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What good neighbors should (or shouldn’t) do

Rusty* was a likeable guy.

He attended neighborhood parties. He had another group of friends he met every morning for coffee. Always ready to chat, he could often be seen at the side of the road, talking with neighbors and passersby. Youngish women seemed especially fond of him, and he of them. If you needed a hand, he was there to lend it.

Rusty was also smart.

Clear into his 80s he had a sharp mind, a good sense of humor, and an awareness of the larger world. In his past, he’d been a private pilot, a small-boat oceangoing sailor, and a successful vinyardist.

Did he have his quirks? Oh yeah. But then, who doesn’t? Like a lot of single guys (no offense) he seemed a bit of a slob. His yard was littered with old cars, motorcycles, and equipment. Over the years at various times he raised bees, chickens, rabbits, ducks, geese, goats, and what he called “free-range dogs” — none of which were scrupulously tended and some of which got him in trouble either with the law or with people who lived nearby. Those younger women he attracted were often addicts who took advantage of his goodwill.

But Rusty was normal.

Then Rusty got sick and before the neighborhood could organize a rota for meal deliveries, he died. He died alone in his house. A young neighbor woman, accompanied by cops, had to break in to discover his (fortunately fresh) remains.

He died amid the shocking physical mess I blogged about last week and left every other kind of mess, besides. Who’s his next of kin and how do we locate them? Who’s responsible for his animals? Who actually owns his house (some odd under-the-table arrangement, apparently)? Is there a will? No. Any directives for disposing of his remains or holding a funeral? Of course not.

Thanks to the way our neighborhood works — and thanks primarily to Neighbor J, a professional researcher — the most immediate needs were swiftly taken care of. Neighbor J tracked down a brother and a long-lost son and notified them. With the help of the local Dog Whisperer, I got the dogs and took them to Furrydoc (two are now resting on my couch, one is being trained by the Dog Whisperer, and the fourth got a sadly overdue euthanasia and a loving burial by J and her son). Somebody put yellow tape across the driveway. Locks are being changed and windows boarded up.

And — again because of how our neighborhood and this small town work — nearly everything is being done spontaneously by people on our street (who are either coordinating with distant relatives and local police or simply telling them after the fact what we’ve done).

Life moves on, though the poor next-of-kin are going to be dealing with the mess for months and probably years. Because Rusty’s place is a super-sturdy old farmhouse it may not have to be burned down, but it will at least have to be cleaned by professionals in hazmat suits — once law and custom determine who’s responsible for cleaning it.


Nobody, except perhaps the coroner, knows what Rusty died of. Something swift and infectious probably. He had also become thin and pale in the last year, so who knows?

But in the week before his body was found we do know he turned off his phone, refused to let anyone help him, and talked only to one person through his front door.

Neighbor J and I first guessed that Rusty, independent soul that he was, knew he was dying and wanted to be left in peace, and without being beholden to anyone. That’s a respectable choice. Wouldn’t we all like to go on our own terms when our time comes — especially if the alternative is our current invasive and inhumane medical system?

After our initial shock, we were mostly upset because, if that were Rusty’s choice, he shouldn’t have left such a mess for others to deal with (and this was before anybody knew about the literal mess in the house). He should have prepared. Left instructions. Given the dogs a way to get out of the house or put them in someone’s care.

Then that one-and-only person Rusty was willing to talk with in the last week gave us a reality check.

Rusty did want to be left alone, she agreed. He didn’t want anyone helping him. He was annoyed at the people checking on his welfare. But not because he girded his loins and made a conscious choice to die on his own terms.

He shut himself away because he thought one of those many concerned people might call for an ambulance and he was afraid of what the EMTs would think of the pesthole he was living in. He thought he was going to recover and that he could continue to keep the secrets within those walls.

So Rusty died alone. Of embarrassment.

Rusty put his (beloved, if neglected) dogs at risk because he’d let his house become a toxic waste dump and felt so ashamed of the choices he had voluntarily made that he’d rather die than reveal what he’d done.

I know that people who live like Rusty are considered mentally ill these days. And maybe he was; I’m no expert. But if you’d have met him, “mentally ill” would have been about the last thought you’d have ever had about him. Charming, you might have thought. Friendly. Happy-go-lucky, maybe. Irresponsible, if you were one of the neighbors dodging his roving animals. But mentally ill? Nope, wouldn’t have crossed your mind.

Maybe on the other hand he was just a guy who let things get a little out of control and, because he couldn’t for whatever reason face a small problem it turned into a big one, then a huge one, then a monumental one. Even us neatniks know it’s a lot easier to keep a place clean and orderly than it is to clean and restore order to a place that’s gone to hell. Whatever else he was, Rusty was no doubt overwhelmed to the point of paralysis by what he himself had wrought.


Now come the questions.

This is a good neighborhood — the kind where people will leave you alone when you want to be left alone, but will help you when they know you need or want help. We can be friends but not in-your-face. We can be both watchful and also minders of our own business.

With hard times ahead, this is exactly the kind of neighborhood I want to be in, and the kind of neighborhood I hope many more of you enjoy.

But in the wake of Rusty’s truly unnecessary death everybody’s thinking if only, if only.

Why didn’t I call emergency services earlier?

Why didn’t I realize that the messy house I was in all those years ago might have gotten worse since then? Why didn’t I offer to help with a cleanup back then and drop in occasionally since to see if there was anything I could do?

Why didn’t I realize that the roaming, unvetted animals were a sign of something more serious? Why didn’t I at least offer to get them vaccinated, flea treated, and de-wormed?

Why didn’t Rusty’s girlfriend (the only other person who’d been inside for years) either try to help him clean up or tell one of his good friends that something was very wrong?

Why didn’t Rusty himself ask for help before it was too late — before shame dominated his life and death?

And on and on and on.

Some of the questions have clear answers: Rusty wouldn’t have accepted an offer to help him clean; he would have been offended by an offer to take his animals to a vet. Rusty wouldn’t have asked for help, period. Only a very, very good friend could have forced him to seek medical care.

Still, stunned neighbors keep asking themselves What could I have done that I didn’t do? When should I have done it? What signs did I miss? Where did I fail?

And then there’s the one question overall: Was Rusty’s life our business and how were we supposed to make that determination?

A man makes a choice to be left alone, so be it. We have bachelor-loners on this street who have chosen to stay apart from neighborhood life and nobody bothers them or feels responsible for their choices. Unsurprisingly, these tend to be cranky oddballs who project a keep-away attitude as clearly as a peacock displays his tail.

But a friendly and well-liked neighbor dies alone, not by choice, not from others’ neglect, but from shame? Different matter.

But how different? And how do good neighbors know what to do before it’s too late? Where’s the line between being a caring neighbor and an annoying busybody? What did this neighborhood owe to Rusty, and what could we have done that would have actually helped him and not merely imposed our outside will upon his free choices?

How could we have been better neighbors? How could we be the kind of neighbors we want to have around us as the world darkens?


* Pseudonym for privacy


  1. Fred M
    Fred M August 8, 2021 4:45 pm

    Good neighbors are there to be of assistance when you need help, and leave you alone the rest of the time. You can smother people with kindness. Your Neighborhood Watch program is a good one and it works. While striving for perfection is a good thing, realizing it’s not attainable will drive you insane. You all were good neighbors to Rusty and to each other. Don’t feel let down, you did what circumstances dictated.

  2. Granny
    Granny August 8, 2021 5:26 pm

    Heavy, Claire. Once in my life, I was too sick to care for myself. I actually didn’t want anyone around to fuss over me, but my daughters stepped in and took over. I’m glad they did, because I’m alive and well now. I get that whole embarrassment thing, that leave me alone thing. When someone doesn’t have family willing to risk “repercussions” for stepping in and taking over, it becomes a difficult situation. I kind of understand how Rusty felt. Things would have been different for me if my family had not stepped in – not in a good way. I wouldn’t have allowed anyone outside of my family to do so. It seems Rusty wouldn’t have either. It’s sad. But, on the other hand, Rusty chose. I respect choice, even if it’s sad. Does that make sense?

    I also think it’s more difficult for older men, when they are alone. He probably didn’t grow up “keeping house” – he probably did more “manly things”. That’s probably why he got out so much and talked to people rather than face the mess at home. His way of coping. While the house became a horrible, filthy, mess, maybe he choose the better part of life – being with people. And after awhile, it was all too much, and then impossible to deal with, and so it went. Sigh.

  3. Toirdhealbheach Beucail
    Toirdhealbheach Beucail August 8, 2021 6:09 pm

    Claire, the “Should we have noticed something earlier” question has been on our mind as well, given the fact that we have had to relocate my parents into assisted living this year. My sister and I have replayed the discussion multiple times: Should we have noticed the signs my father was failing earlier than we did? Should we have moved my mother into a memory care facility earlier? Should I, when visited, not written off the fact he was talking to himself as something similar to me talking to himself but realized that was a sign of something deeper?

    We – as we live out of state and my sister a bit away – had reliance on a network of friends that they had here. And they were helpful and looked out for my parents. Finally, when we made the decision to move my parents, we found out that they, too, had some concerns months before.

    But no-one knew really what to say. My father still seemed like himself, was able to drive, and seemed involved. Asking after his mental state seemed a bit out of character or intruding.

    I do not know that my father would have taken our suggestions had we made them, or done well had we relocated him months before – one of my greatest fears before he had his (arguably) second stroke was the image of me bringing him back up to The Ranch for the day and him refusing to leave. I cannot imagine what we would have done at that point, as I cannot ever see me forcing my father back into the car.

    How can we be caring neighbors? I wish I had better answers, but I think it lies not only in our willingness to care but our willingness to engage. At least in my own experience, it can take a very long time indeed before people are willing to talk more than just social pleasantries and “Hail Fellow, Well Met”. It is a combination of learning that one can speak without being inherently judged or ask for help in a way that they can ask – my father could ask for help on some things (“Why does this keep coming up on my computer?”) but not on others in the same way, like perhaps how we have acted earlier with my mother.

    That said, ultimately it comes down to the other person as well. I cannot make some one open up to me any more than I can make some love me or change the weather. They have a role to play as well.

    Thank you for taking care of the dogs.

  4. Simon Templar
    Simon Templar August 8, 2021 6:10 pm

    When people clearly don’t want to be helped, or actively refuse to be helped, I think most of us must respect that choice, difficult and painful though it may be for us. Only very close family or very close friends should even consider crossing that line, and they should consider long and hard, first, because there is a real possibility of doing more harm than good.

    For me, the dogs (or other animals) may present an exception, since they are in a situation beyond their choice or control. I once took a neighbor’s very neglected free range dog to the vet for an exam and some treatments, but I brought the dog back quickly and I did the whole thing in such a way that the neighbor did not know about it. The vet was a friend, I had made arrangements with him in advance, and he was in complete agreement with the clandestine nature of the plan.

  5. buckeyebob
    buckeyebob August 8, 2021 7:44 pm

    Calling any civil authorities would have been cheap grace and not at all smart . No consideration to that lowest of suggestions should ever be given . If you are not Christian enough to actually help at least keep to your own business . This was America at one time . All any civil beast would do is feed on the carcass .

  6. Claire
    Claire August 8, 2021 9:17 pm

    Fred M — I think you’re right that everybody did the best they could. Still, a man we knew lived in secret squalor and died too soon and we all question ourselves.

    Granny — I’ve known so many people who’ve had experiences like yours and been saved by somebody else. Glad you made it. Pretty sure you’re right about Rusty, too. He never really learned to take care of himself or his environment — until it finally all became too much.

    TB — Thank you for the sad voice of experience. I’ve read your blogs about having to deal with both parents at once and can only imagine what a balancing act it is (and what a no-win situation, too).

    Simon Templar — Kudos to you and your vet. I’ve stolen abused and neglected dogs before and gotten them out of the county or the state, but admit I never thought of sneaking a dog away from a neglectful friend then returning it. What you did was wonderful. BTW, fortunately the four dogs were the only animals Rusty left behind.

    buckeyebob — You don’t have to be Christian to help people (or animals). And nobody called — or as far as I know, ever intended to call — any “authorities” while Rusty was alive. He merely feared that someone would. To the best of my knowledge, the most invasive idea anyone had was to persuade him to let her drive him to the emergency room, but the person who had that thought rejected it. And then it was too late, anyhow.

  7. Fido Canus
    Fido Canus August 8, 2021 9:38 pm

    What if it was not shame? What if he felt no shame about his living conditions, but understood that he would lose his freedom it they were discovered by paramedics?

  8. Myself
    Myself August 8, 2021 9:47 pm

    Sounds like you, and others, did all you could, indeed, you went above and beyond none of you had to do anything about his estate, you could have just let TPTB handle it, you did the noble thing and stepped in.

    As for helping Rusty while he was alive, like you said, he would have refused the offer, and may well have withdrawn from the local social life, so it appears you all hit an almost perfect note.

    At the end of the day, “Rusty” made his choices.

    With all that being said…
    None of us are getting out of this life alive, and part of personal responsibility to plan for our deaths as thoroughly as we can:
    If you can, and do everything you can, prepay your funeral expenses, there are plans where you can make monthly payments toward a cremation, granted that can be spendy, but if not you who?

    Even if you can’t afford funeral expenses, there is no excuse for not having an advance directive and a will.

  9. John Wilder
    John Wilder August 8, 2021 9:55 pm

    It sounds like you were exactly the neighbors he wanted: able to leave him alone when he wanted, able reach out when he wanted. Each of us is headed towards our own fate, most of which we define for ourselves.

    I’d be proud to live around folks like you.

  10. Val E. Forge
    Val E. Forge August 8, 2021 11:44 pm

    As John Wilder said, I’d be proud to live around folks like you, too.

    As far as Rusty’s fate went, I am reminded of lyrics from John Mellencamp’s “Minutes to Memories” – “I do things my way and I pay a high price.” A libertarian’s creed if I ever heard one. Peace to his ashes!

  11. Horatio
    Horatio August 9, 2021 6:35 am

    I am a selfish person. I selfishly want to run my own life and be thought of well for doing so in a good and decent manner. Part of that selfishness is to have compassion for those around me so they will think well of me for longer than I am here.

    To that end I have not a will, but a trust. Wills specify what is to be done with one’s assets and remains; trusts do the same thing and avoid probate; the IRS demands estate taxes – assuming any are due – 9 months after death; a trust can be kept going indefinitely. Trusts can contain all the explicit instructions one can include in a will regarding disposal of assets and remains, and the trustees – which is a voluntary position – are bound by the terms of the trust. If one has multiple trustees – and one should, because predicting whom will be available to serve when the time comes is, like all predictions, difficult. So, I selected a Primary Trustee and three alternates. All have copies of the trust, a key to the joint, and the necessary documentation to prove they have legal right to perform as trustee. Incidentally, an estate trustee has exactly the same rights as you did when you were alive; a trustee can do anything with the contents of your estate you can do today, so pick them very carefully. They are bound by the provisions of the trust, but when you’re gone who will be there to hold a trustee accountable? “Trustee” starts with the word “trust” so be aware.

    I have a rather complicated life (who doesn’t?), with lots of intricacies, financial, legal and physical so the trust document is rather inclusive.

    In addition to the original trust document – legally, the original is what is golden; certified photocopies for the trustees handles the initial needs, but it is the pure original that is the Trust Bible – which is in the secure storage device, there is also a ‘READ THIS FIRST” notebook of which all trustees have been made aware. It contains about 60 single spaced printed pages and a number of spreadsheets. We all know where in our houses the key is for that door, the phone number for the best plumber, the bank account number, and so on throughout the myriad details and complications we all have in our lives.

    All that is in there, in detail, reviewed annually and updated as necessary. I’ve tried to make it as comprehensive as possible, nothing left out, down to a list of estate auctioneers who can handle disposal of physical property, such as furniture, plates and glassware, clothing in the closet, and so on, and to which organizations whatever’s left should be donated. As to which one will be the best to use I leave to my Primary Trustee’s judgment. I have vetted all 3 auctioneers, but cannot predict which will be the most capable, or most available, when the time comes.

    Spare keys are in one place and properly labeled; one spreadsheet is computer and the the various account passwords; several spreadsheets contain a complete and total inventory of the house, one sheet per room, with detailed descriptions, values and model and serial numbers if the item has one (copies of which will be invaluable to whichever estate auctioneer gets the job, and to my accountant who will prepare The Last Tax Return when the trust gets closed out) along with still color photos of that room to go with that room’s spreadsheet (and if you don’t already have all this in a safe and secure place I’d suggest starting now – try getting an insurance company to pay off on a claim without detailed documentation, and I’ll bet a good steak dinner that even you won’t be able to remember everything you own of value if something unfortunate happens). There’s also some cash, enough to cover at least 3 months of my usual expenses as well as “disposal of the remains” (I have joked that when I go I hope it is on a Monday or a Thursday because my neighborhood has Tuesday and Friday trash pickup; alas, the procedure is a great deal more complicated, and expensive, than that). Pro Tip: include a list of decent local restaurants with addresses, directions to those addresses – your trustees probably aren’t locals – and phone numbers, especially ones that deliver or use delivery services. Your trustees will appreciate i.

    I have also pre-paid my utility accounts – water, electric and gas all come from the same provider – and my internet access for a 3-month period to ensure electric, water and internet continue uninterrupted for at least that long for my trustees (no, that money isn’t earning interest, but it wouldn’t be earning enough to matter in my bank account, either). For utilities, pick your most expensive month, add 10%, multiply by 3, divide that number by 12 and add that much to each monthly payment. In a year you’re 3 months ahead.

    It all sounds very anal retentive and OCD, but there’s a reason for it. When my father died some years ago he did have a will. Unfortunately, it named his wife as executor, and she pre-deceased him by almost 4 years. But the will accounted for such a possibility – it named a bank to serve if she was unable. Unfortunately, that bank had suffered failure and been “merged” (absorbed is a better word) by another bank. Which also had merged with a larger bank, and that bank had merged with another, meaning his estate would be one of fifty folders on some junior associate’s desk of the fourth bank in line, to be resolved with maximum expediency and minimum attention.

    I won’t detail his house or finances, except to say that there was not a closet nor cranny or nook in the basement filled to overflowing – filled very, very neatly, but filled – and no way to tell who was owed what for which. Since he never threw anything away – he grew up in the Depression – everything was there, just not organized (he had his tax returns from his first job when he started work right out of school in the early 1930s) so it was a matter of going through everything page by page to sort it out.

    Then everything had to be sold because of estate taxes, and that nine-month “IRS taxes due’ clock was running.

    I have vowed to never, ever subect anyone to that. Added to everything else we do in out lives – job, family, etc. – It was 7 months of being completely overwhelmed daily.

    Are there complications to a trust? Some, but they’re mild. For example, I own no assets – the house, car, furniture, bank accounts, retirement account, everything – is owned by the trust (so, officially, I can claim “I’m homeless….”). I have to sign checks with not just my name, but my name plus “trustee”; it took several phone calls to get the county tax office straightened out – their software treated real estate in trusts as commercial property which gets taxed at a different rate, so the first property tax bill took a few days for them to get right; anyone who looks at my vehicle registration assumes it’s a company car (Pro Tip here – when you set up a personal revocable trust an attorney will probably use your name, as in “the Joe Smith Revocable Trust”; use a different name instead, one that is “less descriptive” and provides some degreee of privacy; you can use anything, such as “the 395Alpha Revocable Trust” or “the Lake and River Country Retreat Revocable Trust.” If you do use your name for the revocable trust you can probably get away without writing “trustee” after it on checks and other legal documents, but I prefer the privacy.

    There will be plenty of work for my trustees, but I really like all of them and the least I can do is respect them enough to make helping me as easy as possible. I’m selfish that way.

  12. Claire
    Claire August 9, 2021 7:24 am

    “What if it was not shame? What if he felt no shame about his living conditions, but understood that he would lose his freedom it they were discovered by paramedics?”

    He specifically told that one neighbor that he was ashamed to have them see his house. It’s definitely possible that he also feared losing his freedom; I think I’d fear that in his circumstances.

    But nobody was actually planning to call 911 — only to either care for Rusty in his home or persuade him to let them drive him to the hospital. He feared what was never likely to happen.

    I don’t think anybody would have called 911 unless they discovered Rusty was completely out of it (which is in fact what ended up happening, but by then he was completely out of it — that is, dead).

  13. Claire
    Claire August 9, 2021 7:29 am

    Thank you, Myself and Horatio (and Sam Hall, who made a similar comment on the earlier post). I couldn’t agree more. Whether it’s trusts or wills or medical directives or medical/financial powers of attorney or funeral pre-planning (or at least discussing our preferences about cremation vs burial) or keeping your financial paperwork in order, if we really love our “loved ones,” we wouldn’t subject them to the hell that comes from our own lack of planning for the inevitable.

  14. Claire
    Claire August 9, 2021 7:39 am

    Thank you, John Wilder and Val E. Forge. We do have an extraordinary neighborhood here. This tragedy shows that it can hold its own in a pretty unpleasant test.

    Something I’ve noticed for a long time: one person (Neighbor J) tends to be a huge motivating factor for the rest of us. We have many good people here would will definitely act on their own to be helpful. And several did. For instance, the young woman who eventually called police and found Rusty’s body had been leaving food, water, electrolyte drinks, and dog food on Rusty’s porch for days.

    But Neighbor J often ends up unofficially and gently coordinating and communicating between us — a kind of a team leader without there ever being an organized team. She’s a big part of what makes this neighborhood what it is.

  15. Printer Chick
    Printer Chick August 9, 2021 10:58 am

    I agree with Horatio’s comment. My parents, thankfully, had every last little detail clearly spelled out in their advance directives and wills. My mother passed first, leaving everything to my father; had he gone first it would have all been left to my mother. But they also had it specified that all assets were to be split 50/50 between my sister and I, and that my sister would be the executor of their estate. That was mainly because my sister lived local to them and is extremely OCD about everything, plus she and I have never argued about possessions or money nor do we have the same taste in things. When it came down to splitting things up, it was quite simple. We took turns picking items we wanted from the house; anything we both wanted went into a separate pile, which we then went through again taking turns (this was mainly DVD movies that we both happened to like and didn’t have a copy of already). She wanted the house and I didn’t, so she bought me out at current market value. She needed the vehicle but I didn’t, so I just told her she could have it. Money was split evenly. Their decades-long accountant handled the financial reporting (taxes, etc.) My sister and I had known for many years exactly what they both wanted in terms of medical treatment; both made their own decisions right up to the end and we honored those decisions without argument, no matter how painful they were for us. Anything we didn’t want to keep was sold and the money split between us. Our husbands and children had zero input in these decisions, other than those regarding the house itself. Even though it took awhile to get everything taken care of, at least there was no arguing among us, and I knew I could trust my sister 100% to do things honestly. She kept me apprised of everything she did, including copies of all the paperwork, receipts, etc. so that she could feel better knowing that I trusted her. It was a huge relief knowing that we did not have to make any decisions for them, or guess at what they would have wanted. I’m currently working on doing that for my own children, although I’ll choose an outside party as executor because I’m quite sure my children will fight to the death over some things (each feeling that they “deserve” something more than the other does) and I want to avoid that and give them the same peace that my parents gave us with their planning.

  16. Comrade X
    Comrade X August 9, 2021 1:14 pm

    As others have said here, to me it sounds like you have picked a good neighborhood, of course nothing is perfect.

    When bad things happen good people feel bad and we all here know you are good people.

    “If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgement about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgement now.”
    Marcus Aurelius

  17. Noah Body
    Noah Body August 9, 2021 1:22 pm

    Rusty lived on his own terms, and died on his own terms. You couldn’t have done anything more. Forcing “help” on someone who doesn’t want it is an act of aggression, IMO.

    If he was living in fear because of his messy house, that’s the result of government, again, IMO. Having a messy house, being a “hoarder,” has now become criminalized in some areas. As has having animals whose lives aren’t “perfect.”

    The perfect is the enemy of the good. Did his dogs have a perfect life? Probably not. A good life? I think so, especially compared to other outcomes, such as being euthanized at a “shelter.” Maybe Rusty feared taking his dogs to a vet because he might be accused of abuse and neglect since their living conditions weren’t “perfect.” Sadly, animal welfare has become a growth area for the police state. (Although it, and just about everything else, is now being eclipsed by the Mother of all Growth Areas for the police state, COVID-19.)

    My view on the demonization of “clutter” and “hoarding”: it’s the first step of the InterNational Socialist agenda, which culminates in the World Economic Forum’s “You’ll own nothing and be happy.” If you own nothing, it’s because somebody owns you. You will be a slave. You will own no property because you are property. The anti-hoarding theme is a gradual approach to that end: you better not own too much stuff.

    The only way we have freedom is when people like Rusty can choose to live as they wish, without any “helpful” interference from anyone. It may not be the best way to live, it may not be healthy, it may not be the way you want to live, but it’s his life, not yours. If Rusty wasn’t free to live and die like that, you won’t have freedom either.

  18. Claire
    Claire August 9, 2021 1:47 pm

    Noah Body — Trust me, everybody did leave Rusty to live his own life. And although it’s possible he lived in fear, he never mentioned that to anyone, even at the end. He simply said he was ashamed to have emergency personnel see how he lived.

    If he was afraid of having his animals taken away or being forced out of his house or something, in this area that would be an irrational fear. Nobody would turn a hoarder out of his home. Nobody would take well-loved, well-fed pets away simply because they didn’t get the best vet care. People might offer to help, but nobody ever did or would force anything upon Rusty.

    He died from his choices, but that was his choice, too.

    There’s a current of anger running through a few of the responses to this post that may be appropriate given how so much of the rest of the government-driven world operates. But it isn’t appropriate here, where neither the government nor the neighbors operate so intrusively.

  19. Noah Body
    Noah Body August 9, 2021 2:09 pm

    Claire, that’s great you live in an area where (it sounds like) the police state hasn’t made a lot of inroads. I wish I did, as the things I described are real fears where I live.

    But, things can change, for the worse. And it starts with situations like Rusty, and people wondering, like you are, could we have done more, could this have been prevented? I’m not saying you would do anything to encourage the police state, but others might, to prevent such a tragedy in the future.

    The road to hell is always paved with good intentions. That was the point of my post.

  20. Claire
    Claire August 9, 2021 2:50 pm

    “But, things can change, for the worse. And it starts with situations like Rusty, and people wondering, like you are, could we have done more, could this have been prevented? I’m not saying you would do anything to encourage the police state, but others might, to prevent such a tragedy in the future.”

    You’re unfortunately right about that. And about the paving of the road to hell. Thanks for explaining.

    Yes, it might even happen in a little place like this, if the busybodies had their way and if the cops had either the funds or the will to go after people who keep unvetted dogs or have junk on their property. As is, our worst busybodies are toothless and the “authorities” aren’t all that interested.

    As is, when I talk about what good neighbors can or should do, I don’t imply that anybody should have done more. I really am asking (and so are my neighbors, I think) what good neighbors should — or shouldn’t — do.

  21. The Freeholder
    The Freeholder August 9, 2021 6:09 pm

    Claire, you ask questions that can have no answers.

    My father and I beat ourselves up when my mother, who was in her 80s, bed-ridden and non-communicative from the effects of a stroke, developed breast cancer. In the end, we drew on what she herself had done before the first two times cancer had come calling. There was a mastectomy, but no radiation or chemo. We were “fortunate” that it bought her enough time to die of something else.

    My deceased sister-in-law was much like Rusty, except instead of being a fine old fellow, she was a cop. She kept her shame hidden as well, abetted by her brother and sister and that damn blue wall of silence. Her whole identity was being a cop, with a particular emphasis in standards and practices, battered wives and abused pets. For the most part, if we’re going to have cops, I’d rather they be like her. I believe her secret fear was what would happen if she asked for help. She knew she had mental issues, but as long as she could keep them hidden, she could be what she wanted to be. When she got physically ill, rather than ask for help, she let it go, and eventually died a bad death from septic shock.

    No one would go into her house. I, like you, had to take that on. I’ve now seen what demons really look like, and they don’t have horns or speak in tongues. I have never and will never tell anyone what I saw, except it was sad, bad, tragic and possibly miraculous, if such is possible. Thankfully, she had no pets of her own, and it seems she had been couch-surfing for at least 3 years. Good thing, the house was uninhabitable.

    I was able to salvage a few items for the family, including a couple of items that I have taken under my wing. We have her flag on a bookshelf. It’s a reminder to me that you can’t help everyone who needs it and that some people, for reasons that we might think are “crazy”, don’t want or won’t seek help.

    Thankfully, my wife and I have things moderately well organized for our kids, though I think we may be doing more soon. Perhaps our dearly departed have done us one last unintended good deed.

  22. Claire
    Claire August 10, 2021 10:16 am

    Oh Freeholder. What a horror story. Eloquently told, but really a horror story.

    I wonder how many people there are out there like your sister-in-law and Rusty, living that way behind normal, healthy facades? In your SIL’s case, it’s a double shame that the people closest to her enabled her, and I also wonder how common that is.

    Just here in my local area I know of two other cases. One of our former town dignitaries divorced his wife when he was in his 80s because he’d reached the end of his ability to tolerate her hoarding. A volunteer early-on with our local animal rescue group would never let anyone inside her house, also apparently because of hoarding. (In fact I’m pretty sure it’s a common aberration among rescuers — those crazy old ladies you hear about occasionally, living in school buses with 50 dogs or cats and all the animals’ leavings are hoarders.)

    God. To think of these tragedies unfolding all around us.

  23. Claire
    Claire August 10, 2021 10:18 am

    Thanks, Sam Hall. Bit pricey, those materials. But if they help getting people to talk about reality …

  24. Noah Body
    Noah Body August 10, 2021 11:30 am

    “Yes, it might even happen in a little place like this, if the busybodies had their way and if the cops had either the funds or the will to go after people who keep unvetted dogs or have junk on their property. As is, our worst busybodies are toothless and the “authorities” aren’t all that interested.”

    Claire, please exercise vigilance to make sure your community stays that way. The best way to honor Rusty’s life is to make sure your town is safe for eccentrics like him.

    Sorry for the anger and multiple posts, but I feel very strongly about this, as I live in a statist hellhole that this type of questioning leads to. It wasn’t always like this. Fifty years ago it was far more tolerant, easy-going and less restrictive.

    I can just see the statist do-gooders using Rusty as an example, “If we make it illegal for people to live like that, it wouldn’t happen.” No, that outcome wouldn’t have happened, but after being hounded by government agents for years, these are the likely outcomes:

    1. He goes out like Carl Drega, or just commits suicide; or

    2. He ends up completely broke and homeless, living on the streets, and dies of exposure or is killed by thugs.

    It sounds like Rusty lived a long, full life, and we all make the final exit at some point. He died of (apparently) natural causes in his own home, without anyone making a fuss over him. And without being subjected to unpleasant, expensive, and probably futile medical interventions.

    Being fiercely independent myself, I can relate to that. I can only hope that I live as long and die as peacefully.

  25. Those People
    Those People August 11, 2021 7:31 pm

    Your Neighbor J is an inspiration, as are the rest of you who cared about Rusty.

  26. Emmel
    Emmel August 12, 2021 7:10 pm

    Seems to me Rusty lived a life in true freedom… freedom to live the way he chose to without anybody imposing their view of how he “should live”. Yeah, it’d have been nice to see the animals get a little better care but it doesn’t sound like they weren’t free to leave if they didn’t like living with Rusty.
    At the end of it all he had people who cared about him enough to be there if he chose to take advantage of their kindness but also gave him the space to live life on his terms.
    He was a lucky man.

  27. Jeff Allen
    Jeff Allen August 18, 2021 12:41 pm

    Claire, this is a pretty good anecdote, and the responses are of the same caliber.
    The hidden heart of this seems to be your Neighbor J. If you file this away, things to talk about later sometime, more on the big picture you’re continually drawing, maybe some meditation on the “Neighbor Js” of the world, or at least in the one we (each) want to make?
    Maybe “Neighbor J” (drawn from real life !) is a role model, for a particular kind of person in a (self-aware?) community?
    Not everybody is going to be one, or even aspire to the role, but I’m guessing there’s a pretty consciously-held set of principles in there somewhere. Anyway, I don’t know anyone I could point to like that.

  28. Claire
    Claire August 18, 2021 3:57 pm

    Jeff Allen, that is a great idea. I’ve been aware for years how having even a single neighbor like J changes the character of the entire neighborhood, but I haven’t thought of writing about it. Thanks.

  29. Antibubba
    Antibubba August 25, 2021 9:09 pm

    Claire, whoever said that it’s our stuff that owns us knew what he was talking about. I’m a hoarder in recovery, and I have a good idea what Rusty felt. Yes, it was shame, but not of the mess itself, but what it represents. You look at most people, and you don’t know what’s going on in their heads. You look at people with mental illnesses, and you can speculate what’s happening, but you don’t really know what their thought processes are. But enter a hoarder’s zealously-guarded home, and you can see EXACTLY what’s going in our heads–because what we hoard–and how we do it–screams our deepest issues to anyone with eyes. You look at what Rusty has, and you’ll understand his deepest fears, regrets, and desires. Most hoarders know it–and they never want YOU to.
    I live in an apartment that is an accurate representation of my dysfunction. I’m a lot better than I was, and I attribute my wife to that. While she’s no slouch in the accumulation department herself, she helped me get to the point where I can walk through half of it. It’s worse when you’re a prepper, because you can justify keeping almost anything. The difference between a hoarder and a prepper is that a prepper knows where everything is, or can find it quickly. I’ve lost track of more essentials within 30 feet from where I sleep than some people ever get in the first place.

    Whether you believe in a hereafter or not, Rusty is finally free of his shame. It’s too bad others are left with the cleanup, but isn’t that just the way humans are?

  30. Claire
    Claire August 27, 2021 4:32 am

    Antibubba — You just posted one of the most poignant and brave comments this blog has ever received — also one of the most insightful.

    I’ve never understood hoarding or how hard it is for hoarders to break free of their possessions. I didn’t understand what I walked into at Rusty’s house. Although I probably never will understand in a deep-down way, what you just wrote both enlightens and breaks my heart.

    And on the lighter side — yeah, I can definitely see how prepping can end up justifying, or turning into, hoarding. Thanks for defining a difference.

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