Friday, July 8, 2011

Kim, We Hardly Knew Ye

Kim Talley was found dead in his bathroom yesterday.

I didn't even know his last name until after the cops arrived. To us here in the neighborhood, he was simply "Kim," the cancer patient.

And right now, you know almost as much about him as we did.

Yeah... that much.

The Martin House

We'd known Kim for about two years, after he moved into the peach-colored brick house across the street. Formerly a conventional 1950's-vintage, single-family home, it had been converted into a hostel for cancer patients by a local cancer survivor, Carole Anne Smith.

An architect and businesswoman, Carole Anne had bought the aging Martin House from the Martin family heirs and turned almost every room into a single-room-occupancy apartment. Each remodeled room is available at an exceptionally low cost for patients being treated at our internationally-renowned Arlington Cancer Center here in town. All the patients get to share a common living area, kitchen, and laundry room, plus a secluded patio.

During her own battle with cancer several years ago, Carole Anne appreciated being able to return home every evening after arduous treatments, but she knew of other patients from out of town who were staying in local hotels. Since most of these treatments last several days, hotel tabs can get expensive quickly; plus, most hotels aren't known for their homey comforts. So in a burst of altruistic beneficence, Carole Anne purchased a couple of homes in residential neighborhoods here in Arlington for patients who would prefer a less industrial place to endure their treatments.

Her very first patient, a young man with his family from Louisiana, moved in before remodeling had even been finished. Arlington Cancer Center represented the last hope for this sickly father and husband, who arrived relatively full-figured and burly, but was emaciated the last time I saw him. After a year or so of fighting his disease, the father died in the hospital, and his bereaved family returned to Louisiana.

Not before, however, they'd cleaned out most of the Martin House of the furnishings Carole Anne had acquired for all the rooms and kitchen. Extended family members came over from Louisiana to help the new widow and her orphaned children pack up, and their packing included virtually everything that wasn't theirs. That blatant thievery really knocked the charitable wind out of Carole Anne for a while, but she plowed her energies back into her project, and before long, with other patients coming and going, Kim had moved in.

Kim Talley

Carole Anne made a point to come over and tell me about Kim, who was indeed a special case. He and whatever family he had were estranged from each other, for a reason she didn't fully understand. His cancer had cost him his voice box and most of his throat. So he kept a writing pad and pencil with him, and had developed an ability to grunt and wheeze some basic word sounds to communicate.

Indigent from years of expensive health issues, and chronically sick from the length and severity of his treatments, there seemed to be little he could do to provide for himself. Indeed, there were days where Kim could barely function. From what I gathered, most of his care at the cancer center was written off since he literally had no way to pay, and they'd gotten his medications covered by Medicaid.

Kim wasn't nearly as old as he looked, which on a good day, was about 85. I'm not kidding, or trying to be disrespectful. With skin which was practically translucent, surgical scars cris-crossing his neck, incision holes pock-marking both arms, a patchy hairline ravaged by chemotherapy, and glassy eyes bereft of emotion, the sight of him was disturbing, if not revolting. Sometimes new sutures would bleed, and yellow puss would drip down his neck.

Since he was so dangerously thin, he loved the summer heat here in Texas that wilts the rest of us. For a while, he drove an old, black Isuzu Trooper whose air conditioning had quit years ago, but that didn't bother him at all. Once, after the Isuzu broke down, a generous neighbor anonymously arranged to have it fixed at her expense. Last summer, however, it finally gave out for good, and another neighbor loaned Kim a nice bicycle for some modest transportation.

Final Weeks

Not that he always had the strength to ride it, however. The Martin House is perched on a slight hill, the base of which reaches the street, and lately, Kim sometimes needed to balance himself while mounting the bike by resting his feet on the slope of the lawn.

About two months ago, his Isuzu, which had been sitting in disrepair in a corner of the driveway, disappeared. A neighbor mentioned that he hadn't seen Kim in a few days. Finally, a neighbor called Carole Anne, who owns her own house elsewhere in Arlington, and asked after him.

As it turned out, Kim had been in the hospital, but none of us here in the neighborhood still knows why. Carole Anne had mentioned something about pneumonia, but somehow in the neighborhood grapevine, the idea that he'd undergone more cancer treatments got into the narrative.

At any rate, one afternoon I saw him again, on the front porch of the Martin House, in a thick sweat suit in 98-degree weather. The next day, I noticed he'd again come outside, but this time, was only wearing his underwear, and acting strangely. I went over to see if he was OK, and quickly discovered he was rather disoriented, but when I asked if he wanted me to call Carole Anne, he vigorously shook his head, and went inside.

After about a week, I learned from a neighbor that he'd witnessed further disoriented behavior by Kim, in his underwear - again. Another neighbor said she'd seen him in the middle of the street, lurching around in circles like a drunken sailor. Finally, one evening, Kim fell off of his bike in front of the neighbor who'd loaned it to him in the first place, who marched Kim back inside the Martin House with instructions to let us drive him to wherever he really needed to go.

Anything More?

By this time, our little cluster of neighbors had become frustrated at Kim's distressing condition, our ignorance regarding ways to provide effective support, and what appeared to be a certain ambivalence on Carole Anne's part regarding his care. Little did we know that Carole Ann had already decided Kim no longer could function safely on his own. She'd been phoning every agency and hospital she could think of, trying to get more help for him.

Since Carole Anne is neither a family member, a legal guardian, or power of attorney, however, even her efforts were proving futile. She grew increasingly angry that nobody wanted to help a sickly, indigent man who couldn't talk who wasn't a senior citizen or a veteran. Various government programs would provide medication, some public health benefits would cover hospitalization, but no minimal-care housing facility would - or could - open their doors for somebody like Kim. That had been partly the reason Carole Anne had offered to let him stay at the Martin House in the first place.

Last week, Kim fell off his bicycle again, scuffing his legs, whose skin was as fragile as Kleenex. He was so weak, he couldn't even pick himself up off of the pavement. Another neighbor and I happened to be in our yards when we heard him fall, and went over to help him. Seeing him there, splayed across the pavement underneath his bike, he reminded me of what Beetle Bailey looks like after Sarge is through beating up on him.

Resiliency, however, kept Kim going. The next day, he was back on the porch, appropriately clothed, holding up his hands to demonstrate how much he was enjoying the heat. I saw him again on Sunday as I was coming home from church, and he was walking along the street under the blazing sun. I stopped and invited him to ride with me back to the Martin House, but he waved me off, even though, finally, he didn't look like he was enjoying the heat very much that day.

A police officer working the death scene at the Martin House yesterday said he saw Kim on Monday, walking along a street near our neighborhood.

As far as we know, that was the last time anybody saw him alive.

Around noontime yesterday, one of the other patients at the Martin House decided to check on Kim, because the television in his room had been on non-stop since at least Wednesday morning. Upon entering Kim's room, he saw Kim's feet on the bathroom floor, and knew the worst had come.

Exit Softly

There will be no funeral. Carole Anne called the one other person Kim told her he knew, his power of attorney, a woman in Fort Worth. But this "friend" of Kim's couldn't have cared less that he'd died. Carole Anne told me her attitude has been the same throughout this two-year ordeal as she's sought to get better care for him. Finally, Carole Anne told this "friend" that she'd clean out Kim's personal effects and sign his corpse over to the county morgue.

Legally, that's all she can do.

Last night, I commiserated with the neighbor who'd paid to get his Isuzu fixed, and we wondered if we should interject ourselves into the tableau of dysfunction that was Kim's final days and arrange some sort of funeral.

We looked at each other and, with grim faces, decided that if Carole Anne couldn't do anything, it would be on the head of Kim's power of attorney if she let his passing go unnoticed.

Not the way any of us in our neighborhood want Kim's sad life to end. After all, his was still a human existence, if not necessarily humane. I'm sure there could have been more that the rest of us could have done - collectively and individually - to help him, and we all had logical reasons for why we didn't. In the end, though, even cops at the Martin House yesterday, as they took statements from us, congratulated us for the amount of empathy we did display. People languish in sickness and die all the time without anybody noticing.

Still, it's a hollow praise, isn't it? None of us think we acted extraordinarily to Kim. We didn't really give him any extra common decency that we wouldn't accord anybody else. Perhaps that's a nice thing to know about my neighborhood - that we do actually make some effort in looking after each other.

So yesterday afternoon, as the coroner's van arrived and the attendants wheeled their gurney into the Martin House to collect Kim's spent body, I stepped outside onto the lawn. It was beastly hot, but I stood silently in the shade of a gracious oak tree, paying my last respects as the corpse was brought back down the sloping lawn of the Martin House, and into the white van.

And the street was silent, the Texas summer air almost hot to the touch, the branches of the tall trees in our neighborhood motionless, devoid of any breeze...
_____

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