This period of time, from spring to winter 1998, turned out to be the first of several over the years about which we staff members later learned to tell one another enjoy the lull now, take care of yourself and rest, because it will all change soon enough.
But at that point we had not yet learned that bit of wisdom, so the change, when it came, caught us by surprise. As I enjoyed the bit of quiet that I could not know would end abruptly in December, I somehow thought that we would go on together, these women, the staff and Miriam's House, forever. Perhaps, in believing the worst times were over now that we were three years into being, I forgot that death and relapse and chaos could cycle back. I did not know that the not-worst times could still be very, very difficult. And, of course, we didn't know that Nickie, who had just moved in that May, was coming to the end of her life that December.
We didn't know until she was just about gone, until our nurse, Kathy, who was with Nickie to help her dress one morning, saw her suddenly collapse with a groan; until she raced up the hall shouting for me to dial 911 before running back to Nickie. What I remember is the look on Kathy's face as she knelt at Nickie's side, there on the floor in the bathroom, and that Kathy's eyes told me what we hadn't known.
I followed the ambulance to Howard Hospital, just a few blocks away, I saw them pull the stretcher out of the back of the vehicle, the oxygen canister on her abdomen and a mask over her face, one EMT scrambling alongside the stretcher performing CPR while the others rushed it indoors. I parked the car and ran into the ER and they let me into the back without question once I said who I was and why I was there. But I was not allowed into the trauma unit, its curtain billowing outward with the hurried movements of multiple doctors and nurses, so I sat in a chair in the hallway, heart pounding. Twenty minutes later, a doctor sat down next to me to tell me, kindly and softly, that they had not been able to revive her.
"May I see her?"
"We need to clean her up first, but in about fifteen minutes, you can go in."
I told her that we had a community of people who loved Nickie and asked if I could call them to come up and say good-bye. The doctor conferred with other ER staff, then returned to say we could have half an hour. I called Miriam's House to tell Tim and Angie. Then, seeing the activity in the trauma unit had ceased, I stepped in to say good-bye. But I could not control myself and was afraid that if I were heard the permission to visit Nickie would be withdrawn. So I gave Nickie a kiss on her forehead and went outdoors to wait for my friends from Miriam's House, take some deep breaths, and let the sun dry my cheeks.
Tim drove a group up in the van, and the rest walked. I recall standing with one hand resting on Nickie's foot, the other grasping Angie's hand. I tried to comfort the residents as they slowly entered the unit, stunned.
But I don't know what happened after that, because I had to go to Nickie's father's apartment to tell him his one remaining daughter had died. He lived in senior citizen subsidized housing near Union Station. I drove there filled with dread, unsure of what to say and how to say it. I remember the smell of stale urine in the elevator. I remember wishing I had taken the stairs but then realizing they probably smelled worse and might be unsafe to boot. I remember the greasy feel of the air in the hallway, the dingy, indeterminate color of paint applied ages ago, the scuffed tile floor scattered with trash and cigarette butts, the yellowed ceiling above.
I waited long moments after I knocked, listening to the shuffling sound of his approach, the wheeze of his breathing. Struggling for composure, I breathed deeply but choked on the stench. As Nickie's father opened the door I saw that the apartment was dark. Roaches scuttled away from the splash of hallway light on the kitchen floor and counters.
"Mr. Moore? My name is Carol. I work at Miriam's House, where your daughter, um, lives. May I come in?"
He opened the door further and I walked in to the same smell as the hallway, only concentrated. Breathing through my mouth, I wrenched my mind away from the wretched place and the disturbing thought of his living there. The elderly, infirm man shuffled and wheezed his way to the only chair in the tiny space.
"Who are you?" He had sat down heavily and he peered at me from rheumy eyes that I was not sure could distinguish anything much at all. I stood uneasily before him.
"I'm Carol." I tried again, "I work at Miriam's House with Nickie. I came to talk with you about her."
"Your daughter," I said faintly, quelling the rising nausea that now had less to do with the smell than it did with consuming sorrow that any human being had to live like this. I looked around the dingy apartment to find a phone, a conviction growing in me that I would be unable to make him understand, and hoping to call someone, maybe a neighbor, to come over.
"Sir, I'm afraid I have bad news for you. I am so very sorry. Sir?"
He had dropped his head and I noticed for the first time a fine trembling of all his body, as though within him sounded a tightly tuned cello string. I could not tell whether he had understood what I'd said.
"Yes. Yes, sir, I have come to tell you about Nickie. Your daughter." A fathomless river of suffering flooded ancient banks and boiled up through the soles of my feet.
He shook his head. "Nickie? Where is she?"
"Mr. Moore, do you have a friend living here? On this floor? Is there someone who can help us right now?"
"Herman. Next door."
And that is where my memory stops. I must have found Herman, he must have helped me find phone numbers for Mr. Moore's two sons. We must have called them, because I know I left with the assurance that a son was on his way. It would be a family member and not a stranger who would try to make this father understand that his only daughter was dead.