Why I walked 20 Miles

By Jim Melvin

 

 

Traffic was bumper to bumper on a hot, sweltering Saturday afternoon in downtown Chicago. “ I think you might get there quicker from here on your own on foot,” remarked the cab driver. “The traffic is awful today.”

I nodded in agreement, paid my fare, and departed the comfort of the cab.

 

I began walking towards my destination- Soldier Field. As I got close enough to see the now familiar shape of the remodeled landmark, I began to notice them- the shirts. Identical to the one I was wearing myself, the white t-shirts told me I was on the right path, and seeing others making the trek was a welcome sight. As I neared some of my fellow participants, I looked at the familiar graphics on their back- a blue silhouette of a city skyline with the yellow sunburst of the morning sun, superimposed with the lettering:

 

HOPE:

INSPIRE:WALK

OVERNIGHT

 

My comrades and I walked past Soldier Field towards a large white tent. I was there at last. I, and what became two thousand other people very similar to myself, were participating in a walk of national significance, the Out of the Darkness Suicide Prevention Walk. It was a 20 mile trek throughout the night and morning hours of July 16th and 17th, with each walker having pledged to raise at least $1000.00, which would be dedicated to the National Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide for it’s ongoing efforts to fight depression and erase the stigma associated with the subject of suicide. The idea of an overnight walk was symbolic. The darkness of the night represented the hopelessness that comes from depression that many suicidal people experience, and the dawn the hope that comes from each new day. A hope of an end to depression, and suicide.

 

The white tent was the check-in station. I turned in my check-in form, and was processed. The last station within the tent was a table with various colors of bead necklaces. I soon learned that each color represented a different victim of suicide- one color for a spouse, another for a sibling, yet another for relative, or still another for a friend. I was asked what color I needed, and I indicated white, which stood for the loss of a child.

 

 “You lost a child?”, the volunteer inquired.

 

“My daughter”, I replied. “How old?, was the response.

 

“13”. I watched as her face registered a stunned expression that I have become far too acquainted with. “I am so sorry”, she whispered, and I nodded in silent acceptance as I left the tent.

 

My beautiful daughter Erin had completed suicide nearly 9 years ago. She was 13, and from all outward appearances, a typical new teenager, with all the unpredictable behaviors that age brings. But what her mother and I did not know, was that there was a dark side to her, filled with pain and depression. One that we did not see until it was too late. The trigger for her pain was constant teasing, threats and harassments from her peers in the new town we had moved to. But the underlying cause was depression, and the treatment she received from the other teenagers served as the spark that  sent her to her final decision. 

 

Over the next two hours, as I watched other walkers arrive for the event, the scene became a visible reminder of something I already knew, that suicide crosses all social, racial, and economic barriers. Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, the walkers represented a cross section of America, a melting pot of those touched by this terrible resolution. Each were wearing the same shirt as I. The same, yet each unique- many had customized their shirt to represent the person they had lost to suicide, or to symbolize the team they had formed to walk. In the faces of each was the excitement of finally being here, the culmination of many hours of fund-raising and training walks. But also in each of the faces was a sadness, the reminder of the reason we were here, the loss each of us felt. We smiled at each other as we passed. A knowing smile of one who has felt the same loss, a loss that can only be feebly explained, and hardly imagined.

 

I was approached by a lady walker. It was Nance Tucker, a woman who had lost her husband a year ago to suicide, and was a friend of my oldest daughter’s. We had agreed to meet and walk together. She found me by the blue “Ask me why I am walking 20 miles” baseball cap I had made specifically for the event. We greeted each other and  went to the event stage to begin. The weather was hot and sunny. I learned later that it reached 97 that day, and the night would soon prove no relief. But for now, we sweated under the hot sun through the opening ceremonies, listening to speakers from “Out of the Darkness” and from the National Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide, applauding our efforts.

 

Finally, at 7:15 we began our 20 mile journey into the night.  The early stages of the walk were upbeat. Large numbers of walkers together, walking along the Chicago lakefront, talking and sometimes laughing, excited about the night. The first pit stop area was even a bit raucous, as walkers filled up water bottles, got fruit and nuts to munch on and took a brief respite.

 

But as the evening came, and the heat bore down, each successive stop was a bit less joyful. The groups of walkers strung out over the distance to much smaller groups, and even solo walkers. As I walked I met others and we exchanged names and stories. I met a woman who lost her 17 year old son after a romance failed, a common reason for suicide in young men. Later, I met a young woman who lost her mother 6 years before. She was walking in her mother’s running  shoes as a tribute to her. There were as many stories as there were walkers. I met people from Florida, California, Washington state, and even England.

 

As Nance and I trudged on, the heat and humidity made the walk arduous. At the halfway point, we sat down for a brief sack lunch. This stop was nearly silent, almost somber. Two walkers lay on cots, one receiving IV fluids. The night was beginning to take it’s toll.

 

Nance and I began the second half of the walk. The night had closed in, and the tired walkers moved along now in silence. While I walked with a partner, few words were now exchanged. I began to fully understand now the significance of the symbolism of the event. The darkness enveloped me, and I felt a growing sadness upon me. If this was only a fraction of what someone in a depression felt, I began to acknowledge how one could be swallowed up by it.

 

We trudged on, and I began to feel blisters forming on my feet. But I was determined to move on. At the next pit stop, the walkers rested in silence, some performing first aid on their feet, some just sitting. And at the last pit stop, we were asked by the volunteers to create a luminary. I wrote “In memory of Erin” on the paper bag, which was then filled with some sand and a battery operated mini-light.

 

We began the last stage of the walk, carrying our luminary. At the appropriate area, Nance and I placed the luminaries on the edge of the sidewalk. The final 2 miles of the walk were dotted with the dimly lit tributes to our lost loved ones. As I walked I was thinking of Erin. She would be 22 now, a grown woman. What would  she have been like? Would she have went to college? Or met someone and married and had a family?  The pain in my feet was replaced by the ache in my heart as I reflected, the olds wounds of grief reopened anew.

 

As Nance and I approached the finish line of the walk, a group of volunteers cheered us home. Also, several close friends of Nance awaited her arrival, taking pictures and cheering her on. She crossed the line and they all embraced. I crossed the threshold, ending my 20 mile journey, much like Erin crossed from this life to the next, alone. The parallel was not lost on me, and I stood for a moment, exhausted both physically and emotionally. Then Nance and I embraced, and I was welcomed by her circle of friends.  It was 3:00 am, and we had walked the 20 miles in about 8 hours.

 

We went back to the white tent we first were welcomed to, which had now become a holding and first aid area. Numerous walkers were stretched out on cots, several receiving IV’s. Nearby two ambulances loaded walkers to take to nearby hospitals. Nance and I sat in two chairs and waited for the closing ceremonies at 5:30. And although nearly two thirds of the two thousand who walked were in this area, it was as quiet as a library.

 

At 5:30, we lined up 7 across and marched into the staging area, to the applause of those volunteers and family members who awaited us. We stood on weary legs and sore feet to observe the closing ceremonies. The President of the National Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide informed us we had raised over 1 million dollars for research and education. And the representative from Out of the Darkness said we had arrived as strangers, but were leaving as a family, bonded together by the event.

 

I was proud of what I had done, but I would have traded every part of it for just one more day with Erin. But as that can’t happen in this lifetime, I will just have to continue to walk. And I will walk through the night again next year, hoping to shine a light into the darkness.