He wasn’t drunk.
He was dead.
In a box.
It was 11:30 am. I was working. It was a little early for my mail carrier Patty’s arrival. But from my upstairs window next to my desk I saw her pull up. She got out of her car and walked towards the door with a box. I galloped downstairs thinking my Amazon purchase arrived. I opened the door and she was already gone, but the box was beside my doormat. I picked it up and walked back into the house happily, expectantly.
As I carried the box toward the kitchen counter, I thought to myself, “man this is some heavy box for facial cleanser!” The delivery text from Amazon just came that morning. “Didn’t I order 16 ounces?” I thought to myself.
I looked more closely at the box and the label said Joe Davis, in care of Mrs. Groovy. “Oh sh*t,” I exclaim to myself, “I didn’t expect him so soon.”
I called my brother. He answered while he ran errands on Third Avenue in Manhattan. I heard sirens in the background. “How are you?” he asked. “Weirded out,” I said. “Cousin Joe just arrived in a box. I thought my Amazon delivery came but it was Joe.” “Oh, yeah,” my brother said, “I emailed you tracking information yesterday.” I wasn’t on email for a few days. My brother laughed. I laughed too.
This is not my sick attempt at being flippant, uncaring or cruel. But if I don’t laugh and poke fun at the situation, I will continue to cry.
The story began three weeks earlier. It was a Friday night and our home phone rang at 9:45 pm. I knew immediately it wasn’t good news. Not that 9:45 is late, but anyone familiar with Mr. Groovy and me knows we don’t start yapping at that hour. The call came from a restricted number. It stopped ringing—no message. This happened three more times until, finally, I heard these words on our answering machine, “This is detective Michaels from the 67th precinct in Brooklyn. I’m trying to locate someone who knows Joe Davis. Please call me at…” “Hello”—I pick up.
I thought maybe Joe was in jail—perhaps because of drugs, or vagrancy. But no, he was dead. He had a heart attack at age 53.
Joe lived alone in a studio apartment in a lousy section of Brooklyn. He didn’t do much—he slept late, spent time with a friend and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. That afternoon someone placed a 911 call from a Brooklyn park where Joe collapsed. When the ambulance arrived Joe refused treatment. He said he was fine. He was overheated (it was very hot in New York that Friday). Early that evening he died at his friend’s apartment.
If you get the idea that Joe was lazy and depressed, you’re not far off. He also had mental/emotional issues. My aunt and uncle adopted him when he was five days old. They loved Joe but they spoiled him. He was a difficult child. He often got in trouble in school. He probably had ADD and many other ailments that were not part of the vernacular in the 1960s and 70s. He had a very high IQ but didn’t apply himself. He smoked a lot of pot and was caught stealing and setting fires.
Joe joined the military when he was eighteen—my uncle somehow arranged it. But Joe lasted less than a year. His father pulled a few strings for a general discharge—neither honorable nor dishonorable. Before long, Joe got back together with a high school sweetheart, got a job, and got married.
Joe kept out of trouble for a while. My aunt and uncle lived in Florida, but he barely saw them. Their relationship was strained. When he visited his focus was to borrow their car, play golf, and eat out. Years passed and my uncle developed Alzheimer’s and went into a VA hospital. Joe didn’t see him. He couldn’t cope with the situation. He was in denial about his parents growing old. My mother called Joe a “Good Time Charlie.” He always looked for fun and showed no interest in his parents’ welfare. Still, in his own way he was very sweet. He just never fully grew up and he had emotional problems. I have very fond memories of him and the rest of my cousins, when we played together as kids over Easter or Thanksgiving.
My mother and Joe’s mom/my aunt are identical twins—well, they were identical twins. They lived in condominium apartments next door to each other in Florida. My mother died three years ago. A few months later my aunt fell, went into the hospital, and then rehab. My brother, Mr. Groovy and I moved her to Assisted Living in Charlotte upon her release from rehab. My brother and I hold power-of-attorney over her. She’s now in a nursing home 15 minutes from Mr. Groovy and me.
In his late 20s, Joe suffered what was called back then a “nervous breakdown.” He worked at a copy shop in Manhattan where he ran off large projects overnight. He enjoyed working nights and sleeping late. He was employed at the copy shop for a number of years but was laid off when the printing business began dwindling. Joe attempted to look for work a few times but he didn’t know how to do anything else. And he refused to learn how to do anything else.
A third cousin’s father-in-law offered Joe a job—but Joe refused to take it. He said he wasn’t “commuting to New Jersey.” His wife worked in marketing at an advertising agency in Manhattan. They lived in Queens and she commuted by subway. Most days she returned home from a full day of work only to find Joe on the sofa in front of the TV. Eventually Joe’s wife left him.
For a while Joe stayed with friends and moved around from spare room to spare room or sofa to sofa—until the well ran dry. One day he realized he had absolutely nowhere to go and asked our uncle (the brother of the twins) for help. My uncle was a social worker who ran a center in Westchester, NY. He had many connections and got Joe help from the Department of Social Services. Joe got on full disability and moved into a group home in Brooklyn under the auspices of a nonprofit social service agency. Later the program moved him to a studio apartment where he lived alone. He told me he had mixed feelings about that. He liked the quiet and didn’t miss other people annoying him, but he was lonely.
The social service agency didn’t heavily supervise Joe. The agency paid his rent and gave him a little pocket change. I only spoke with Joe once or twice a year. The last time we talked he thanked me (and my brother and Mr. Groovy) for taking care of his mother. He recognized he was in no position to do that. He told me he never expected his life to “turn out this way.”
After I received the news that Friday night I was numb for a few days. I knew Joe was a heavy cigarette smoker and was overweight. But I expected him to live at least into his 70s. My brother and I tried to connect with Joe’s social service agency about his arrangements. As far as we knew they were responsible for him. My brother and I weren’t named as any kind of guardian or healthcare surrogate. The only reason the detective called me was because she found my North Carolina number in Joe’s cell phone, and his friend thought Joe’s mom lived in North Carolina.
My brother called Joe’s social service agency several times. Whoever answered the phone only took messages or connected my brother to voicemail. They wouldn’t give out contact information for Joe’s case worker and no one returned calls. My brother phoned detective Michaels and learned Joe was at the morgue. My brother spoke with the coroner’s office and they also tried to reach the social service agency. Nothing.
My brother began researching funeral homes and cremation services. He called the cemetery in Florida where my aunt has a plot. They offered a niche if we chose cremation. Even a niche costs thousands of dollars. And they’re pretty awful. Our parents are in niches and my brother and I refer to them as mailboxes. We don’t visit the mailboxes.
My brother located a cremation service in Staten Island that wasn’t too concerned about the legalities surrounding the paperwork. My brother called the Florida cemetery back and asked if we could bury Joe’s ashes with his mother, when the time comes. Although we joked about it, thinking perhaps she’d rather rest in peace. The cemetery official explained that ashes cannot be buried with a body in a Jewish cemetery—BUT, she said, what people do unofficially is their own business.
My aunt is 88 now. She has dementia and she’s wheel-chair bound. Her heart, lungs and appetite are good and she’s somewhat cheerful (although she was not cheerful prior to getting dementia). She doesn’t ask about Joe and we have no intention of telling her he died. We’re just thankful the detective called me, otherwise Joe might be buried in the potter’s field known as Hart Island in New York.
My mom and aunt’s mother—my grandmother, lived to be 97. So I think Joe’s box will sit on our bookshelf for a few years—next to Groovy Cat 1 and Groovy Cat 2. When we say goodbye to my aunt we’ll buy her a new handbag for the occasion. She loves the brand LeSportsac. We’ll honor her and Joe with a spiffy, colorful LeSportsac for placing Joe’s remains along side her.
No one has a contract with life—tomorrow might be game-over. Our debts, jobs, saving/investing goals and educations are important. But family, friends, love and good health bring true value to our lives. Find some quality moments each day—tell someone you love him or her, call a friend, take a walk in the park or look at the stars. Say “I appreciate you” to someone who may not know it. The time we have on earth is precious.