Who should have been my neighbor's keeper?

July 06, 1994|By Diana L. Spencer

MY NEIGHBOR, Linda, died a month ago this week, bringing to a close two of the most bizarre years of my life.

Linda suffered from a mental illness and refused to take medication that would have helped her live a more normal life, her doctors said. As a result, sharing a common wall with her in a Charles Village row house was a wrenching experience.

She would bang on the floor or furniture and/or scream (often including a stream of profanity) for hours on end.

Because of Linda, I entered and exited my home with caution. I never knew when she might decide to throw things out her front door and into the street, including furniture, dishes and clothing. During such tirades I parked my car down the block or across the street to avoid damage.

Linda became a key source of friction between me and my boyfriend, who owns our rowhouse. He lives downstairs, and I upstairs. I knew about Linda before moving in but decided that she couldn't be that bad. I was wrong.

Over time, my boyfriend and I became, in a way, her unpaid caretakers, a role her nearby family had apparently all but given up. After this past winter's snow and ice storms, we cleared a path in front of her house and watched her navigate the slippery sidewalk, hoping she wouldn't fall.

When she threw bags of trash in front of neighboring houses, or even her own yard, we removed them. We intercepted salesmen or Jehovah's Witnesses before they reached Linda's door. A stranger on her porch was likely to prompt her to scream.

Despite all our efforts, the imbalance in her brain caused her to see us as enemies. Last September, as we were leaving to go to dinner, Linda came running out of her house waving a hammer at my boyfriend and daring him to attack her. We summoned the police.

By the time they were able to get her out of the house and into a waiting van she had bitten one officer and most of the neighbors were on the sidewalk watching the event.

Linda was hospitalized for three months. My boyfriend testified at an involuntary admissions hearing that Linda was not able to live alone and needed someone to make sure she took her medication. But, apparently, the system was not geared to accomplish that.

Within months of returning home, Linda's banging woke us at 4 a.m. Near tears, I went to the top of the stairs and looked down to discover my equally distressed boyfriend shrugging his shoulders back at me.

The policeman who answered our call said there was little he could do about her unless she posed a danger to herself or others. He also told us about the time Linda was arrested for walking nude down Saint Paul Street.

After the hospitalization for the hammer incident, Linda was relatively quiet for a few months. However, on the morning of June 5 she came out onto her front porch and began screaming for food. At one point, she stopped to get her mail from her mailbox and went to sit down but somehow fell and hit her head. We called 911.

There she lay, a short, wide woman in her 50s, with long and unkept black and gray hair and matching whiskers sprouting from her chin, her pale, flabby thighs only partly covered by her lint-speckled black corduroy skirt. Her blue socks and trademark pink sneakers were bright reminders that she had once been a child; that she had not always lived such a desolate life.

The police and the ambulance attendants spoke gently to Linda. We told them her name, her history of mental illness and hospitalizations, and that her family lived nearby. At first silent, 11 Linda spoke in order to refuse treatment. Soon the police left and Linda was alone again.

Six hours after our call to police, members of Linda's family arrived and fed her on the porch. Then they carried Linda inside. She apparently was incapable or unwilling to stand.

The next morning, I looked out to see Linda's family crying, inconsolable. They told police how they had tried the previous day to get Linda to go to the hospital. They cried until the white van came, and Linda's body, now cloaked in a red bag, was taken away.

In the wake of her death, I'm left with questions about what else we could have done to help Linda. What do you do when an obviously disturbed person is left to cope alone -- whatever the reasons? How many others are out there like Linda, hopelessly alone in their madness? How many neighbors of such people are like I used to be -- angry, afraid and wanting to live anywhere but in their own homes?

Diana L. Spencer writes from Baltimore.

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