Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ending alone

This is where our next-door neighbor was fatally injured just before Christmas.

His death was initially mysterious but ultimately just sad, as was much of his life. The final tragedy was his fall (probably) from the slippery roof of his house where he had lived his whole life.

Early that evening, we saw an ambulance and police cars outside, but this wasn't a major concern because we'd seen emergency vehicles over there several times before. This is because Bill called them himself when the voices got too frightening. He took medication for his condition, but sometimes it stopped working, or maybe he stopped taking it. In the past, he went to a hospital for a couple of weeks to stabilize and then returned home.

That night, after the ambulance had taken him away, a policeman came over to ask if we knew of anyone who had a key to his house, which was "like a fortress," he said. That's because Bill was afraid people were trying to kill him. He had an assortment of locks and alarm systems which he often changed. No one seems to have a key to the latest set. Ben cleared his driveway yesterday in preparation for Bill's sister's arrival. We knew when she got here because of the police and fire truck outside their house probably for the last time; they put up ladders and gained entry using the same window through which Bill left his house for the last time.

We knew about Bill's situation when me moved here three and a half years ago, but we weren't concerned for our safety because by all accounts he was harmless. My father knew him for years and hired him to do tree work, had him over for dinner once or twice. When we bought this property, we introduced ourselves and explained our plans for demolishing the house and building a new one. He sometimes came over to chat and see how the work was going, though he was suspicious of the workmen, who he believed were whispering among themselves about plans to have him killed. Bill was never violent -- quite the contrary. His illness made him fear for his own life, plagued by imaginary threats from other neighbors, passing bicyclists, random people.

Despite all this, Bill had friends and a bit of a social life. He was apparently active in the church community, and he would help the elderly neighbor on the other side of us, snow-blowing his driveway and helping him up when he fell outside. The neighbor doesn't need that help any more because he went into an assisted living facility last winter. Bill lost another human connection a few weeks before that when an old friend in the neighborhood passed way.

Just recently, Bill's world got even smaller. The last time I saw him was when he rang our doorbell a couple of weeks ago on a frigid afternoon, asking if we would mind if he put an outgoing letter in our mailbox to be picked up. Of course not, I said, inviting him in for a cup of coffee. He explained that he had ridden his bike to the post office earlier that day to pick up his mail, which was delivered to a P.O. box, but had forgotten to mail this one thing.

I looked up, surprised. "Why would you ride your bike three miles in this weather?" He replied that he had lost his driver's license.

Not wanting to pry but mightily curious -- and almost certain that alcohol wasn't an issue -- I asked what had happened.

"Psychological problems," he said matter-of-factly. "The police were getting tired of me calling them and saying someone was following me."

As he talked about other things, running along the familiar course of speculating who was plotting to kill him, I thought of Bill living alone in his house since his father died a few years ago, his neighborhood friends dwindling, now unable to drive to buy groceries and other stuff he needed, or to get to church or eat at a restaurant. I asked him how he would manage, and he said there was some sort of short-term help from a mental health program run by the state or the town or something.

"Well, I'll let you get back to what you were doing," he said calmly, handing me the empty coffee cup.

I found out later that Meals on Wheels was supposed to start delivering to his house, but he died before that got underway. In our leafy suburb, he had no easy way to go anywhere even if it wasn't bitterly cold. And in what was perhaps the last straw, I learned that shortly before he died, his television has gone on the blink. Who among us would not be driven to despair?

A few days after his visit, Bill called and Ben answered the phone. It was something that didn't make sense, Ben said -- he was calling to see if we were all right because he saw a light on in our house. An hour or two later, he called again. This time I answered, and he said he was checking to see if we were still living here, because people in his basement were saying that we had moved away. One more call came that night. This time it was Ben who reassured him that everything was fine, despite the voices in Bill's back yard shouting that Ben had killed his family.

After all that, it wasn't terribly surprising when we saw the ambulance a few days later. Ben walked over to see what was going on, and one of the policemen said he would stop by later to ask us some questions. Meanwhile, another neighbor called to say the police were spending a lot of time walking around in Bill's front yard, which seemed odd.

Later that evening, the policeman came and asked us about a key to Bill's house, which of course we didn't have. We figured he wouldn't tell us much because of patient privacy laws, and we were right. He would say only that Bill was in a local hospital. He asked if we had seen the name of the locksmith on the side of the truck that had been in Bill's driveway earlier that day, but we hadn't. He asked if we'd noticed anything unusual lately, and we told him about the phone calls, explaining that we were friendly with Bill when we saw him and that we knew his history.

After the cop left, Ben called Bill's sister and left a message. At 11:00 that night, she called back. The ambulance we saw was not taking Bill to a mental hospital, but to an emergency room after he fell off his roof. He died of his injuries a little while before she called, maybe an hour or two after the cop had come to our door.

Only later did we piece together from relatives what happened.  He had called his mental health advocate that afternoon, saying dogs or wolves were chasing him inside his house. Apparently he opened the window that led onto the garage roof and closed it behind him to escape. It had snowed a few days earlier, a dry snow that hadn't melted, so he slipped, most likely. The mental health advocate either sent police to his house after getting the alarming phone call, or they went after Bill set off his burglar alarm by opening the window. He survived the fall with broken ribs, punctured lungs and other injuries, and died that night on the operating table as they tried without success to stop the internal bleeding.

We still have questions. Could we have done something to prevent what happened that day? If it had happened on a weekend, perhaps he would have come over to warm up and get our help, but it was a weekday afternoon when we're all usually at work or school, and he hadn't seen Ben come home early after a doctor's appointment. Should we have called someone after Bill's series of phone calls a few days earlier? And

Bill lived independently and got along pretty well, at least until recently. When he told me about losing his driver's license, it occurred to me that we could help by bringing him groceries or meals, but I hesitated because I was afraid of getting drawn into a role of being his permanent caretaker. So I didn't offer anything other than the usual vague "if there's anything we can do to help" kind of thing.

Now the houses on both sides of us are empty. At some point I expect new neighbors will arrive, and we'll go over with a lasagna they can eat while they unpack, and we'll tell them to be sure to call or drop by and let us know if there's anything we can do to help.

1 comment:

Odie Langley said...

Quite a story and a unique individual for sure. Sorry about his death though. Hopefully your next neighbor will not be so strange.


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