It came in as a possible overdose.
In a lonely farmhouse on the outskirts of a tiny hamlet.
There was an old man there when I arrived. He was anxious and fidgeted and kept looking back at the house. Two volunteer first responders were outside as well, though they looked a little unsure of themselves.
The old man started talking and eventually his words tripped over his sobs. All I could understand was that he was 85 years old and he was the caretaker.
Eighty-five. And he’s the caretaker.
I left him outside and as I headed inside, I realized there are actually four EMTs and they were rotating in and out.
And when I got in, I realized why.
I am not Pollyanna. I do not play the Glad Game. I have seen poverty and pain and even madness in my life.
I have seen houses with holes in the walls that let in the outside world. I’ve seen shacks with tarpaper roofs. I’ve seen trailers with bits of discarded plywood held up with tape to cover a window. Hell, when I was little, I even played in an abandoned house of the type that we would now call a crack house.
I’ve smelled cars that have housed whole families for days at a time; a Blazer that housed three idiot teenagers for four days during an ill-advised road trip from Denver to New York that limped to a stop in town. I’ve smelled animals, dead and nearly-so, and I’ve smelled people, dead and nearly so.
But until that moment, when I stepped into this woman’s world, I had never even imagined a world like that could exist.
Try as I might, I will never be able to explain that house. I will never be able to get you to smell the ammonia so deeply that you almost taste it on your tongue; or realize the other stench was feces and again, you could almost taste it.
I am not writer enough to put the stink of the cats and dogs and her own excreta and body stench and rotted food in your clothes and nose the way it was in mine for days. And you’ll never understand how the reek of booze was foundational to every odor in the place, as though it were the concrete slab upon which the house was built.
I simply can not write that well.
She sat in an easy chair in the living room, a cat on her lap, two at her feet, and three small dogs on the couch. The room had no light, though there was a broken TV. Every inch of walking space was covered with cat or dog feces while every inch of every bit of furniture was covered in romance novels or hundreds of empty wine bottles.
And what I thought at the time, swear to God, was: “Well, at least she doesn’t drink her wine from a box…that would really be low-class.”
This poor woman, who looked nearly 100 years old, was barely 61. In between heavy, hard gasps for air, she managed to tell me she hadn’t eaten in five days. No wonder, as there was nothing edible in the house.
Which isn’t to say there wasn’t food.
But food almost wouldn’t have mattered because there was no place for it. No counter top to prepare it, no table upon which to eat it. All those spaces were covered in crap and filth the likes of which still leave me mumbling in shock. The dishes in the sink were covered with I have no idea how many months of crust.
The old man told me he checked on her twice a week and that she was a boozer and pill popper. His words. He showed me two pill bottles that had held 60 pills each and had been refilled on January 4. Both were generics for pain pills and both were empty when I arrived on January 12.
Eight days…120 pain pills.
But she swore to me she hadn’t taken any in a few days.
So…120 pills in…what…four days? Five days?
The EMTs finally got her out of the chair and she was pantless. In white underwear that was dulled down to gray and stained with a rainbow of yellows and browns and blacks. How much was hers and how much was the animals’ I have no idea.
Eventually, the EMTs got her on a backboard and rushed her off to the hospital. I think at that point, everyone knew she hadn’t overdosed that day but that she desperately needed medical help.
Over the next few days, I spoke with the old man a number of times. I asked about her income (trying to decide if someone was taking a Social Security check and cashing it, then doling out ten or fifteen bucks to her to live on) and about family or friends.
He said she had a few bucks a month from an ex husband but that was it. She had had some money – had been a senior X-ray tech at Cook County Hospital, in fact. But that it was mostly gone. He gave her a few bucks every week and took her to eat sometimes.
She had been ambulatory, he said, until the last week or so. In fact, she had driven him around until the end. Her family – and sister and a daughter – and he had tried to get her to move to a larger town or to move in with someone, or just get the place cleaned up. They had tried to get her into rehab for the booze and pills but as with everything else, she had refused.
This was, he said, her choice.
I worked for three days trying to find a state agency to take wardship of this woman who obviously couldn’t take care of herself. To get that done, part of what I needed to know was when she left the hospital.
She never had.
She had exploratory surgery. During that, the doctors saw her colon was completely dead and had been for some time. They sewed up back up and made her as comfortable as they could.
She died a couple days later.
Back at her house, where the old man was taking care of her cats, dogs, and a beautiful horse in the barn until the family decided what to do, I found a handwritten note. In it, she talked about how sad she was at how her life turned out. She wrote about ups and downs and who she loved and not loved enough.
But she also wrote about the end of her life. She wanted, she wrote, no extraordinary measures taken to save her.
“Consider this my DNR,” she wrote.
Do Not Resuscitate.
And I found out she hadn’t paid the electric bill that last month.
It had been an overdose and a suicide. It just hadn’t happened the day I found her. It had been happening for days, maybe weeks – maybe a lifetime – before that.