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