We had a death in the neighborhood yesterday. Actually, we aren’t sure when our neighbor died. It could have been yesterday, but more than likely he had been dead for several days – or more – before being discovered. The last time his neighbor across the street saw him alive was on Thanksgiving. She later became concerned after noticing that his garbage hadn’t been brought curb-side for pick-up and that a flyer hung on his door hadn’t been touched.
We live in a fairly tight-knit neighborhood. We pretty much know everyone up and down both sides of our long block. There are a lot of long-time residents; one or two are the original owners of their late 1950’s era homes. It’s almost impossible to walk from one end of the block to the other without stopping multiple times to chat. It is the type of neighborhood many people want to live in—friendly, sociable, supportive, and connected.
John’s mother was one of those original owners. Before Audrey passed away several years ago, she put the house and a sizable amount of money into a trust for her son. She did this because she knew that John wouldn’t be able to care for himself because of his mental illness. Despite his violent behavior towards her and others, and his pattern of eschewing medication for his bipolar disorder and instead feeding his meth habit, she decided that the best place for her son was in our neighborhood.
Most of the time, we were able to ignore John and his craziness. He could often be seen walking in the area wearing multiple layers of clothing (even in the summer) and large headphones, constantly talking to himself. Other than being odd, he was mostly harmless; he avoided us and we avoided him. Other times, though, he’d become enraged and verbally attacked those who lived around him. He was enough of a threat that a few neighbors took out restraining orders against him. It was not unusual to see several police cars in front of his house. We quickly learned, though, that it’s not possible to force a mentally ill person into treatment if he refuses. Even if he doesn’t have water or gas service because of unpaid bills. Even if it is obvious that his mental and physical health is deteriorating. Even if we think he could be a threat to himself or others. Even if.
John had a sister and two kids from an earlier marriage. All had been victims of his abuse and all had become estranged from him over the years. Once his mother died the only people who “cared” about him were those who could profit from him; the ones who took advantage of his mental state by crashing at his house, eating his food, or selling him drugs.
So, now John is dead and the neighborhood is breathing a sigh of relief. Whether he died of drugs or a heart attack; whether he had been dead one day or six before being found, we’ll probably never know.
What we do know is that he died alone and without a friend in the world. His kids – both now young adults and seemingly reasonably-adjusted – will live with a memory of a father they could never know. They also now have a house to dispose of- the inside of which is probably so disgusting a sane person wouldn’t live there. They have a lot of work ahead of them to get it in any shape to sell.
We are a neighborhood that looks out for one another. We help each other with house and car projects. We celebrate good times together and support each other when bad things happen. But, this one got away from us. We watched helplessly as John’s life careened out of control and spiraled down to its inevitable conclusion.
I admit that I wasn’t sad when I found out that John had died. His pain is over and his neighbors no longer need to be afraid of what he might do. I am sad that we can’t, as a society, do more to aid these tortured souls. Because of lack of funding and a few probably well-intentioned laws that had unintended consequences, we are often helpless to intervene.
I think we can do better.