This article, titled “Don’t Bother Me, I’m Busy,” was submitted by Isabel Torrey, a free-lance writer and contributor to numerous newspapers as well as Guideposts magazine. Isabel currently resides at King City Retirement Village, which is served by one of our NHM chaplains. The article is used with the writer’s permission.
Usually when the phone rings, it’s merely about routine concerns: business matters to take care of, plans to be made, times to chat with family and friends. Things like that.
But then comes a call that fits none of the above. My mind was a million miles away – on just what I don’t recall, because my thoughts evaporated immediately – when an official-sounding voice informed me he was calling from New York City, then asked me to “Tell me what you know about Sheila Maroney.”
My thoughts raced. Sheila Maroney? Sheila…. “Oh yes,” I said. “I remember now. She’s a former student at Syracuse University whom my late husband kept up a correspondence with. She – as well as many others – wrote Roland for publishing advice. And – funny thing, really – she often sent him packets of wild rice which she said a neighbor, Mrs. Ferraro, had an outlet for.”
After Roland’s death two years ago, Sheila seemed to want to keep in touch with me. Every so often she’d send a trinket for my desk. Or another pound of wild rice. In the process she directed her writing questions to me. She wrote so often, chatting about this and that, I frankly considered her a bit of a bore and I limited my replies to answering four or five of her letters at once, sticking strictly to business and/or thanking her for gifts.
“Why are you calling me?” I asked the man. “I’ve never met the woman except by mail.” He explained: someone who’d lived in the same apartment complex as Sheila finally realized it had been weeks since he’d seen her walking her two dogs. He’d become curious and called the landlord, who in turn called the police. When they broke down Sheila’s door, they found her and the dogs dead. Questioning other tenants to find next of kin was of no help, but while searching her apartment, they ran across my letterhead. However, nothing in my letters contained needed information.
“Did she have relatives?” the official asked. “I don’t know.” “Did she work?” “Years ago…I think. I don’t remember where.” Then I brightened. “A neighbor, Mrs. Ferraro, lives in her apartment building. I’ll bet she’d know.” “Mrs. Ferraro was 90 and died several months before we think Sheila did.” “What was the cause of Sheila’s death?” “Cancer, we think. Hard to tell.” I expressed sympathy, then added, “I’m glad nothing like that could happen to me – I have a husband, plus lots of relatives keeping close tabs.”
Then I told him about a recent family reunion when 24 of us got together; 20 being first cousins. “And that’s just on my maternal side; ditto on Dad’s.” As soon as I said, “I suppose you have a big family, too,” I was sorry because he hesitated, then answered. “A lot of us here in the city tend to live alone.” Then, abruptly, “Well, thanks anyway for your time.”
As soon as he hung up, I was filled with guilt. Why hadn’t I really read Sheila’s letters instead of chucking them right away? I didn’t really care about her, that’s why. Why couldn’t I have given authorities the information they needed? I hadn’t really wanted “to get involved” with the woman, that’s why. And suddenly I also knew why Sheila had sent gifts so often. So I’d write, that’s why. Then I recalled that when I was still an Oregon columnist – prior to moving to Syracuse – a reader wrote, “I follow your work; I feel like I know you.” She confided, “I’m the last leaf left on my family tree.” Then, a bit too defensively, it seemed – like I might think she was a loser – she added a PS: “But I’ve got lots of friends – you’re one.”
I’d never met this reader. Naturally, I answered her letter. But did I do anything more? (You’ve already guessed the answer.) No, I didn’t. Who knows? Probably, countless women – and men – die friendless, deserted, because there are too many people, just like me, who simply don’t care.