An Unnoticed Death
Today I look at the old beat up house on the corner that once housed a strange old man named Bill. That house haunts me with its emptiness with all its shades in the up position now revealing that Bill is clearly no longer inside, but just a ghostly memory of the odd neighborhood icon.
Bill was a friendly man who primarily kept to himself unless you, as a neighbor, engaged him in conversation. If you did, he would talk your ears off for hours. He was a neatly kept man in his early sixties who had lost his job and although he had just reached the age to collect social security income, he vowed to God that he would never "take hand-outs from manís system." Yet poor Bill was visibly poor by the poorest manís standards. He lived in the most dilapidated, run down house in the neighborhood. He told people that he was doing the owner a favor by staying in the house and keeping it up until the owner decided it was now time to hand the house over to his grandson. The house was an eyesore to the neighborhood as it sat on a corner lot and was one of the first houses seen when entering onto the main street where houses sold for over two hundred thousand. Bill had his own ways of keeping up his property. Even though the house needed new shingles, Bill was up on the roof on many occasions with buckets of tar splashing clumps of black goop obviously, wherever the roof was leaking inside. Around the entire house, in order to keep water from causing problems, Bill masoned two layers of bricks. For the longest time no one ever saw any shades in the up position on Billís house. We just all knew he was the kind of person that wanted to be left alone; he shut the outside world out. Then one day out of the blue Bill cut a hole in the front of his house and created an opening for a front door along with a porch.
Apparently, Bill was starting to become lonelier in his sealed up world of isolation. I walked past the house one day with the dog and he started quoting the Bible about global warming and the odd weather we were having while he was shoveling snow from his driveway. After talking a bit, he told me he had put the front door and porch in hoping that he would get visitors, but that it made no difference because no one came just the same. I realized that day that he was not happy in his self-created state of isolation, but did not know how to reach out to others, perhaps out of fear of rejection. He was a highly religious man and as we talked at the end of his drive he revealed to me that he had lost his job for preaching too much to coworkers and that his boss didnít appreciate his self-righteousness. After that he really threw himself wholeheartedly into a local church, but they also ran him out because according to him the church didnít appreciate the level of his knowledge and so asked him to leave. The more he talked the more upset he seemed to become. Yet I found this man to be one of the most knowledgeable persons I had ever met. He was very intelligent, having spent a lot of time on the internet doing daily research. He could quote scripture as if written on the back of his hand, and he had written several books. Yet at the same time, it was obvious there was something not well about this man. The deep frown lines in his forehead and the way he kept scoping out the neighborhood with his eyes added to his disturbing words.
Once he drew you in, you found yourself feeling awed by him, feeling sorry for him, and feeling as if you wanted to run from him. After forty-five minutes standing at the end of his drive I finally said, "Well Iíve got to get in and get to the grocery store." He did not take the cue and said, "Your son is probably deep into the ways of the fleshly world with all the things that money can buy." I somewhat sarcastically defended my son by saying, "Well, he is sixteen and you know how that is; you were sixteen once." He said, "Thank the Lord Iím not anymore; Iím living in the Lordís world now, no longer living the ways of the fleshly worldÖI have no use for fleshly itemsÖI received a vision the other night with instructions on which direction my life is to take from here on out." I said, "Who visited you in your vision?" He replied, "The angels from the Tree of Life." Our conversation was very logical up until that point and I did not know quite what to say, but I knew this man was headed down a bad path; I just knew it. I left him and proceeded to the grocery store.
Spring broke quickly and as the weather got warmer and warmer, I noticed while Bill walked to get his mail (promptly after the mail carrier would drop it off) that his body was whittling down to a thinner and thinner man, week after week. One Saturday afternoon we watched people piling in his house, and a handful of them walking out with a few furniture items. I said to my husband, "Whatís going on over at Billís house; do you suppose heís having a moving sale?" Days later, we watched as Bill laid out a tarp at the front curb of his property. He proceeds to make several trips from his house emptying small items out onto the tarp. There were dishes, small appliances, books, furniture, and even his computer. He was not selling his belongings. He was giving everything he owned away! Neighbors were coming by taking his things. It made me want to puke just watching the horrific audacity of people. Obviously, the man was not of his right mind and needed help. Where was his family? Where were any friends? Where were Social Services? I had had enough. I walked over to Billís after most of his stuff had vanished, knocked on his front door, and said, "Bill, I know itís probably none of my business, and I donít really know you, but Iím concerned about your welfare." I proceeded, "I see that you have given all your belongings away, and I know you have told me you refuse your Social Security Income, so my question to you is what you are planning?" He stepped outside and said, "I have put my total faith in the Lord; the Lord will take care of all my needs and will show me the way." He said, "I will eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life because thatís what the Lord wants me to do." I told him he is wasting away and asked him what he is eating. He told me he had stopped eating protein altogether and had just been eating fruits and vegetables. I told him the brain is made up of protein and that he needs protein to sustain his life, etc. I asked him to eat some nuts at least. I was getting irate with him. He just had this strange smile on his face and said he was not worried because he had a vision and that the vision told him to give away all his worldly possessions and that all his needs will be provided for him by God. He claimed he was going to go to Michiganís Northern Peninsula and do some missionary work, but I knew that was a lie. I could not say, "Bill, youíre mentally ill, you need to be admitted in the hospital," but I should have. I was so afraid of injuring his very big ego. After all, I was dealing with a highly intelligent man. I shook my head and said, "Listen Bill, my concern is that I will read in the newspaper some morning that they found your body someday in the bottom of some ravine somewhere." He laughed and said, "The Lord will take care of all my needs." Then he went in the house, brought out one of his books that he had written, and gave it to me. I gave him $25.00 cash hoping that would help him out for a little bit wherever he was headed.
I headed back home and despite my worries, was forced to proceed with my household life. It was dinnertime, as I was cooking burgers on my back grill, I looked over and saw Bill sitting on his back steps that was last time I saw him. He had some clothes hanging on a hanger gently swinging in the same spring air that carried our laughter and our burger smells over to his sad existence. He pulled out the next morning without our awareness. A few days went by and although I expected to see his car pull back into the dilapidated corner house drive, his old car was nowhere in sight. A whole week went by and I began to think that maybe his story about doing missionary work in the UP was real after all. I kept driving by his corner house with sadness. I actually missed the odd fellow. I would always wave to him when he was mowing his lawn. He was a gentle, kind-hearted man that was always home and watched out for the neighborhood. The empty dilapidated old house really had a depressing feel about it now. Something was not right. Something really did not feel right. Yet life went on and I drove by the empty house as usual on my way out of the neighborhood to the local grocery store up the street. Three weeks had gone by and lo and behold while walking the dog I saw an SUV in Billís driveway. The SUV belonged to Billís sister. She had come to the house to inform neighbors of the sad news.
I walked past Billís house, minding my own business when the woman across the street briskly walked up to me and said, "Iíve seen you talking to Bill a number of times so I thought I would let you know that they found Billís body in his car last night up the street in the grocery store parking lot." I immediately started crying because I instantly knew that Bill never went to the Upper Peninsula to do missionary work. I knew that he never had a plan. She said in a matter of fact voice, "Yeah, apparently Bill had been living out of his car in the grocery store parking lot for the past three weeks with nothing but apples and eventually ran out of food and starved to death in his car. The police found his body in the car and he had been dead for two or three days."
I cried even more when she said that. I said, "I told him, I told him that I didnít want to read in the newspaper that they found his body somewhere." I just knew this was going to happen. I knew that he had no plans. How can he be up there in the grocery store parking lot all this time and no one even know about it? No security or police or anyone could see that this man is just sitting, living in his car for the past three weeks?" I told her I was too upset at that point and had to go inside and thanked her for telling me about Bill. Before I went in, she said the owner had kicked Bill out of the house because he wanted to fix the house up for his grandson. She said, "Bill didnít have money so itís not like he was paying rent anymore." I snapped back in Billís defense, "Well Bill told me he was staying in the house and keeping the place up as a favor to the owner until the owner was ready to give the house over to his grandson." What difference did it makeÖBill was dead!
I was so overwhelmed with guilt. Here I had been driving past his empty house up to that same grocery store to buy my food all the while heís sitting in that same parking lot starving to death hundreds of feet away in his car and Iím totally oblivious. I was oblivious because I really did not want to get involved any more than I did when he told me his needs were being taken care of by God. I was the last person he told. I knew that was not going to happen. Raised Catholic I was always taught that God helps those who help themselves. Yet when it came to Bill, I just turned a blind eye and jumped onto his magical thinking bandwagon. I could have called someone to help him and I did not. Yet I know better as I have a mentally ill relative that has been hospitalized several times in the past. I am well aware of what organizations to call. I could have had someone come out to his house. Instead, I did not get involved.
The neighbors too came and took away all of Billís belongings, asking few questions or no questions at all. None of us did our part. None of us invited Bill over to our barbecues and most of us put our heads down and avoided his house when we saw him so we would not have to talk with odd Bill. Bill was a deeply religious man who told me he had grown tired of living in this "fleshly" world. Since his death, I have read his book and now realize how much depression Bill experienced while he was alive. It is my belief that Bill knew what he was doing and was on a mission to take his life in order to get out of this world. I think the loneliness of living in it in the isolated manner to which he lived was too overwhelming for him. He would not commit suicide, so he listened to the "Angel of the Tree of Life" that told him to get rid of all his earthly belongings and to eat only fruit from the Tree of Life. Consciously he did not know he was ending his life, but on another level, he knew he was leaving this world to be with his maker. I hope he is in a better place than he was on earth. I hope he is at peace. I hope he is happy. I hope Bill forgives me.
I looked to see if there was a story in the local newspaper on him living homeless and starving to death. Ann Arbor has been rated one of the top places to live in the nation and this manís death was brushed under the rug like an embarrassing secret. Of course, this is just the sort of thing that this wealthy community would rather look the other way on.
I also looked to see if there was a funeral notice for Bill. The only thing listed was Bill had passed away, his age, announcing he was a war veteran, and that he had been cremated. There would be no ceremony or funeral in his honor. I cried when I saw that tiny little announcement of his passing. Billís life looked so insignificant in black and white, yet it all seemed so fitting. I cut out his small obituary and placed it in his book that he gave me as a reminder that his life was in fact significant.
It has been 2 years now and the dilapidated old house that once housed Bill still sits empty on the corner. It sits there becoming more dilapidated each season, as neighbors watch, and no one cares for its bones.
If I could turn the clock back, I would. On a sunny summer day I would walk over to his house, knock on his front door. I would say (when Bill was still eating meat) "Hey Bill, weíre cooking burgers and chicken on the grill and if youíre not busy we would like to invite you over to eat with us on our back deck." I know in a heartbeat Bill would have accepted the invitation to my house or anyoneís house if they had invited him. Sure, we would have to put up with a lot of religious debate and whatnot and listen to Billís talk about the end of the world coming any day, but he would enjoy himself and that is what being a good neighbor is about. Oh, if I could turn the clock backÖBill would still be alive.