We’re all Saints and Sinners

While deleting old text messages on my phone, I came across a message that took me back to the start of what has been an unbelievably bizarre year. The text was from my friend Betty. It read, “A fire truck is at Debbie’s. I think she has passed.”

Our neighbor Debbie was an odd bird, who could be sweet or difficult, depending on how she perceived someone at a particular moment in time. We neighbors could never determine what caused these mercurial mood swings. If you saw her walking on the greenway, donning her sunglasses and at her predictable cadence, you were not to speak to her. She made that clear on several occasions to unsuspecting residents who greeted her. She did not care how abrupt and off-putting her words, never seeming to link that particular behavior with how she was perceived. However, if you encountered her in the grocery store or in her driveway while walking past, extracting yourself from a long running, one-sided conversation was nearly impossible. Ironically, the conversations often involved how someone had slighted her and treated her unkindly.

Debbie lived in an adorable home — almost like a child’s playhouse — with an immaculate yard. She had lived there the majority of her life. I never heard anything about her father, but she and her mother shared the home until her mother passed. My neighbor buddy David, the unofficial historian of Sunset Hills, provided context. “When her mother died,” he said, “I was the only one Debbie would let in the house. I was the only one she trusted.” He described her beliefs, which sounded rigid and strict. He also hinted that there might be something amiss with our friend, noting that she sometimes had unrealistic ideas about people.

Debbie felt more connected to animals than to people and had an opinion on how pets should be treated. For entertainment or income, she worked as a pet sitter. When I encountered her while walking our dog to the greenway, she would talk to our pup in baby talk, showering her in praise and love. Our pup loved her back (the treats didn’t hurt) and it was apparent that these interactions eased some of the loneliness that I imagined she felt. You could not pass her house undetected if you were walking a dog. She would clothesline you, no matter how brisk the pace. Out she would run, clad in ballet slippers and housecoat, treats in hand. She also fed a few stray cats in the neighborhood, which she counted as her only friends.

My mom used to collect orphans like Debbie. There was a long list of misfits who Mom would take under her wing and treat with dignity and respect. There was Eddie Dean, who worked with his parents at the textile mill where my parents worked. A closeted gay, he had Ronald McDonald red hair and sold Avon. You couldn’t have painted a bigger target on the poor soul. There was Bonnie and Dale, a couple who found their way to one another much later in life, but still acted like teenagers in love. There was Mark, a middle-aged man with some cognitive disabilities, who sold Watkins products door-to-door, earning enough to purchase a Chevy Citation, his pride and joy. And Eula, who lived up on the mountain with her parents. Eula turned common complaints into poetic tapestries of gloom. She was very hard to love, but Mom managed somehow.

Debbie sometimes reminded me of Eula. There had been happier days in Debbie’s life and she found herself, like the rest of us at different points on our journey, at a loss for where she fit in to the grand scheme of things, longing for a place and a time that had passed.

Once, when I was on her good list and she needed a favor, we embarked on a trip to sell a small table and chairs she no longer wanted in her home. It was the first time I had been past the back stoop. The house was sparse and everything was spotless. Looking around, it struck me that everything was original, even the paper roll-down shades, essentially a time capsule. There were no family photos, only pictures of horses, puppies, and kitties, like the ones you might find in the room of an elementary or middle schooler. Aside from her home phone, there were no modern conveniences, or interruptions such as Internet or cable TV.

We loaded the furniture into my car and drove to several places around town, including one quite a ways up Glenwood that was no longer in business, looking for a potential buyer. Along the way and between stops, Debbie told me a bit about her life. She and her parents moved to Raleigh when she was a toddler. She went to a women’s only college and studied in Hawaii for a year. She had a Japanese roommate, and she found that interesting. There was also a trip to Europe, which spanned several weeks. She loved the food, the architecture, and the people and hoped some day to return. Her descriptions were vivid and the details she shared made the trip sound as if she had just returned home.

During this conversation she seemed approachable, well traveled, and personable. It was a pleasant day. So pleasant that I forgot about the fact that I had spent hours schlepping a small dining room suite around Raleigh in the boot of my car. After the several stops with no buyer, she decided that we should call it a day, but lamented we still had possession of the table and chairs. I suggested we donate it to The Green Chair Project, a local charity and she agreed, so our mission was complete. At the end of the day, I found myself thinking why don’t we see this side of Debbie?

Debbie’s moods did not stay stable for long and shortly after our enjoyable excursion I received two angry voicemails, both so long that the machine cut off in mid-sentence. I shrugged it off knowing that there would be something she needed and the pendulum would swing back in my direction. And it did, around the first of January.

The first phone message sounded like the usual Debbie. There was something she wanted to ask me, her voice not sounding much different than normal. I assumed she was calling to complain about how a neighbor was treating his dog (which she disapproved of) or if I knew about a particular person in the neighborhood. I put off returning her call because I didn’t have the energy at that particular moment. The next day she called and left a follow up message. There was urgency in her voice, so I returned her call. “I need a favor. I haven’t been feeling well and I wondered if you could run to the store for me?” “Sure,” I replied. As I headed out the door, my husband, who was not a Debbie fan, warned me that he did not want to hear whining about whatever I had gotten myself into. There was no way either of us could have known what the fortnight that followed would bring.

When I arrived at her back stoop, Debbie greeted me with a detailed list and cash. She was frail, thin, and unkempt, which was unusual for her. Although she clearly felt awful, she explained in excruciating detail what type of cat treats she wanted for the resident stray, and the other items, having to sit down to rest between directives. That visit became one of many from neighbors, her church family, and me. Debbie’s beliefs precluded traditional medical treatment. Collectively we watched, feeling helpless, as Debbie slid into a dependent state where she no longer had the strength to walk, stand or sit. But she could still bark orders.

On one of these visits, I begged her to let me call an ambulance. “No,” she snarled. “You can call, but I won’t go. I’m dying here at home.” After a flurry of emotional phone calls, her church arranged for a nurse to come care for her. The nurse came, bathed Debbie and made her comfortable. Her church family cleaned her house, as close to her high standards as possible. Text messages and emails kept our neighborhood circle informed on the events transpiring.

On January 21, 2020, Debbie passed away on her own terms, in her own house. For that we were thankful.

We neighbors were left with mixed emotions. Each of us had stories of how we had been puzzled by Debbie’s behavior and interactions, how her behavior had often made her an easy target for the ridicule and angst of others. Yet each of us felt guilt about how someone we saw almost daily could live such an isolated, lonesome life. Suspicious of almost everything and everybody, the only Will that Debbie left was scribbled on a piece of paper found in her bedroom. Everything was left to her church. She did not want a service. One of the church members suggested we plan something informal for April, where we could bring our pets. Then COVID happened, and everything was put on hold.

Out of curiosity I searched for information on Debbie. The only thing I could find was a yearbook photo online from the college she attended, showing a smiling freshman.

After the tidy, tiny house was sold, bulldozers came in and hauled it to the landfill. Gone was the time capsule, the photos and pages from animal calendars that served as décor. With the exception of one small yearbook photo, taken fifty years ago, and an obituary notice, Debbie’s off-the-grid life will be largely forgotten. A large house — too large for the small lot — will take the place of the brick abode with the yellow trim. Life will continue and the seasons will come and go. My hope is that after COVID we’ll all channel some of the patience we’ve learned so we’ll be more accepting of the odd birds like Debbie. After all, this is November 1, All Saints Day, when we light a candle in remembrance of those who have passed, saints and sinners alike. We are all a combination of both.

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