It was July 2nd, 2013, dinnertime. Lynn and I had just sat down at home for dinner with our friend Dan, who had come over to hang out with us for the evening. The phone rang. I left the dinner table and picked up.
It was a detective from the sheriff’s office in Florida. Debbie was gone. He told me they had found her body that day. A co-worker had called the department to do a wellness check- and they had found her. He said something about an ongoing investigation. Her body was at the coroner’s. They would not be releasing the body for some time. It appeared that she had placed the barrel of a pistol into her mouth and pulled the trigger. That’s all I knew.
I had to get there. I rushed to make plans to fly from Boston the next day.
The rest until I landed in West Palm Beach and reached her ex-husband John is a blur. I met him at the lawyers office to go over the legalities. She had left her entire fortune to others. The money would be held in the trust to throw off income to a small handful of friends for life. There were a few onetime gifts to other friends. After that, a Duke University Animal Studies Program and a couple of animal shelters would receive the corpus.
I stated to the lawyer that I had no intention of challenging Debbie’s wishes. He responded that was good because there was nothing I could do about it anyway.
I was told that Debbie had left me any of the items in the house that had belonged to our parents.
After that, there was a brief discussion about cleanup. As executor, John was concerned that a hazmat team would cost the trust three thousand dollars. There was blood. It had to be cleaned up.
I would go.
I wanted to go.
John offered sadly to come with me. “No.”, I said. “I want to be alone there.”
I wanted to be alone with Debbie. I knew there would be blood. I didn’t care. It was going to be my last moment alone in her world with her- with what was left of her.
I drove to the Sheriff’s office. There, they handed me an evidence bag with her last effects. A purse and its contents. A gold necklace they had removed from her neck.
The brown paper bags and their contents were clearly marked “evidence”. Seated in my rental car, I looked at the contents of her purse. Wallet. Empty, but for a few ID cards. A small translucent violet comb. A pink frosted lipstick. The necklace- short and thick- not quite a choker. These were the things she left behind. These were the things she needed up until the last minute. I kissed them, put them back, and drove to the grocery store. Still, I cannot cry. Why can’t I cry?
There must be a bucket in the house. I bought rubber gloves. Sponges. Bleach. Paper towels and a Vitamin Water. And I drove to her house.
Armed with the entry code, I managed to open the electric gate and pulled in to the driveway to the massive front courtyard and parked the car.
Grocery bag in hand, I was prepared to open the front door with the key John had given me but the door opened without need for a key.
Past the door, I walked into her world. The patio area was filled with the sounds of barking and snarling. The four dogs were still there, ranging alone in the huge empty space, dog feces and dried puddles of pee everywhere, the dogs were agitated. There was no food in the dishes. No water either. I filled the dishes with water and found the dog food in the structure at the left by the pool where she kept food for the animals that were no longer on the property. The cages and enclosures for the numerous animals lay empty. The lemurs and monkeys, the anteater, the kinkajous, the pony and tortoise all gone, sent to various breeder colleagues undoubtedly in preparation for this day. The cages were all visible through the screened in area scattered across the enormous back yard. A couple of empty cages stood inside on the patio as well, a sorry testimony to Debbie’s efforts to fill her life with the love she couldn’t find elsewhere.
Still, the dogs are barking, concurrently expressing their resentment for my presence and sorely in need of my attentions. Why had she abandoned them? How could she do this to them? How could she do this to me? I enter through the sliding door by the picnic table, ashtrays overflowing with the butts of the many hours, days, and weeks spent smoking outside in her accustomed spot. I can picture her there in her uniform- jeans, sweatshirt and baseball cap, leaning forward on her elbows, head down, the smoke curling from the Marlboro between her fingers into the warm Florida night. We spoke so many days and nights over the phone endlessly rehashing her misery. Debbie sat exactly here at her place at this table. At times, the Lemurs sent such noise into the air that we had to stop our conversation until they had spent their unified ruckus for the time being. If it wasn’t them- it was the train passing beyond that held us silent, waiting to resume.
At the slider, my hand on the pull, I can see the place where the dogs had been hurtling their bodies against the glass in an attempt to reach their injured mistress. Their vomit and paw prints mixed with nose prints and smears across the glass wall a horrifying proof of a scene that had been the reality only hours earlier. I can see the pool of blood on the floor on the other side of the glass. It had spread across the small mat Debbie had placed there at the door out of a fastidious desire to prevent the dirt from feet, both canine and human from entering her inner sanctum. Now the rug is marked with a crimson ellipse extending beyond its fringe into a smear from her body’s fall to earth. Debbie’s last trip. From an upright position, standing on her two shaking legs, breathing, alive, heart pounding- to the floor as the bullet tore through her mouth into her brain? Her throat? Her spinal cord? Did she suffer? The coroner said no. She would not recommend I see her. I wanted to see her. I wanted to understand it- I wanted to look for the clues that could tell me what her last moment was like. I wanted to see her peaceful. The coroner told me I should not see her. She smelled bad, I was told. I didn’t care. I wanted to see her. I asked if the coroner might cover her face, if only I could see her hand- touch her hand. Just one hand. She had beautiful hands like my mother. Long elegant fingers. Beautiful hands. The coroner said no. She was green at this point. I assented reluctantly. She assured me it was for the best. All I was allowed was this small pool of blood. All Debbie allowed me was this. Now. I was here and she was not, but for the blood on the floor. The coroner had no choice in this. This was my choice. My crazy choice. My last act of love for my sister. My heart hung heavy in its cage. I left the spot and walked the huge house like a tourist on a tour of horror and sorrow.
It felt like a hotel that hadn’t yet opened. No artwork on the walls. One spoon in the sink. A table with chairs for twelve. Empty shelves. I passed into her bedroom. The windows and slider facing the enclosed patio were covered entirely in strips of foil. No crack of sunlight breached the aluminum fortress. I’d offered to come down and help her buy curtains- help her make the place homey. We could even order them online and someone would come and measure and install them. The answer had always been no. She had done this instead. It felt like a bedroom inside a huge baked potato.
There was a sweet stuffed animal on the bed stand. Her bra was thrown to one side. Her massive bed was rumpled and empty just as she had left it. I lightly touched the open sheets and blanket. I didn’t dare disturb the pillow. I longed to push my face into it and breathe deep- but it was a sacred place and I could not- did not disturb it. In the bathroom, all was in order. The towels were hung folded neatly hanging from their bars as if never used. I needed my camera. I had brought it as one brings an old friend for support. I took pictures. I needed to take pictures. I did it blindly, paying no attention to exposure, shutter speed or iso- I had forgotten them. They didn’t matter at the time. I took pictures like a thief in a palace.
I needed to understand it. I needed to remember it. I wanted to keep something of her. I would never be here again like this at this moment. I had to take something from this place, frozen in her darkest hour, in order to mend myself one day afterward- someday- if that was possible.
I would make sense of it. I would make something of it that would create meaning out of this and make this terrible thing into something that had worth. She hadn’t done this for nothing. It couldn’t be for nothing. I would not allow it. I could not allow it. I was her big sister. I needed to protect her. I would protect this last moment from disappearing into nothing- as she had disappeared from me- from my life. Somehow, with photographs, I would go on with my life and try to right this wrong- make something meaningful out of something so unspeakably horrific.
I returned to the kitchen and filled a bucket I’d found in the garage with bleach and water. I took a few pictures of the spot where she fell.
I knelt down and lifted the throw rug. The blood poured dripping from its fringe as I folded the rug and placed it into a garbage bag and tied a knot. The bag was heavy and I set it aside. The metallic smell was sickening sweet, like nothing I had known before. The blood was dark and thick with a crust at the edge, peeling away in plaques from the tile beneath it. With each pass of the sponge, the blood seemed to increase in volume, filling in where the sponge passed, until the water in the bucket would no longer dilute what remained on the floor. I poured her down the sink and refilled the bucket. It felt wrong. I longed for a handkerchief to dip into the crimson ocean at my toe. I considered what I might find to accomplish this- to take some small part of her with me- to keep her with me forever. This was all that was left. I talked myself down, telling myself that this impulse was sick- as sick as she had been. I cleaned it all away. I did it, my last gift to her, taking it down to the fresh and uncaring tile.
Afterward I stood and surveyed the scene before me. I would have to clean the dog vomit mess off the sliding door. As I stood by the couch in front of it, her sheepskin jacket neatly folded across its large leather cushion, I looked up at the transom and there it was. If I hadn’t been standing in that exact spot, with the sun shining through, I might have missed it- the faintest mark of a cross on the glass. I surveyed the room, I found a cross on each upper window smeared onto the glass. I walked the house and found one on every window. She had told me she’d invited an expert to bless the house. These crosses were the children of one of her numerous attempts to rid the house of the ghosts and spirits that she was convinced were haunting her.
I sat on the couch next to her jacket, facing the spot where the tile now gleamed in the light of the setting sun. I rested my hand on the soft fleece lapel and I wept.