My Last Day With Debbie It was July 2nd, 2013, dinnertime. My husband 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 to pick it up.
On the other end of the line 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 ask for a wellness check- and they had found her. He said something about an ongoing investigation. Her body was at the coroner's. They had taken her and would not be releasing her back to us for some time. It appeared that she had put a pistol into her mouth and pulled the trigger. There were personal effects that they had gathered including the pistol.
He asked if I wanted the pistol returned or would I have them dispose of it for me.
He told me that they would hold her other things for pickup when I arrived.
That’s all I knew. It is all he knew.
As the detective talked, all I found myself saying was, “Oh, wow. OK. Wow. OK. OK. Yes. OK.”
I was beyond thought, beyond action, beyond reaction. I remember thinking at the time about what he was thinking. Was this the way someone would react. I was so dry eyed, so unemotional. All I managed to ask him was, “What do I do now?” He answered, he didn’t know. That was up to me. They had taken her body.
I had to get there. I hung up the phone and returned to the dinner table to explain that I must hurry and pack and excused myself from their company. Dan offered to leave, but I asked him instead to stay and keep Lynn company.
The rest is a blur until the wheels hit the tarmac in in West Palm Beach and I took a rental car to the lawyers office where Debbie’s ex-husband John would be meeting me. there were the legalities to discuss, and they wanted to meet with me. 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.
OK. 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 to me any and all of the items in the house that had come from our childhood home.
OK. After that, there was a brief discussion about the condition of the house. There was a mess. It had to be cleaned up. As executor, John expressed dismay that a hazmat team would cost the trust three thousand dollars.
I would go.
I wanted to go.
John offered to come with me. After all, she was his ex-wife, but it was easy to see that he didn’t relish the idea. He added that he wasn’t sure it was a good idea for me to go it alone either. “No.”, I said. “I’ll be fine. I want to do it.”
There was no question. I needed to be alone with her. There would be blood, they said, and Lord knows what else. I didn't care. It was going to be my last moment alone with Debbie in the world as she left it- alone with what was left of her. The next errand was the drive to the Sheriff's office. Through a plate glass window they handed me two brown paper bags. Inside were the things they had taken with them when they found her. On the outside of each was an official looking bit of yellow tape bearing the legend, “Evidence”. Inside one bag was an well worn brown leather purse in Western style and its sparse contents. In the other bag was a familiar gold necklace which they had only yesterday removed from her neck.
Back in my rental car, I opened the first bag and pulled out her purse. Inside it, the wallet was empty, but for a few ID cards. The rest of the purse was empty but for a small translucent violet comb, a few crumpled receipts and a pink frosted lipstick. In the other smaller bag sat the the necklace- a wide woven chain of gold- not quite a choker. I kissed the choker, and put it back, and then drove to the grocery store.
I felt as though I was encased in cotton gauze. I was moving through the world now as I had since the news had come, unable to feel my own skin. My head was full to bursting, but my the thoughts were unable to anchor themselves. I was utterly to cry. I strangely had no need. I couldn’t think clearly enough to let it all in.
I parked at the grocery store and went inside. I felt sure there would be a bucket in the house, so I didn’t bother to search for one. Instead, I bought rubber gloves, sponges, and a bottle of bleach. I threw some paper towels into the cart too, and a Vitamin Water, and drove to her house. Armed with the entry code, I managed to open the electric gate and pulled in to the driveway past the marble lions that flanked it and drove on to the massive courtyard and parked the car next to one of hers. With the grocery bag in hand, I was prepared to open the front door with the key John had given me. Instead, I found the door unlocked.
I pushed the door open to the inner courtyard and walked into her world. The patio was filled with movement and the sounds of yips, barks and whining. All four dogs were still there. One snarled at me, teeth bared, backing away and ready to charge, unsure of my intent. Clearly they had been neglected for some time. It had been a long while since they’d enjoyed the company of an attentive or loving mistress, and it was obvious to me that they no longer thought of any person as a potential friend, no less one who was only vaguely familiar. Even Peanut, the smallest one, backed away and circled around out of reach. All of them cried out to in anxiety at their intruder, their uncertain rescuer. They had been ranging alone in the huge empty space for days. Dog feces and dried puddles of pee were everywhere. There was nothing in their dishes- no food- no water either. I filled the dishes first with water and then found the dog food in the small house at the left of the pool where she kept food for all the other animals she kept on the property. The cages and enclosures were all visible through the screened in area scattered across the enormous back yard. All of them lay empty. The numerous lemurs, the three or four monkeys and the kinkajous, along with the pony and tortoise were all gone, no doubt sent to various other breeders in preparation for this day. A couple of empty cages stood inside on the patio as well, all a sorry testimony to Debbie's efforts to fill her life with the love she couldn't seem to find elsewhere.
Still, the dogs were 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 stood looking at the picnic table, ashtrays overflowing with the butts of the many hours, days, and weeks spent smoking sitting there in her accustomed spot. I can picture her in that chair at the end, dressed in her uniform of jeans, sweatshirt and baseball cap. She often sat there leaning forward on her elbows with her head down, the bill of her cap pulled low to obscure her eyes as the smoke curled 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. At times, the Lemurs would send up a communal vocalization that was so loud, we had to wait for them to finish in order to resume our conversation. If it wasn't them- it was a train passing on the track nearby that held us silent and waiting to resume. Behind the table loomed the enormous sliding glass doors. I stepped over and stood for a moment with my hand on the pull. On the near surface of the glass, I could see the marks where the dogs had been hurtling their bodies against the glass in an attempt to reach their injured mistress. Dog vomit and paw prints mixed with nose prints and smears lay across the glass in horrifying proof of a scene that had been a reality only hours earlier. I could see the pool of blood on the floor on the other side of the glass. It had spread across part of the small oriental rug Debbie had placed at the door out of a fastidious desire to prevent the dirt and Florida sand from entering her inner sanctum. Now the rug was soaked with a crimson ellipse extending beyond its fringe into a puddle beyond. Nearby a thin smear of blood remained as well from some part of her body's fall to earth. I imagined her there beforehand; upright, looking resolutely out the door, balancing on two bravely shaky legs, heart pounding, breathing, alive- and then, she was gone. Debbie’s last trip. Did she suffer? The coroner said no. I wanted to see her. but the coroner said she would not recommend it. Still, I wanted to understand it. I wanted to see her peaceful. The coroner told me I should not see her at all. She smelled bad, she said. I didn't care. I wanted to see Debbie. 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. I would know them. The coroner said no. She was emphatic. I assented reluctantly. She assured me it was for the best. And so, in the end, all Debbie allowed me was this pool of blood. Now I was here and she was not, but for this bit of human essence on the floor. The coroner’d had no choice in this thing. This was my choice. My crazy choice. My last act of love. My heart hung heavy in its cage. I left the spot and walked the huge house like a tourist on an expedition of sorrow.
It felt like a hotel that hadn't yet opened. No artwork on the broad walls. One teaspoon in the double deep sink. A table with chairs for twelve. Empty shelves everywhere. I passed into her bedroom. The glass wall and slider facing the enclosed patio were covered entirely in sheets of foil taped together with no crack of sunlight to breach 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 measure and install them. The answer had always been no. She had done this instead. It felt like a bedroom inside a poorly defended bunker.
There was a sweet stuffed animal, a lemur, on the bed stand. Her bra was thrown to one side. Her massive bed was rumpled and empty just as she had left it. The sheets and blanket were thrown open as they were when she’s gotten up that morning. 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 or shutter speed- I had forgotten about them. They didn't matter at the time. I took pictures like a thief in a palace.
I needed to immerse myself in it. I needed to remember- and to memorialize the damage, and I knew I would never have this opportunity again. I thought that if I could keep something of this place, frozen like a fly in amber, I might mend myself with it later- if that was possible.
Through the photographs I wanted to make sense of it and maybe create some meaning out of this tragedy. In doing so, I might transform it into a thing that had some 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 had wanted to protect her. I would protect this last moment from disappearing into nothingness- as she had disappeared from me- and from my life. Somehow, with the photographs, I could search their record and at least find something meaningful in what was 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 awkwardly tried to fold the now strangely heavy rug to get it into the uncooperative garbage bag. I tied a knot at its opening and set it in the far corner. A sweet metallic smell lingered in the air and sickened me with every breath. It was an odor like nothing I had ever experienced before. The blood was dark and thick but was already drying at the edges, 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 repeatedly poured what was left of Debbie down the sink and refilled the bucket. It felt wrong. I longed to dip a corner of a handkerchief into the crimson ocean at my feet. 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, but all I had to do it with was the t-shirt on my back. I talked myself down, telling myself that this impulse was sick- as sick as she had been. And so, I cleaned it all away. I did it as my last gift to her, cleaning her floor down to the fresh and uncaring tile. In order to survey the scene, I took a position in front of the couch across from where she fell. Behind me on the couch, Debbie’s sheepskin jacket lay neatly folded where she’d left it across one of the large leather cushions. I was reminded from where I stood that I would have to clean the dog vomit and mess off of the sliding door. Before me, the sun was getting low, and throwing its light sideways through the glass. It was then by chance I looked up at the transom. If I hadn't been standing in that exact spot, with the late sun streaming through as it was, I might have missed it- the faintest marks of a Christian cross on the glass looking like it had been drawn there by a finger dipped in oil. I looked elsewhere along the length of the room, and found a cross smeared onto each upper pane. It was then I walked the house and found one on every single window. Before now they’d been invisible. Now they commanded all of my attention. She had told me she'd invited a psychic to bless the house. These crosses were the fruit of one of her many attempts to rid the house of the evil ghosts and spirits that haunted her. She was frightened and in a hopeless state of solitude- literally out of her mind with fear. There had been nothing I could ever say or do to give her any comfort, no matter how hard I’d tried. The crosses spoke to me of her aloneness. They told the story of a beloved sister condemned to her own mind’s unbridled menace and the only path to relief she was able to find. I sat back down 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 of her lapel and I wept.