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May 5, 2024

Two horrific deaths

WARNING: This letter contains graphic details related to death that may offend some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

This morning at the coffee shop, I have the terrible fortune to hear straight from a real police officer’s mouth about all the horrible moments that some humans tolerate and suffer through until the day they expire. Why am I sharing this almost unthinkable story with you this morning? To encourage all of us to get to know and spare a moment for our neighbours, friends and all those who seem to be in need.

While he was on duty one day, my officer friend received a call from the janitor of a 6-unit apartment block complaining about an unusual smell and insisted that he come by for a wellness check. As he approached the building, which was already known to him, a foul odour was noticeable. Could it be dirt? Had something burned? Rotten meat? It’s likely something much worse, he suspected. The two men walked up the stairs and stopped on the third-floor landing in front of apartment No. 6. The officer recognized the smell of putrefaction.

— “Someone died in the apartment?,” asks the janitor.
— “A dead body starts to smell within 72 hours, depending on the cause of death,” replies the officer.

I asked my friend how the other tenants in the surrounding apartments hadn’t smelled the strange stench of death. “Most probably because they weren’t familiar with it.” He adds that it’s a smell that’s impossible to forget.

When the police officer enters apartment No. 6 with the janitor’s master key, he immediately sees the body of a man in a wheelchair presenting signs of obvious death. Flaps of brown and black flesh hang from the man’s skull, his cheeks are sunken and empty, and a battalion of large black flies cover the dead man’s eyes.

The police officer noticed that the marble threshold of the bathroom had likely blocked the elderly man’s wheelchair. Unable to move, he may have died from exhaustion or starvation. “A real tragedy,” says the building janitor, with tears in his eyes. The officer continues his apartment check and, as he enters the single bedroom located next to the kitchen, he discovers a second inanimate body, covered with a sheet up to the chest, the head darkened.

The officer immediately turns back, calls his superior and requests the presence of a detective and another colleague to fill out the two death reports. According to the janitor, the two elderly people were over 80. Were they sick? Alone in the apartment? Did the couple have any children? The police set out to find the answers and determine the cause of their deaths.

When the second police officer arrived to write the report, the two of them worked diligently to preserve and keep the scene intact. Wearing protective gloves, one of the officers took a notebook from the night table next to the deceased woman. Under the watchful eye of the detective, the officer opened the book and found the first names of three women, no surnames. He dialed the number under the first name, identified himself and asked the woman at the other end to identify herself. The woman instantly asked what the man was doing at her parents’ place. He explained that the two tenants in the apartment he was calling from had just been found dead.

— “That’s impossible!” said the woman, panicked. “I spoke to Mom yesterday morning!”
The officer didn’t contradict her. Given the advanced state of decomposition of the two bodies, their deaths occurred approximately 10 to 15 days prior.

Dear readers, I am telling you this profoundly sad story because it breaks my soul and because my officer friend says that it’s the tragic fate of too many elderly people. The old man in his wheelchair and his wife, who was barely able to walk according to the janitor, lived in a single bedroom apartment on the third floor of a building with no elevator. Who cared for whom?

My officer friend has been retired for 20 years now. Last year, he found himself single again. As he recounted this sad story, he wondered if he would be able to care for himself in his cottage until the end. He has two long staircases to manage – one that goes down to his basement workshop and another that leads up to the second-floor bedroom.

The story my friend shared with our little coffee shop trio this morning stirs up a lot of questions, in him, in George (82) and in me, of course. We stay to drink a second coffee and to think aloud. “We have to think about it fast,” says the retired officer, “for age flees like a thief, and we could be left alone, isolated, poorly setup, far from our loved ones and ignored by our neighbours.”

“We are all alone,” continues George. “We are born alone and we die alone, like old, confused, starved mice, hidden away in the back of the cupboard more often than not...”

As for me, a few weeks short of 77, I believe that, if old age is a time when the body gradually declines, it’s also an incredible opportunity to finally slow down. It’s a time when we can take care of our mind in a way we never had a chance to while making a living. Today, this intelligent body is forcing us to slow down most of the time, so we can pamper our little hearts and the friends who surround us more.

Let’s take care of one another. Call your friends, keep in touch with your neighbours, take it upon yourself to check in with lonely and aging souls that so desperately need our care. Let’s love every minute of our life today. Perhaps the more we stretch it, the more likely we’ll deserve a few drops of wisdom.