Death of an Amiable Child
Irene Marcuse, June, 2000
As if Monday mornings weren't bad enough, this was the one after the April change to daylight savings time - my least favorite day of the year. I resent the hour they steal from me, and I don't forgive them until the October day they give it back.
I had my keys in the lock going out the door, the strap of my daughter's backpack over one arm. Clea bounced down the hall to the elevator. She was back in two seconds, tugging at my jacket.
"Mama, the lady smells nasty," she whispered.
"What? Did you push the elevator button?"
"I think she peed her pants." Clea tugged again.
Damn. Between Clea's school uniform and grabbing a bagel for the road, we'd actually had a shot at being on time.
"Okay, let's have a look." I sighed
and handed her the backpack. Clea put it on and allowed me to
run my hand over her head to check the cornrows I'd braided yesterday.
The parts were straight; her hair glistened. Being white myself,
I take care that my black child's hair looks good.
The lady is a small, elderly white woman who on occasion spends her nights in our building. We refer to her as 'the lady of the landing' because she sleeps in the 3' by 5' landing where the stairs pause and turn between the 12th floor and the roof. We were used to seeing the small mound of her feet tucked under her coat in the morning. Clea always went up a step or two for a closer look; I always whispered her down. She's like a cat, Clea; if it's there, she has to see, to sniff. But she's only five, and this time she'd sniffed out more than she understood.
Cautious now as a New York child should be, she stayed close to my side. The smell wasn't strong, but she'd got it right: the lady had soiled herself.
"You stay here." I used my no-arguments voice to keep Clea at the foot of the stairs while I went up for a closer look.
The lady's bed, a blue wool blanket folded in half to protect her from the chill of the marble floor, was bunched up near her knees. She lay on her left side, facing the wall under the window. The coat she usually slept under was draped at right angles across her hips, as if a casual hand had wanted to soak up the urine and keep it from spilling down the steps.
One bare foot hung over the top step, toes pointing down. I touched the skin of her calf. It was cold and stiff. I knew there was more wrong with the lady than incontinence.
I closed my eyes for a second and took a deep breath. I'm a social worker. My clients are elderly people, and this wasn't the first time I'd found one of them unexpectedly dead - except this was practically on my doorstep, with my child not ten feet away, and Clea's needs came first.
"The elevator's here!" Clea announced.
"Let it go." My voice was sharper than I intended. When I turned around, Clea's thumb was in her mouth. Her eyes were big, but at least my body was blocking her view.
Okay. I knew what to do, I just had to calm down and re-order my priorities. Not scaring Clea was high on the list. I went down the stairs, picked Clea up and settled her on my hip.
"It's okay, Bopster. The lady's sick. We have to go back inside so I can call an ambulance to take her to the hospital." I carried her back down the hall.
She wrapped her arms around my neck. "Why did she poop in her pants, mama?"
"Remember when you had diarrhea and you couldn't hold it? Sometimes that happens to grown-ups, too." I unlocked the door, deposited Clea on the couch and turned on the TV. "Look, there's Mr. Rogers. I'm going to help the lady. I'll be right back."
Clea took a bite of her bagel, her eyes already
tuned to her television neighbor. I went out and locked the door
behind me. I didn't want Clea wandering out into the hall.
Our building is an old co-op on 111th Street, with no doorman to keep uninvited visitors out. The hallways have the feel of a noir movie, the floor a linoleum checkerboard of square tiles in black flecked with grey and grey flecked with black. Fixtureless fluorescent lights give a greenish cast to the pale grey walls, the darker grey doors. A patch of early sun from the east window above the landing where the lady lay added a gracenote of natural light. The closed doors of my neighbors exuded silence as usual at this time of day.
The lady of the landing had been sleeping in the stairwell on and off for several months. She was a constant rebuke to me, a reminder of the limits of my profession and my ability to help those who might need, but were unwilling to accept, my assistance. If we saw her when she was awake, as we occasionally did in the evenings when she entered the building, she refused to speak to me. Clea might get a half-smile, but that was it.
I knew only her first name, Lillian, because my elderly neighbors, the Wilcox sisters, provided the blanket she slept on. I'd tried to talk with her, to find out why she was homeless and where she spent her other nights. Lillian met all my overtures with silent resistance, until finally I got the message and stopped trying to provide assistance where it wasn't wanted. Social work has its guidelines, and chief among them is the right of client self-determination. Where I work, our clients come to us voluntarily; if someone doesn't want our services, we can't force the issue.
As the months went on, I started thinking of her more as a neighbor than a client; she was always clean and unobtrusive, never spoke unless spoken to. Apartment dwellers coexist, exchange pleasantries in the halls, pretend not to know more than we're told. Although I kept a professional eye out for her, I allowed her the respectful privacy due a neighbor. I'd made myself available; Lillian knew she could ask me if she ever needed help.
I paused at the foot of the stairs, breathed in social worker, breathed out neighbor. Anyone who works with the elderly encounters death, sometimes closely. In my two years at Senior Services, I've found the bodies of three people who died in their apartments, two others who survived more than a day on the floor before being rescued. Unpleasant doesn't begin to describe the experience. I've had to learn a measure of professional detachment in order to respond with practical efficiency.
I climbed seven of the eight steps to the landing, trying to ignore the smell. I put one knee down on the landing and leaned over for a closer look. I had enough experience to know that amount of blood does not necessarily correspond to severity of injury, but - I had to back away. I raised my head to the window, the bright blue sky. I took a few shallow breaths to regain my composure before I looked down again.
There appeared to be an injury of some sort just above her right ear. A dark clot of blood was matted in her white hair. Dried blood was smeared around her shoulder, on her right hand, streaked like rouge across her cheek. Her nose had bled, leaving brown rivulets in the wrinkles around her mouth. Her head rested in a sticky maroon stain.
Her eyes were open, staring at the wall.
I reached for her arm, prepared for it to resist being moved, but instead it was limp, heavy, cold to the touch. I slid two fingers under her wrist, feeling for a pulse. The thing that distinguishes death from sleep is stillness, a halo of silence that surrounds a body when it's no longer breathing. Death may be hard to comprehend, but there's no mistaking it. The lady of the landing was dead.
I tried to remember the last time I'd seen her. Not yesterday evening when we'd come home around six; maybe Saturday - yes, around midnight. My husband, Benno, and I had gotten a baby-sitter and gone to the movies.
When we came down the block towards home, we noticed her ahead of us, drifting down 111th St. like a wraith in her black wool coat and old-fashioned black felt cloche. She bent to unlock the door and gave a quick glance over her shoulder before slipping into the building. We hung back, giving her time to get in ahead of us. She was proud; if we'd come in with her, she would have walked the twelve flights up rather than ride the elevator with us.
Now her clothing lay in a pile between her body and the wall, as if the same careless hand that had draped her coat over her hips had shaken the garments out before dropping them. On top of the heap were her hat and her white cotton gloves, one thumb and an index finger mended with precise stitches of black thread.
She was wearing a slip, yellowed satin with a band of lace at the neckline. The strap of a brassiere bagged underneath. Lillian had been on the emaciated side in life; in death she seemed already skeletal. Her skin was dry, waxy; her shoulder, elbow, ankles were knobs of bone barely covered by shiny skin.
Her right leg stuck straight out, the toes pointing into the corner. Between the puddle of black clothing and her foot were a pair of shoes, patent leather with a small bow of grosgrain ribbon. The stockings she tucked neatly into each shoe had been removed and lay crumpled in a fold of blanket. Next to the pile of clothing was a brass key with a spade-shaped head, like the key to our building. It was threaded onto a chain, a string of little metal beads like the cord to a light-pull.
I backed down the stairs, leaned against the wall, and tried to get a grip. Neighbor and potential client, I'd felt a responsibility to Lillian. Keeping elderly people out of nursing homes is a major part of my job. I arrange for the services they need to live as independently as possible in their own apartments - cleaning, shopping, home health aide, transportation, medical care.
I stared at the grey wall, told myself there was no way I could have known she would die here. I'd done all I thought I could do at the time. If Lillian believed sleeping in a stairwell was better than being institutionalized, well, it had been her decision to make. I knew I was rationalizing. Her death upset me, shook my confidence in my ability to correctly assess and respond to a client. A fellow human being.
I became a social worker when I already had a fair amount of life experience behind me. What I learned in grad school, besides how to make it look good on paper, was to recognize an emotional reaction and not let it interfere with the needs of a client. Of course, the hardest thing for a person in the mental health field to do is apply professional expertise to personal situations - take the divorced marriage counselor. Here I was, facing a situation I would have handled competently if it arose in the course of my job. On my own doorstep, I was behaving like an amateur.
I'm experienced with the drill: police; EMS;
official determination of death; undertaker or morgue; next of
kin tracked down and notified. It was time to get going. Familiar
as the routine of unexpected death was, it still made for a rough
Clea was mind-melded to the TV. I don't usually like to use the electronic baby-sitter, but at the moment it was a blessing. Her eyes barely flicked in my direction when I came in.
I washed my hands, twice, and put on rose-scented hand lotion to counter the smell of Lillian's body. It did nothing to erase the taste of death from the back of my throat.
I took the cordless phone into the bedroom and called, in this order, my husband, my job, the Super, and 911. I wanted to get Clea out of the way before official business of unexpected death got underway, and a few more minutes wouldn't matter to Lillian.
Benno, a self-employed cabinet maker, has a shop near Canal Street. Riding the red heartline of the 7th Avenue IRT, he'd be home in half an hour. I knew the police would want to talk to me, and I figured it would be better if Clea went to work with him rather than being late to school after the tragedy in the hall.
My job was no problem. Lillian's death qualified as a client emergency, so instead of being late I was actually signing in early.
The lengthiest call was to the Super, Barbara Baker, who lives in the basement apartment. Barbara's forty-four, two years and two days older than I am. She's the first friend I made when I moved to New York, still my closest friend, the person who taught me to cornrow Clea's hair.
"Hey, Anita, what are you doing home at this hour?" Barbara said.
I told her. She clicked her tongue at the news.
"That's a hard way to go, alone like that. I told you she would've been better off - "
"You don't have to rub it in, I feel bad enough. I can't imagine what happened to her. I honestly thought she was safe here, at least I could keep an eye on her."
"Well, you did your best, you and your soft heart. Me, you'd think I would have listened to the people who pay my salary but no, Protective Services turned her down, so I had to get filled with the spirit of Christian charity. You see where acting from your heart gets you? But what an awful thing to happen."
At one point, I'd called in PSA, Protective Services for Adults, the agency of last resort. As far as they were concerned, while Lillian may have been a nuisance to the building she was a danger neither to herself nor to others, so they declined her case.
"It's my fault, Barbara, not yours. I should have tried harder to get her to trust me so I could find out why she was here in the first place. Even the police couldn't keep her away for long. I don't think anything short of hiring a night guard would have worked."
"Yeah, right, I forgot, I'm a Super, not a doorman. I got blamed for her being here in the first place, Anita, you think now she's dead they won't find a way to blame me for that, too? You watch." Barbara hung up the phone.
New York-born, Harlem-bred, Barbara has an excellent grasp of building politics. She's lived here for decades; her husband was the Super until he had a heart attack last summer. Although the co-op's Board of Directors voted unanimously to give her the job, Barbara is now at the mercy of a newly-elected Board whose current president is opposed to a woman Super.
I dialed 911. After I gave the preliminary information, the neutral, unshockable voice put me on hold. The first time this happened to me, I was appalled: even 911 makes you wait! But I learned that the dispatcher was relaying the initial call to police and EMS, and would get back to me for details. 911 came back on the line. I went through it all again and was informed that the ambulance would be there in approximately fifteen minutes.
I put the phone down. This was life imitating work. I sometimes think I spend half my time on the phone; they should give social workers phone implants along with our MSWs.
Mr. Rogers' voice still soothed from the living room. I joined Clea on the couch and opened my arms for her to climb into my lap. I sniffed her little-girl smell, part hair cream, part milk. Whatever had happened to Lillian, I wanted to keep it from touching Clea's world. Mr. Rogers said he wished he had a neighbor just like me, closed his door, and disappeared into TV land. Clea graced me with a piece of her attention.
"What happened to the lady?" she wanted to know.
"You were very smart to see that something was wrong. The lady's sick, and an ambulance is coming to take her to the hospital. I called Dad, and he's coming home." Clea's still young enough to be distracted away from a subject I'm not ready to discuss. "Since you'd be very late for school, we thought you could go to the shop with him instead. Does that sound like a plan?"
"Okay. Can I go see the lady in the hospital? I'll bring her a bear to make her feel better."
So much for changing the subject.
"That's a good idea Bopster, but she's not ready for visitors yet." Along with smiles, the lady of the landing favored Clea with an occasional gift - a stuffed cat left by the door, a chocolate bunny from Mondel's. Clea was about to launch another question when Sesame Street came to the rescue. She wiggled out of my arms and turned her attention back to the set. I sighed. Just as well she was absorbed again.
Benno's keys jingled against the door. Clea was off the couch and swarming up his legs before he could get inside. "Daddy, Daddy, the lady pooped her pants and I smelled it!"
I couldn't help it; I laughed. It was either that or cry, I was so relieved to see Benno. He put his arms around me. I rested my head on his shoulder, Clea sandwiched between us.
But only for a minute. The wail of sirens rose from the street and brought her squirming out of our embrace and over to the window. She struggled to push it up so she could see out past the child safety guards. Clea loves action, any kind of action; sirens and flashing lights put her into ecstasy. Her heart's desire is to ride in an ambulance.
"Are they taking the lady to the hospital? Can I go with her? Please, Mama, please, I'll be quiet and I won't get in the way!"
I opened the window and lifted her up for a better view. It was a police car, not an ambulance.
"No, Bopster, you can't go to the hospital. Dad's taking you to the shop, remember?" Her little head drooped with disappointment.
"Come on, chief assistant cabinetmaker, we'd better get you out of those school clothes and into overalls." Benno took her hand to lead her into the bedroom and winked at me over his shoulder. Clea wouldn't stay down long.
I kissed him through the air and went out to
I recognized the pair of uniformed cops who got out of the car; they'd responded on two of the other occasions I'd called 911 after finding a client's body. Growing up in Berkeley, California, I learned to have a healthy disrespect for the guardians of law and order. Inez Collazo, a petite Puerto Rican woman with a wad of honey-colored hair tucked under her cap, and her green-eyed Irish partner, Michael Dougherty, however, were both sensitive and smart. Seeing them gave me hope that the morning would be manageable.
"Hey, it's the social worker," Dougherty stepped out of the elevator. "This another one of yours?"
"No, this is personal. I live here."
"She live here too?" Dougherty climbed a few steps up for a better view. "What's her name?" He pulled his pad out of his back pocket and flipped it open.
"As far as I know, she's homeless. Sometimes she spends the night here. I think her first name is Lillian."
Michael frowned. "So what's she doing sleeping in your stairwell?"
"I don't know, Michael. Maybe she thought it was safer than a shelter."
"Yeah, right," Michael snorted. "Looks like she was pretty safe here, don't it? How long's she been making her home on the stairs?"
"All winter. She started out downstairs in the vestibule, between the two doors, until they installed a second intercom and put a lock on the outer door to keep her out."
"Doesn't look like it worked. What a town, little old ladies sleeping wherever they feel like it. How come you people don't have a doorman?" Michael glared at me like it was my fault.
"This isn't the East Side, or West End Avenue. Besides, where would we put a doorman?" It's a small building, as New York apartment houses go - twelve floors, four apartments per; forty-nine units, counting the Super in the basement. We don't have a real lobby, just an alcove for mailboxes next to the elevator on the first floor.
"How did she get into the building?" Inez asked.
"She used to slip in behind a sympathetic resident."
"Such as yourself," Michael put in.
"Yes, I was one of the ones who let her in. Some people slammed the door in her face. Go ahead, sue me. I give money to homeless people on the street, too, and I don't care what they spend it on, either."
"A regular charity ward," Michael muttered. "She take her own clothes off, or we dealing with a sex crime here?" He used his pen to gently raise the coat covering Lillian's torso. He bent over for a look, winced, let the coat fall. "Looks like she's still got underpants on."
"She used to undress and sleep under her coat." The possibility that Lillian had been raped was not one I wanted to entertain.
"No one ever tried to get rid of her? Called the police to evict her?"
"Of course we did, but you know how it goes. About a month ago, I heard a commotion in the hall. When I came out she was screaming 'Get your hands off me, you Nazis, don't you touch me!' She calmed down when she saw me, but two of your colleagues had her in handcuffs. They said she resisted arrest by kicking at them. A little old lady in a shabby slip, mad because they woke her up in the middle of the night. What danger was she?"
"Cops don't like to be called Nazis. Was she Jewish?" Michael asked.
I had to think about it. "I suppose she could have been." I know, it's a stereotype, but I don't think of Jewish people as being homeless. "Some cops give people reason, you know. She had her clothes all neatly folded and her stockings rolled up in her shoes, but they wouldn't let her get dressed while they waited for EMS to take her to the psych ER at Bellevue. Their attitude was, EMS'll wrap her in a blanket. Which they did, and three days later she was back again."
I'd made a dozen calls to Bellevue, but it's next to impossible to get information on someone in a psych unit unless you're a family member or have the person's consent. I was about to make a trip over there when Lillian showed up again.
"So how come you people let her sleep here?" Michael asked.
"I didn't 'let' her do anything. She didn't want my help, Bellevue didn't think she was incapacitated enough for them to keep her, and whatever she told Protective Services made them decline her case. I figured she was okay here, at least I could watch out for her . . ." I stopped. I liked Michael in spite of himself, although at the moment he wasn't doing much for my opinion of cops. "I know, I should have done more. But what? Old people can be awfully stubborn."
"You were the one who called it in?" Thank you, Inez.
"My daughter noticed the smell, then I went up and found her." I put a hand on Inez's arm. "You won't have to ask Clea any questions, will you? She didn't see anything."
"Where is she now?" Inez asked.
"In the apartment, with my husband. He's getting her stuff together to take her back to work with him."
"Back to work?" Dougherty looked down at me. "He's been out already?"
"Yeah, he leaves about 7:00. I called him to come home for Clea."
"He didn't notice the deceased at that time?" Dougherty wrinkled his nose and added, "He didn't smell the deceased?"
Inez took a turn up the stairs to look at Lillian. "This lady does not appear to have died peacefully in her sleep. I wonder what's taking EMS so long?"
"No hurry to pronounce her, is there?" Michael said.
"Anita, do you know anything about this key?" Inez asked.
"I think it's the front door key for the building. What do you think happened to her?"
"She didn't live here, why did she have a key?" Inez didn't let me divert her.
"To get in?" I offered.
Michael was not amused. "This isn't a game, Anita. Did you give it to her?"
"No, someone in the building might have, but it wasn't me."
"But you know who did." I was on the receiving end of a double-barreled cop stare.
The Wilcox sisters, feeders of parakeets and pigeons, had taken Lillian under their wings as well. They hung a plastic shopping bag with the blue wool blanket on their doorknob every evening; Lillian returned it the following morning. I assumed they'd given her the key as well, but I didn't know for sure.
The elevator door opened. The EMS crew, two young white guys carrying a body board, shouldered their way into the hall and saved me from ratting on my neighbors.
Michael held up a hand. "Nezzie, we need
to get a detective over here. Maybe you could use Anita's phone,
talk to her family while you're at it?"
We caught Benno and Clea on their way out of the apartment. In honor of the occasion, Clea had put on her official souvenir MTA bus driver's hat. The beads on her cornrows gave it a festive fringe of pink, purple, blue.
Inez, disregarding the danger of overbalancing from the nightstick, gun, handcuffs, radio, extra ammunition, and flashlight attached to her belt, squatted down to Clea's level and saluted her.
Clea saluted back, in her glory at having the undivided attention of a real police officer. "Do you shoot people with that gun?" she asked.
"No, sweetie, I never have." Fortunately, Inez laughed. "Did you notice anything about the lady besides how she smelled?"
"She had pink polish on her toes," Clea said.
It amazes me every time. Clea sees the details, things you wouldn't expect to even register with a child. For all my careful examination of Lillian, I hadn't caught the painted toenails. But then, Clea is a nail polish expert. My friend Janis favors elaborate manicures, to the delight of Clea's little girl soul. When she comes over Clea greets her with fingers spread wide. Janis obliges with the color of her desire - hot pink, purple, black sparkles for Halloween.
"That's very good, sergeant," Inez congratulated her. "I think we'll have to promote you to detective!"
"Can I have a badge?" Clea pressed her advantage.
We all laughed. Clea got shy and hid her face in my pants.
Inez turned to Benno. "You didn't notice anything when you left this morning?"
"No, I wasn't really paying attention. Catherine Wilcox was just coming out of the elevator with her coffee, and I held the door for her. I was in a hurry, and she can go on."
Catherine is the younger sister, all of 78. Every morning on the dot of 7:00 she makes a run to the Mill Luncheonette for two containers of coffee, two buttered rolls, and the Times.
Clea pulled at my hand, wanting a closer look at the paramedics' gear. I picked her up and handed her over to Benno. "EMS is here, maybe you should get Clea out of the way while they're . . . " blocking the view of what's on the landing, I finished the sentence silently. The last thing I wanted was for Clea to get another glimpse of Lillian.
Benno picked Clea up. "What do you say,
kid? Let's blow this popsicle stand."
Michael held the elevator door so Benno could carry Clea quickly past the stairs. The two men exchanged a look, sizing each other up. Michael was taller, but Benno had him beat in the chest department. Michael let it go first, with a smile, and the testosterone level in the hallway dropped. Men.
I stepped into the elevator and adjusted Clea's hat. "Be good for daddy now, Sergeant Servi," I told her.
Benno stroked my hair back off my face. His hands are like oven mitts, quilted with pads of muscle. "You be careful, Anita of my heart." He pulled me in for a kiss. I wanted to stay with him, to let the elevator transport me back to a place where the lady of the landing was still alive and I could still help her.
I planted a quick one on Clea's cheek instead and backed out of the elevator. Benno pushed M and the door closed. Through the little round window, I watched my family disappear. My heart felt like it was descending with them.