A DEAD BODY ON MY MORNING RUN
AT FIRST, I DIDN’T REALISE WHAT I WAS looking at, or what was looking at me.
It was just after sunrise on a Saturday morning in Prospect Park, New York and I had been away from home for two weeks in Europe. Thanks to jet lag, I woke up early. Hoping to loosen up my planeconstricted legs, I threw on a tank top, pants, and running shoes for what felt like the first true spring day after a long winter. The birds chirped, the sun shone, and as I made my way through the tree-lined paths, I felt bathed in a sense of joy at being back home and alive.
About three kays into my run, I rounded a clearing and thought I saw a tree of some sort, a trunk or limb that had fallen into a grassy expanse. Two police officers worked to secure tape around the scene. Police presence is nothing new for New Yorkers, so initially I brushed it off and kept running along the path, a curve that would bring me closer to the scene.
As I got closer, I saw that it wasn’t a log after all: it was a body. It was lying face up with arms reaching into the air, as if trying to grab at something. Its legs were stretched out and appeared to be covered in something brown, what I initially thought was mud. Around it was a circle of dark dirt that almost made the person look like he was emerging from the earth. Police officers tried to shield the scene with a sheet, but it was virtually impossible, given the curve of the jogging path around the grass.
I sucked in a deep breath, and not because I was running too fast. I stopped my mileage tracker and sat on a kerb nearby as other runners slowed down to do the same, many experiencing the same gasp that I had.
“God, that takes the wind out of you,” said a man in a blue shirt with a headband.
We stood and stared from the jogging path, popping our earbuds out, beads of sweat running down our temples. Any high I felt from my holiday had been sucked out of me along with the wind. My legs, usually reliable at pushing me forward through the universe, had morphed into two Tin Man tubes. It was a shock unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
“Keep it moving,” a cop told the stream of pedestrians; which, of course, only made many people want to slow down further.
Others trotted by not noticing, or giving a glance and a shrug. A kid with a boombox bolted by on a bike as Jay-Z blared into the treetops, the birds singing back. After what felt like an eternity, but what was probably only a few minutes, the cops placed a sheet over the body.
Then, someone told us something we could barely believe – it was indeed a man; a man who had set himself on fire. AT VARSITY, I had bonded with a group of girlfriends over watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit during our first years in New York City. One of the
show’s most common tropes is the hapless jogger out for a morning run who finds a body. I was always curious why that was, and I credit the show for making me wary of leaf piles in parks for years.
Standing in the park that day, I realised that no amount of television would ever do justice to how horrible it is to see a life having just ended before your eyes. I felt stupid ever to have thought otherwise. I felt awash in a new wave of sympathy for my friends and colleagues who are emergency-room doctors, war reporters, military veterans, or others who regularly see such sights.
The PTSD from such witnessing doesn’t go away after a day or two. I had never met this man, yet his death now impacted my life in a way that was going to stick around far beyond a news cycle.
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead body; nor was it the first time that running and death had felt knotted together in my life. For years, running has helped me cope with my own losses, chiefly that of my mother when I was 17. My first marathon was on the anniversary of her death, about two weeks after I had covered the Boston Marathon bombing. When I crossed the finish line, I collapsed not just because I was tired, but because for the first time in the nine years since she’d died, I had accepted the fact that she was never going to be there at the end.
A few months later, my uncle (her brother) died suddenly, and I charged to the finish line of the Philadelphia Marathon weeks after that. Other races have followed since, along with work stresses and heartbreaks, losses of a different sort. Running has been the one constant in a world where the ground of mortality seems to constantly shift under my feet. At best, the sport offers structure and confidence, but at worst, it can offer a false sense of control: you can run the perfect marathon, but your life is back out of your hands after those few hours. The person you love and miss is still dead.
Although our culture tells us that it’s proper to be sad when someone dies, it’s generally seen as less acceptable to be angry. But the truth is, I was furious with my mom, and with the other people who have died in my life, and I had to pound that rage out on the tar. Consider it a sort of punching with the feet, a percussive act that forces a body into a rhythm when the world feels completely void of it. I’m far from alone in lacing up with a calloused heart, and I’ve long suspected that you have to be furious in some way, conscious or not, to voluntarily train to run 42.2km early on a Sunday morning. Maybe that’s why I’ve always seen running as a fuck-you to death. Running takes the gentle act of walking and dials it up, forcing a greater awareness of breath, sweat, heartbeat, pulse, and muscles. It’s the ability to use your body as a heightened vessel of life. LATER ON I LEARNED that the body I saw belonged to David Buckel, an acclaimed environmental and LGBT-rights attorney. Buckel helped fight the ban on gay participants in the Boy Scouts, vehemently prosecuted on behalf of murder victim Brandon Teena in the case that inspired the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, and had served as a director at Lambda Legal, a pioneering non-profit organisation that promotes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights. He cited other protest suicides in a note, akin to what some monks have done to protest Chinese occupation of Tibet, in his own efforts to raise awareness around the destructive force of fossil fuels. He was trying to demonstrate what he believed fossil fuels are doing to the Earth.
“I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide,” read a handwritten message left at the scene, according to the New York Daily News. “I apologise to you for the mess.”
As much as I respect Buckel’s work and mission, it’s hard for me to see his action as anything beyond a profound act of suffering. As I stood dumbstruck, staring at his corpse on that spring Saturday, I saw an act of defiance, but also a cry against life. I thought of Mary Oliver’s line in Upstream that “the fires that warm us and the fires that scorch us” can be one and the same; I thought of the gentle calm of the candle on my coffee table and the violence of Dante’s Inferno now splayed before me in an otherwise serene park. Eventually I walked away and tried to run again; but a kilometre or two past the body I stopped, as I held back sobs. I inhabited the same park as this man, but it may as well have been a different universe. I thought of the unimaginable amount of pain in his final moments, how it was so far beyond anything in my comprehension.
I made my way home, and slumped, wrung out by emotion, at my desk. I’m a writer by trade, but words often feel inadequate against the forces of darkness that can invade the mind. We can all do better with listening, we can all help people find their tools, be it therapy, writing, exercise, or whatever. I pawed through books, quotes, notes scattered around my flat, hoping that those smarter and wiser than me through the ages could help. That scramble led me to this passage, from a 2015 New York Times op-ed written by Oliver Sacks, one of our greatest poet laureates, on life, death, and the body:
There will be no-one like us when we are gone, but then there is no-one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
No-one lives in our heads but us, a seemingly simple, bare, raw fact that can get lost in the poetry and platitudes. It is necessary for those of us alive and around to let those on the edge know they’d be missed, that they’re worthy of this planet, that we want and need them here.
It can be dangerous to think one can always be a saviour for all who hurt in the world, but at the risk of sounding corny, I do think there’s a valid case to be made for hope: that there is beauty and goodness worth fighting for in this world, even when we’re in our darkest, most threadbare moments. I know that in my life, others have shown it to me, like a flashlight in the face; sometimes without even realising it. The least I can do is try to return the favour.
The next morning, I woke up and I went for a run.
– Mary Pilon, a runner in New York, is the author of The Kevin Show and The Monopolists.
LifeLine can be reached at 0861 322 322, and the SA Depression and Anxiety Group
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