Facebook feed was filled with people passing around Boston’s tragedy like trading cards. One of the headlines was, “A mother’s tragedy: Two sons, two lost limbs.” The accompanying photo was of the mother, waiting at the hospital for news about her sons, weeping on the shoulder of a relative. My friend’s comment was, “OMG. So sad.” Another person shared it with the message, “Uggggh. Really sad.”

What is the purpose of this?

The reporter did nothing wrong. The article was well-written and sympathetic. The mother appeared to be a willing participant. But I wonder why editors continue to assign these stories, what motivates media to keep turning these pieces out, why we still read them and share them.

Sure, there is a fundamental desire to know what happened. But beyond the articles that tell us the facts, beyond the positive pieces that are a reminder of our humanity, beyond the analysis of what it all means, there are these knee-jerk stories that bulldoze into grief-stricken homes, stale hospital rooms and somber funeral services. And for what purpose?

Are these articles designed to tell us that humans suffer? Don’t we know that already? Are we expected to somehow share in this suffering? How can we possibly do that?

When 9/11 happened, I was a very young but earnest reporter in Ohio. Not long after the towers fell, I packed up my car and drove to Manhattan. A part of me wanted to chase the story, because that’s what a journalist is supposed to do. But a bigger part simply wanted to bear witness to a moment in history. I thought there was some kind of inherent dignity in the unflinching gaze, in not looking away.

Now I fear that kind of gaze, so common in the news, proves we are smug people even in our sympathy. It alienates us from what actually took place. We are looking at the rubble and saying, “That could’ve been my loved ones. That could’ve been me. … But it wasn’t.”

It is a validation of our own lives.

*

One day a young teen beat his brother to death with a baseball bat, then washed his hands in the fountain at the center of town. That same afternoon I stood vigil on the sidewalk in front of his family’s house. My editor gave me strict instructions, “Don’t even think about coming back to work until you get a family quote.” I didn’t go back to work for two days. When I finally did, a sour, solid knot had formed in my throat and wouldn’t go away.

There is a point at which mourners become weak. When they crack and spill. That is what I was waiting for. That was considered an achievement.

Later I begged my editor for advice. I said the job was making it hard for me to get out of bed in the morning. It was becoming tougher to distinguish the beautiful parts of the world from the evil and ugliness. She told me I was too sensitive, and sensitive people never make it in the business. Then she slid a business card across the desk,  the number of a free hotline I could call and speak to a psychologist.

Right now a reporter — many reporters, in fact — are standing at the home of the young boy who died in Monday’s bombings. I don’t have to see proof of this to know it is true. They probably don’t believe they are being invasive. They are saying things like, “Your son’s story deserves to be shared.”

They are waiting for the spill.

*

Only a few months before my husband’s accident, I was assigned to cover a plane crash. It was a small, personal aircraft with two passengers inside. They were an older married couple. Both died instantly.

In a Cincinnati suburb, I rang the doorbell of the couple’s home. Their adult children, dazed by the shock of losing both parents at once, answered the door and invited me inside. I explained why I was there and what I needed from them.

“I want to give you this opportunity to talk about your parents,” I said. “This is your chance to make sure they are more than just names on the obituary page.”

Those kids had no idea what to do with me, and they were too polite to tell me to go away. So they made me a sandwich and allowed me to sit with them in their sorrow. They gathered around the kitchen table, opened family photo albums and told me disjointed stories that I didn’t understand. Stories about relatives I would never meet. Stories of lives that could never squeeze into a 10-inch story in the newspaper. Stories that would not give the deceased the dignity they deserved.

I had no idea I would soon be on the other side of that table — that very sincere reporters would look me in the eye and tell me how important it is to share a tragic skydiving story with the world. How this was my opportunity.

*

Soon after my husband’s accident, I took to the air again. I made about 40 more jumps before I decided to hang up my rig for good.

maggiejumps2I also made a job transition. I transferred to another paper owned by the same company and took on a new beat, one that didn’t involve cops, crashes and killings. That lasted five years, and then I left the business entirely.

In both cases, I realized once the joy of something slips away, it’s nearly impossible to grab hold of it again.

Today I watch the news and wonder how long it will be until the Boston Marathon spectators, the runners and their families can look at the TV again. I wonder if they will ever see an action movie without cringing when the bombs go off. I wonder when they will be able to sleep through the night.

I also wonder about the reporters out there. The people standing on the porches of the dead, secretly wondering if there’s a better way to tell stories that matter. Wondering if maybe, just maybe, it’s better to explore the ways in which we are fundamentally connected instead of gawking at someone else’s exquisite pain.


Maggie Downs is an award-winning journalist and columnist. Her work has appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Desert Sun (Palm Springs) and AFAR Magazine, and her literary writing has been featured on Punchnel's, The Rumpus and Annotation Nation. She is studying creative nonfiction in UCR Palm Desert's low-residency MFA in creative writing and writing for the performing arts. She lives in Palm Springs with her husband, a ninja cat and a blind and deaf dog. More from this author →