Ever hear someone scream after finding the dead body of someone they love? The scream was so loud and powerful that it has stayed with me for years.
My roommates and I had been planning a Halloween party for months. Candy, spider webs, costumes, delicious food and Pandora playlists. The guy I had a crush on was attending so I was dressed as a Dexter Morgan corpse because they're basically a naked body wrapped in saran wrap. I wore nude colored clothing underneath. Let's everyone just calm down.
The party started around 8pm and really began to pick up around 9pm.
At 9:30 I went downstairs to throw out the 1st round of trash bags for the night. I run into HANK, the on-site handy man who lived in the basement apartment of our four apartment building.
“Hey, Hank! Do you wanna come by the party? Plenty of food and booze,” I invite.
“Oh. No thanks. I don’t drink any more,” was his reply.
“No worries. I’ll see you around,” I say with a smile and head upstairs to rejoin my guests.
That was the last time anyone saw Hank alive.
At a young 54 years young, Hank died on the night of Saturday, October 29th, peacefully in his TV chair. His arms were folded, his feet folded at the base of his chair and no one would find him until the following night.
Hank had known our landlord for over 45 years. His daughter was our landlady’s God daughter and had grown up in the very building I was living in. Hank had spent a lot of his life attached to “the bottle”. Only recently had he begun to turn his life around and cut out alcohol all together. It was the drinking that had caused a difficult separation between him and his family. This separate brought him to the basement apartment of our building to continue his path of sobriety. He fixed our electric, heat and maintained the property. Hank always had a story for everything as he had lived quite a life, met quite a few characters and loved meeting new people to tell his tales to. The tenant who had resided in the basement apartment before Hank had left it in an unsuitable condition (looking like the set of a horror movie, actually) and Hank had begun the process of restoring the basement apartment to its once stable existence. It was a project to keep him busy and keep his attention off liquor.
Late Sunday afternoon, I received a call from my land lady. “Pam, have you seen Hank around?”
“I saw him last night,” I replied. “Why, what’s up?”
“He’s not picking up his phone and his ex wife can’t get a hold of him,” she explained with an acute sense of worry in her voice.
About 15 minutes later, I received another call from her informing me that Hank’s ex-wife and 21 year old daughter were at the front door to the building and needed to be let in. I obliged.
“My father lives here. In the basement apartment.”
“Hank… yes. Of course, come on in,” I said to the worried looks on both their faces.
The daughter looked more annoyed than worried and the ex wife… it was as if she knew before even walking into the building what had happened.
“Mom… stop it. Jesus Christ relax. You’re driving me nuts.” The daughter tried to keep her mom's palpable worry at bay. She had a very “grew up in Queens” way about her demeanor.
“It’s not like him to not call us back,” the mother explained to me. Daughter knocked again.
“Would there be any reason for him to go somewhere? Travel? Maybe he’s in an area with no reception?” I fish for explanations as I try at the knob with my credit card.
Our “juiced up” 1st floor neighbor walked out of his apartment investigating the commotion. We explained the situation and he offered to kick the door in.
He KICKED. And KICKED and KICKED. The knob came off.
He KICKED. And KICKED. BANG BANG BANG!!! The door broke and created an opening, allowing the daughter to run through.
Then the most horrific, blood curdling scream I had ever heard came from the basement.
“NO!!! NO!!! DAD! NO!!!” I began to shake and immediately grabbed my phone and dialed 9-1-1. The ex wife fell to the ground, scraping her back against the wall on the way down and went someplace else completely in her mind. Shock. Complete and utter shock.
The daughter ran back up the stairs and fell down beside her mother, shaking her and begging for a response. “MOM!!! STOP!!! Sit UP NOW!!! MOM STOP THIS!!!”
I attempted to talk to the emergency operator through a shaky voice and couldn’t hear what the woman was saying through the screams of Hank’s 21 year old daughter having just seen her father, the man who had been turning his life around for her, dead in his chair. I hung up with the operator and stood by the foot of the stairs leading up to my apartment. What do I do?
The daughter cried. “My phone!! My phone!!!” I could barely understand her. She had dropped it where her father lay. I ran down the stairs into the basement, not thinking… just wanted to get her... whatever she wanted in that moment. I retrieved her phone and looked up. There he was. Completely lifeless. It was clear to me that he had died peacefully, however, that didn’t make what I was looking at any less shocking. A dead body. A dead body of someone I knew. Someone I had spoken with. Someone who had, hours ago, had life in him. That was new for me.
I handed the girl her phone and stood beside her. She grabbed my leg, trying to hold onto something stable since she couldn’t find that in her mother who lay speechless on the ground, staring off into space. No crying, barely any breath from her, just pure shock and grief. It was if she had been sedated.
The 21 year old tried to dial. She tried to talk and couldn’t through her screams and cries. I placed my hand on the. back of her head and just pet it. Every time my hand touched her scalp, the screaming would stop and it turned into more of a controlled weep. I kept rubbing. Her shoulders, her back. Anything to stop those screams. “MY FATHER!!!! HE WAS COMING AROUND!!! HE WAS FINALLY LIVING LIFE!!!!!!” She couldn’t talk to her family who was on her cell phone, begging for answers. Begging for anything through worried cries of their own. The girl handed me her phone and pleaded for me to communicate as she continued to hold onto my leg and cry. I tried to speak. I tried to explain what had happened. It was difficult through my own tears, shaky voice and the vision of what I had seen and of what was happening around me. Her mother’s phone rang. She pushed the phone towards me and ordered me to pick it up. To talk. To tell these people that someone they cared about was dead. Dead at 54 years old for reasons unknown.
I got through the phone calls as the ambulance finally arrived. The mother, still on the ground… looking at the wall as if transfixed by the world that held her, was lifted up by the paramedics. The girl continued to plead. “WAKE UP! MOM! STOP THIS!!!! I NEED YOU HERE! I NEED YOU HERE WITH ME!!!! NOW!! STOP IT!!!”
The police asked me, “When was the last time you saw him?”
“Last night at about 9- 9:30.” My words were stumbling over one another.
The daughter grabbed my arm and closed her eyes. Through screams and tears she managed, “You got to say goodbye before I did.” The tears fell from both our eyes and I continued to rub her back. That’s all I knew how to do in that moment.
The mother slowly regained consciousness and the two held one another on the steps of our building, rocking back and forth and crying at the loss of this truly terrific man.
Hours later I was able to keep her calm on the stairs, suggesting she drink water and take deep breaths. The officer came in and attempted to explain what “releasing the body to the family” meant ,as the mother could barely get a hold of herself long enough to have a stable conversation with law enforcement. “The body has to be removed and the door has to be sealed before any of us can leave.”
I attempted to explain that I knew every single person in that building and could assure the officers that none of us had any interest in going near that door, but they had a protocol to follow that wasn't my job to understand, but to respect. What I didn’t understand was why this 21 year old girl had to sit there on the bottom step trying to figure out what to do with her father’s body.
When Hank's daughter asked to use our bathroom, without a thought I said, "Of course".
She came upstairs with me and my stunned roommates, who were listening to everything from inside the apartment, looked at me with pure cautious terror. They managed to turn her from our MAIN bathroom in a panic as it was still decorated for Halloween with a bloody shower curtain and REDRUM written on the mirror. Thankfully she used the other, smaller bathroom instead.
After things settled a bit and additional family members arrived at the scene to provide comfort, I went to bed. Just as I was managing to get those screams out of my head and fall asleep, they returned at 3:30 in the morning. I opened my bloodshot eyes and quickly came to the realization that the body was being removed from the basement in front of the 21 year old’s eyes. “NOT MY DADDY! NO!!!! NOT MY DADDY!!!!!!!!!”
Needless to say, there wasn’t much additional sleep happening that night.
Tell the people you love that you love them. That you’re proud of them. Don’t wait for them to be gone before you do.