We Should Have Knocked
Our neighbor in the next apartment was old.
We had never met her but we could hear her moving around and talking to her cat. Her TV was always on too, blaring nothing but breaking news. Her door was right next to ours, so when we left or came home, it was a constant sound.
Some mail had been left at her doorstep a few days before. It was still there today. Today was Sunday. This was prior to the age of Covid so quite unusual for mail to be left unattended.
Kati and I spent a couple minutes worrying over this, standing at her door. Should we knock and make sure she’s okay? We could hear the TV. Breaking news! Maybe she hadn’t left in some time. Maybe she didn’t care. Maybe a lot of things. In the end, we didn’t knock.
The next day I came home from work and there was a huge fire truck outside our apartment building. I walked up the stairs and saw firefighters talking to her through the door. She was alive. But she wouldn’t (or couldn’t) open the door.
The rest of the building was out in the hall too, waiting to see what happened. I quickly learned that all the neighbors knew each other. Except me. I was the stranger here.
The trigger seemed to be her car was blocking a neighbor’s driveway. They threatened to tow. When one of our apartment’s neighbors saw the note on her car, they knocked on her door. When there was no reply, they called 911.
One of the firefighters glanced at me. “You live here?” Motioning to my door. I let them into our apartment and showed them through to the bedroom. The fire escape outside that window shared her kitchen window. I was sure they could get in. But her window was locked.
Now I was in my apartment but I wanted to know what happened, so I kept my door ajar. I couldn’t see anyone, but I could hear them. “Ma’am, if you don’t open the door we will have to break it down!” That seemed logical.
I’ve always loved firefighters. I think in America you’re primed to. They are the iconic heroes. Bigger than cops, bigger than the armed forces, bigger than SEAL Team 6. Firefighters must pay the ultimate sacrifice to save us from the flames.
So it was weird when a new group of firefighters came into the building and one of them sounded different. “What you get into today?” He was asking a colleague. I couldn’t hear their reply. But he said, “Yeah, we got a heart attack, car crash, someone even died!” There was laughing, back slapping. He sounded like a frat bro asshole.
Meanwhile the firefighter at the door kept telling the old woman he would need to break down the door. I stood in my hallway looking at my own door, wondering what the hell was going on.
The firetruck outside roared to life and the ladder on top was extended towards her other windows. One of those was open. Our apartment block is old and not well built so I could feel it when a firefighter jumped into her living room. I could feel his steps reverberating as he crossed to her door. And I could smell her when he opened it.
I wasn’t prepared for that smell. The smell of piss and shit and maybe cat. It smacked me so hard I retreated farther down my hall, covering my mouth. But the door was still open. I could still hear.
The bro firefighter’s voice. “How long have you been on the floor? Looks like you’re bleeding from your anus.”
I should have gone out right then and gotten the guy’s name. Found his supervisor. Maybe get him fired. But I didn’t. It broke me though. Whatever decency that poor woman had was gone when he said that. They took her away and she died a couple days later.
We met her son and later her daughter as they cleaned out her apartment. They both lived on the East coast. They had no idea she had dementia. Or that she was a major hoarder. They hadn’t seen her in a long time.
They did tell us that she had fallen in front of the door and couldn’t get up. They weren’t sure how long but it must have been days before the firefighters found her.
Kati and I nodded as we listened, didn’t dare to mention what was on our minds. That she was on the floor that Sunday, reaching for the door. The breaking news drowning out her meek screams. We were right there.
And we should have knocked.
April 24, 2020