Some of us saw or heard the news item, but most of us probably didn’t. And sadly, it likely didn’t matter all that much; where one disaster fails to reach us, dozens of others race to fill the small void in our mortality ledgers. These are not the violent stories that dominate the front page and resound over vast stretches of the global ethnic and religious landscape. These are the stories that run unaccompanied by photos, in spare columns deep in the paper, the small bursts of danger and demise that form the background pattern of modern life. We read them all the time, not closely, but with an eye for any familiar details—a name, an age, a location. The victims are almost uniformly anonymous, our six degrees of separation stretched into double figures. We read their sad reports and shuffle on. We adapt to this hyperawareness of tragedy the same way we adapt to wallpaper.
But this one small story stuck with me because even in scant form it tapped into a fear so basic that it has commanded human dreams for millennia, and projected me for a woozy split second alongside its unknown subject. A man working on a bridge was missing after a scaffold collapse threw him into the Detroit River. He was missing and presumed dead, the bland verbs that so often take the eraser to humanity. He was introduced to us as Mr. Fill-in-the-blank, the space filler or sound bite who allowed us to be glad we weren’t him.
But he was a man, and even as he dropped into what the rest of us perceive as two-dimensional oblivion, he doubtless behaved like one. He fell, like any of us would have, with a head full of unexpressed opinions, with the still unresolved images of an Iraqi mass grave flickering in his retina, with curiosity about next week’s football picks. Ill-prepared for the closing moment, his mind might have grabbed the hook of an old hit by Eric Burdon and War, or worried about whether he given the family dog his scheduled dose of heartworm medicine.
A terrible eagerness would have fit somewhere in his descent, the need to do something crippled by an instinct turning blank. This might have brought him quickly before the altar of his faith, faith that—all the years of his training and practice notwithstanding—would now be harshly focused on some God who wouldn’t blow the punch line of the joke he found himself falling into. And perhaps, having registered the quick blip of his remaining will, he would have felt a sudden, insatiable appetite for the warmth of his wife and the loopy love of his children. He would have wanted to unite them for a single, endless moment that he could start but not finish.
All those years logging in survival on the good side of the line, miles distant from any fate that would cause him to shrink to a small statistic in a few blinks. Those years, with their weight, their rhythm, and their richness all now falling more slowly than the mass of his body, being left behind in the air. Everything he knew, he saw, he felt or tasted. Everything he ever wanted, or obtained, or forgot. Everything he ever dreamed of. His identity being stripped in the wind, so that when he hit the water like an ornament on a brick floor, it was already gone.
Unfinished, those tatters in the wind. Left to flutter into the hands of the rest of us, to do something decent with on this side of the line. So that if he, the man, remains unnamed, at least we have honored his brief and anonymous journey through our attention. And possibly, we have found some small ease for the terrible eagerness that we the living can’t avoid, even over here on the good side of the line. That single, endless moment—it belongs to us now.