As I approached the intersection I noticed two police cars parked on the bridge across the street. "Crime Scene" tape blocked the sidewalk so I crossed to the other side of the street and then crossed to the bridge. A crowd was gathering above the stream and curiosity got the best of me. Once past the police cars and crime tape, I jogged across to where others were standing. A small group of smokers leaned along the railing looking into the stream. I asked one woman what was going on and she gestured with her cigarette, "there's a body in the water." I looked, while dodging the smoke that drifted towards me. Sure enough, there was a body in the water.
If I had seen it on my own it would have taken a few minutes to recognize what I was seeing. It was face down, snagged in a tree limb that had washed down stream in the fullness of the spring current. I noticed that the back was broad and commented, "It looks like a man;" the woman gestured again pointing out that it was only wearing a "G-string." Sure enough, there was a thong. It was then that I fully realized that the body was naked, except for the thong, and that the pale grey color was actually skin and the broad back was the result of bloating.
I left the smokers and walked around the park imagining life-stories that would end with a body naked, bloated, snagged on a tree limb in a foot of water. Was she a hooker? A drug addict? A run-away. Did anyone miss her? Had her life been considered disposable by others? How does a person end up this way?
Headed back to work I saw that the group was still gathered so I stopped to see if they knew anymore. By now the stench of death hung heavily in the air. I wanted to get away from it, but that seemed disrespectful. I got to the railing just as the firemen climbed into the water with the yellow body bag. They struggled to free the body from the tree limb and eventually flopped it into the bag. I noticed that the arms and legs were thin; I couldn't see a head. The woman next to me declared, "It doesn't have a head!"
Back in the office I checked the "Statesman Journal" online for an article about the dead body. The same day a man drowned in the Clackamas river and that was reported, but nothing about my dead body.
It wasn't until the early hours of the next morning when I woke in the dark and pictured the body that I felt at all creepy about it. And only for a minute. Mostly I felt sadness, curiosity, fascination and an odd sense of honor. I felt honored to have been able to witness this person's end. I felt like I wanted to extend some sort of respect and dignity to whoever it was. I wanted their life to have mattered in some way, to someone. I didn't want them to be forgotten. I'll never forget.
The next afternoon there was finally a story in the paper. It turns out the body was a man. So much for assuming that only women wear thongs. He was described as 5' 6" and 144 pounds. Much smaller than he appeared while bloated. That explained the thin limbs. The description said he had no teeth. Which means he DID have a head. There was no physical trauma to the body so homicide was not suspected. So much was different than what I thought I had observed from only a few feet away. The police asked for help identifying him as he did not match any missing person reports. They thought he had been in the water "for some time." I was sad. How could you be dead for "some time," and not have anyone file a missing person report?
By the next day he had been identified. He was a 28 year old transient. His name was Lole Rubio Zendejas. His family came forward based on the description and the police were able to get a fingerprint. He had a long rap sheet and had a reputation for jumping into this same stream to get away from the police. He had been a drug addict.
Many would probably lose interest at this point. A homeless druggie, oh well. The news stories focused on the irony that he had used the stream to evade police. But I thought about his mother, and his sisters, and his cousin who was quoted in the paper talking about how they had played as kids. At some point in his life he had been loved and cared for. But by the age of 28 he had been given up on. He was homeless; how does that happen unless your family has given up? His cousin said that he thought he had been clean for 7 months. What happened? Did he use again and just go for broke and this is how it ended?
It has been a week now and I continue to think about him throughout the day. Life is precious in many ways. But it can end so easily. I place such value on the lives of those I love, and on my own life. Safety, health and exercise are priorities to me because I want to care for my body. I want to live a long life. I think about how I spend my time and whether or not I will make a positive contribution to this world. But life can be taken from us so easily.
Our bodies are just shells that house our spirits for a time. This thing that we groom and dress up and fuss over is temporary. Under the best of circumstances it will age, get wrinkly and spotted; flesh will sag and hair will turn grey. Many are taken before their bodies deteriorate.
What I saw in the water was not Lole Rubio Zendejas. It was just a body. I hope that his spirit has found some peace and that his family will sense that.