A Simple Photo and a Childhood Friend: A Hopeful Moment at a Lonely Time

The tulips around the house burst into bloom the week I arrived at the home that had belonged to a woman I’ll call Katy. (In sharing my experiences as the owner of a biohazard remediation service, I change the names of people we serve in order to protect their privacy.) In fact, it was the flowerbeds around Katy’s home that motivated a neighbor to call the police. Although the neighbor who telephoned for assistance didn’t have regular direct contact with Katy, she was well aware that the 80-something year old woman took meticulous care of her garden plots. Although the tulips were in full bloom, the flowerbeds at Katy’s home had largely filled with weeds which was a site unseen at the residence.

The Santa Monica Police Department dispatched a patrol unit the residence for a welfare check. As a result of the welfare check, a grim discovery was made. The police and the coroner were able to determine that she had died a few months earlier. They concluded that she had fallen, broken her hip, and remained on the floor until she finally passed away.

As it turned out, Katy had a daughter living in Santa Monica. However, mother and daughter had not spoken in many, many months. I never learned why the estrangement occurred, but it was the daughter who contacted our company to address the cleanup and remediation needed following Katy’s death.

The tragedy of unattended and undiscovered deaths occurs more frequently than many people might imagine. In my business, statistics really don’t matter. Rather, it’s each individual case that hits home.

The scene of Katy’s death was to be expected. If an unattended and undiscovered death occurs, the human decomposition process leaves waste and contaminants that present a challenging biohazard remediation process. Katy evidently somehow fell in the carpeted living room of her home. Because of the extensive damage done to the carpeting because of the natural process of decomposition, my team removed the carpet. The underlying flooring required intense work to address the damage caused to it due to the seepage of blood and other bodily fluids through the carpeting itself.

When we finished that work, we undertook a general house cleaning and dealing with the personal items in the residence. Katy obviously took great care of her home and the general house cleanup was not a huge challenge whatsoever.

Getting to Know Katy

A challenging part of my work as a biohazard remediation specialist is undertaking unattended death cleanups. The scenes themselves can fairly be described as gruesome. Moreover, there is a sallowness that hangs over these assignments that arises from the fact that a person died alone and lacked connections with others many of us deem natural. There can be any number of reasons why this disconnect from others occurred. But, the “why” of how a person ended up so isolated that his or her death is not discovered for an extended period of time is no longer the issue. The reality that it happened is.

Although Katy’s daughter lived relatively close to her mother, she did not come to the residence herself. She sent her husband over to handle the business end of addressing the aftermath of Katy’s death and to get the house generally cleaned and packed up. Despite no connection with her mother, the daughter inherited everything, including the house. Indeed, she had a real estate agent at the property after we completed the biohazard remediation portion of our assignment but before we finished the general house cleanup and packing.

The only real directive we received from the husband on behalf of Katy’s daughter was to throw away personal mementoes and pack up or prepare to move out anything of value. She wanted to keep home furnishings but wanted nothing to do with the boxes of personal life treasurers Katy amassed throughout her lifetime. Even when disposing of certain items is challenging and sad, we do what we are told. We oftentimes wait until the very end of a project to dispose of personal mementos in the event there is a change of heart.

A Phone Call

Towards the end of our work at Katy’s home, the house phone rang. We were startled – no one had called on that phone while we were present in the house and evidently no one had phoned much at all (if at all) after Katy died. I don’t really have a protocol for answering a house phone. In this case, I suppose because I was standing next to it, I answered it more instinctively than anything else.

The caller identified herself as Karen and was a little taken aback or confused by my answering the call. Understandably, she expected Katy. Peggy explained that she was the daughter of a woman named Claire. Claire and Katy were friends and got together from time to time for coffee and cards. Turns out that directly before Katy fell and passed away, Claire herself had fallen and broken her hip. She had been hospitalized and then did a stint in a rehab center. Peggy explained that her mother suffered from Alzheimer’s.

“Look, I’ve been so remiss in keeping up with Katy. I did try to call a few times but I didn’t think anything of her not answering the phone. I just assumed she was out somewhere and I didn’t leave messages,” Karen explained.

Karen went on to explain that Katy and her mom had known each other since they were girls. “My mom can’t remember what she did an hour ago, but she can remember specific events with Katy when they were in the third grade,” she added.

Later that afternoon, a car pulled into Katy’s driveway and two sharply dressed women got out of the car. They came to the door and introduced themselves: Karen and her mother Claire. Claire held a bouquet of tulips, which I would soon learn were Katy’s favorite flowers.

“My mom wanted to come by,” Karen explained. The Realtor happened to be on site. For that reason, and understanding the connection Claire had with Katy, I invited them in the house. Clair immediately went to the dining room table and placed the bouquet.

“This is where we play cards, Katy and I,” she said, really more to herself than to anyone in the room. The Realtor, fiddling with staging issues in advance of putting the house on the market, retrieved a vase and put the fresh tulips into it.

I was using the corner of the dining room as one of my packing staging areas. There was a box I had been filling with mementos that Katy’s daughter didn’t want, open and partially filled. Claire peeked into the box and in a beat pulled out an old framed photo. She smiled brightly.

She held up the photo, facing outward in the general direction of where her daughter, the Realtor, and I stood. “This is me … this is me and Katy.” The photo was off two beautiful young women. “We graduated from high school and this was me and Katy going to a party that our parents had for us.”

Claire clasped the photo to her chest. At barely above a whisper, she asked “Can I have this?”

Although the photo was in the proverbial trash pile, I checked with Katy’s daughter’s husband, who’d become my point of contact, to make sure it was acceptable to give the picture to Claire. The husband said it was fine and then he whispered. “I’m so glad someone is taking at least that photo.”

As I reflect on this job, I make note that even when a job is particularly disheartening in different ways, there so often is a hopeful moment. That certainly was the case with this endeavor. My step was lightened knowing that Katy and her life were not entirely forgotten.