If I am honest with myself, I took the job in the summer of 1995 managing two small apartment complexes in Seattle to avoid having to interact with the world. A small stipend and a free apartment offered me and my husband part of what we needed to get by. I changed a multitude of light bulbs, 25 watt, as the owner, Mrs. Eng, was one of the cheapest and most capitalistic people I have ever met. Unclogged toilets, vacuumed halls and collect rent monies; on paper it appeared a simple job.
I first met Lillian when she had locked herself out of her apartment at 11pm on a Saturday. I was annoyed. After only a month on the job, I had let in about ten “locked out” individuals and was constantly “disturbed” by requests from 7am to, more often then not, 2am. You would be amazed how drunken individuals on the third floor can clog up and overflow a bathroom sink which, then, proceeds to leak down and gather into the second and first floor apartments. Toilets, and what people consider “flushable,” are another issue: food, inanimate objects, cat litter and, my personal favorite, shredded paper. Lillian’s request was tame by comparison—yet it was with her that I chose to put my foot down and set limits. I had to start somewhere: “Didn’t you get my notice about my hours? 9am-6pm everyday but Sunday. Sundays are mine. You should give a friend a key, you know, just for emergencies like this one.” Lillian looked flustered but, as I would find out later, she was not one to blend in with the walls: “I am sorry, I really am, but I had chemo today and no one was available to take me and I have become forgetful.”
Lillian looked to me about fifty, black, sunken in the eyes and creases of her body and indeed skinny enough to have been having cancer treatments for a while. A month later, two weeks after I went to change the light bulbs in her ceilings (I splurged and got her 60 watt) she died. No friends. No family. Lillian ended up with me as her estate executor.
Death is disturbing or calm but always a fact and experienced different by everyone. In high school, a young friend died in my arms from an asthmatic attack after we had argued over who would end up marrying Julian Lennon. By default of her death, the task fell to me, but I had lost interest. It happened in the house of a Vietnamese friend of mine days before my high school graduation. I found out that I was no longer welcomed into the house because the housekeeper and my friend’s mother believed that the spirit of the girl had attached herself to me. They might have been correct as my dreams were filled with her for weeks on end. I never saw those friends again—I was taboo.
Years before, when I was around 10 or 11, I was told about my grandfather’s death. Standing in the kitchen in Seattle, my sister Deborah and I were laughing at jokes told by my father. Sex jokes mixed with nuns or priests were a favorite for this Irish Catholic/Jewish/Pagan bastardized household. Have you ever heard about the good Irish Catholic girl in competition with the good Irish Catholic boy? They were competing for which sex was the best. The boy said he could run faster because he was a boy. Of course, the girl beat him. The same was true for climbing trees and catching frogs. One day, the boy was convinced that he figured out the one thing the girl could never beat. He pulled down his pants and showed the girl his genitals. The girl just laughed, pulled up her skirt and said: “My mom said that with one of ‘these,’ I can get all of those I want!” Gut splitting, cry inducing jokes. It was at this moment mom chose to tell us that Grandpa had died. We laughed. We couldn’t stop laughing: “No really, he is dead. Six feet under. Bugs are now crawling in and out of his body. He is gone. Finito. The end.”
Our tears of laughter turned into tears of grief. Ironically, like James Baldwin’s classic image in “Notes of a Native Son,” he died of gangrene and amputation. Starting with the toe and then the foot and then the knee, his right and left legs disappeared. But they couldn’t cut quickly enough to kill the disease. I was to find out later that I was the last person in the family he recognized and talked to as if he knew them. Since then, many people have approached me at their hour of death. My mom called it the Madden curse: “Can’t be helped child, it’s the Madden curse. Witches, the lot of us women. It’s one of the things you must learn to deal with because it is what we Madden women do.” Standing in Lillian’s apartment, I knew it was my lot— no walls would shield me from any curse or reality. And, like my friend in high school, Lillian was not yet ready to depart. I was not so much an accident, but her chosen vessel—all of which she would teach me in her death.