I was just getting home Saturday night when the phone rang. I didn’t know the number, so I almost didn’t answer.
A woman identified herself, but the name meant nothing to me. She told me I might not remember her, but she said we used to talk at a restaurant where I used to go — a place that shut down last year. She was an employee there and she used to come sit and talk when things were slow.
After she reminded me, I did remember her, but I never would have recalled her name. I haven’t seen her for a couple of years and I doubt she’s crossed my mind since then. I was confused about why she was calling and how she even found me.
She explained that I had once given her my business card — which had my name and number — and she had somehow saved it. Then she sounded nervous, as though she wasn’t quite sure what to say.
“You saved my life,” she finally said. “I just wanted to thank you for that.”
I had no idea what she was talking about, but she explained.
She told me that when I knew her, she was depressed and she felt lost in life. I remembered that, but I didn’t know how severe it had been. She said that when I knew her, she had been making plans to kill herself.
She wasn’t going to tell anybody. It wasn’t a cry for help. She was just going to leave a note explaining who should get her material possessions — and then she was going to jump from the top floor of a parking deck downtown. She said she had it all planned and was calmly preparing for the day.
I never knew any of that, but she said I’m the one who made her believe that her life had value — and that her life was worth living. She had quit her job shortly after that and made a lot of changes in her life. Nobody else ever knew that she had come so close to suicide.
I wish I could tell you that I remember the details of what I said to this woman, but I don’t. I remember that she was very unhappy. I can remember having some emotionally intense conversations with her. But I don’t remember what I said.
She told me she now lives in Atlanta. She was back in Birmingham this weekend because her father was killed in an accident earlier this week and his funeral was Friday. She’s still at her family home this weekend — and she found my card among the things she didn’t take with her.
“If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t have been here for my mom this week,” she said. “Dealing with the pain of my dad’s death really brought home how much it would have hurt him if I’d died like that. He and I used to be really close and I understand now how much pain he would have gone through if I had … well … you know.”
It had been a short conversation, but she was running out of things to say.
“So I just wanted to thank you for saving my life,” she said. “I will always appreciate you for your wisdom and for your empathy for me … and I just wanted you to know that.”
After we got off the phone, I sat there thinking about all she had said.
I had never known that she needed to be rescued. I never knew how much she needed help. And then it occurred to me that there are people all around us who need to be rescued — and we rarely know, because we mostly hide our deepest needs.
I’m at a place in my life at which I need someone to rescue me, too. I’m not going to kill myself. And if nobody rescues me, nobody will know any different. I’ll keep living my life the same way I am now. But I’m slowly dying on the inside and if nothing changes, I’ll live a fairly empty life for the decades to come. I’ve been pretty open about how miserable I am.
There’s no secret about what I need. It’s love and companionship and understanding and family. It’s things I’ve been trying to find for a long time. If I’m lucky, I’ll randomly meet the right person at some point — someone who will say and do the right things. Someone whose love will help save my life.
It’s easy for me to know my own needs, but I wonder how many people around me have deeply painful needs that I don’t know about. This woman did, even if I never knew how deep her needs went.
There’s nothing wrong with having needs. There’s nothing wrong with being troubled and alone. There’s nothing wrong with feeling the desire to end a painful life. I think each one of us has times when we reach the bottom — times when we need someone to come along and save our life.
Humans are intensely social creatures. We need each other more than we sometimes realize. And sometimes, just believing in someone and in that person’s value can be enough. No matter what it takes, we can all rescue others at one time or another, if our hearts are open.
We can all save the lives of hurting people, even if we don’t really understand what we’ve done.