Death of a Tenant

I slowly opened the door hollering, “Helen, we are coming in!” As I pushed the door open further, I saw her on the floor.

She was strangely peaceful; lying on her back with a hand on her stomach. Did she lay down for a nap and just peacefully pass? I wasn’t sure.

Those thoughts came and went in a millisecond. I quickly turned away. My presence felt too intrusive and I knew Helen wouldn’t want me gawking. I moved aside and made room for the police officers to enter the apartment.

————

We recently purchased our first rental property; a beautiful old foursquare that had been converted into a five-plex.

One of the units was occupied by an 80-something year old woman. Her name was Helen and she had lived there since sometime “just after 9/11”.

She was spry but she had vision problems and was super reclusive.

She told me that she had a lot of trouble sleeping at night so she would often sleep in the day. If she succeeded in falling asleep, she really did not want to be disturbed. She only wanted to communicate through email- she did not want her door to be knocked on and she didn’t want phone calls.

So we would email. I’d tell her about the renovation of the unit above hers and how it was coming along. In short snippets, she’d reveal simple requests- Please, don’t take on loud tenants, this has always been a quiet house. Please, don’t put a couple in the unit just above hers, “I’m all for love and passion but I don’t want to hear it.”

Fair enough, I thought.

I sent her an email on Feb 8th. “Hey Helen, I just wanted to let you know we see a large branch dangling in the southern Sycamore. Please don’t walk under the tree until we get it safely removed. The tree guy should be coming this afternoon or tomorrow.”

I knew I didn’t need to tell her about the limb because she never leaves the house anyway. But communicating with her shows respect and care.

When I told Helen how much I loved the two giant Sycamore trees stunning the front yard, she was relieved. She loved them too and the thought of a new owner made her nervous. She knew landlords who came and cut down trees and she didn’t know anything about what kind of landlord I’d be.

“Oh my goodness, no! I’d never- Those trees are practically the whole reason I bought the house!” I’d told her. And it was mostly true.

After we closed on the property, Helen confided, “If anything ever happens to me, I have a key in my shoe near the closet outside my door. There is a list taped to the wall with my sisters’ phone numbers.”

(Oh Helen, I didn’t want to think about such things at the time, but thank you. If you hadn’t told me about the key or left the list, I never would have known what to do… )

The police called me on February 13th. “Hey, we have received a wellness check request. Are you the property owner for… ?”

I knew right away, “Is it for Helen?”

“Yeah.”

I live nearby so I was there in under two minutes.

The woman who did Helen’s laundry had called in the wellness check. She was at the house waiting with the police when I pulled up. She was one of Helen’s friends, although I had never met her.

We were too late, but Helen hadn’t died too long before. The medical examiner thought she had passed that very day. Helen’s friend seemed both shocked and wrecked.

I asked the woman if Helen had many other friends and she said no, just a couple. She also noted Helen was reclusive. She said she’d tell Helen’s friends of her passing (after Helen’s family had been notified by the police).

I wondered who I needed to tell and what I needed to do. Do I do anything?

The police would reach out to the sisters… For that, I was grateful.

The next day, I stopped by the house to make sure the police had locked her apartment door. When I arrived, right in front of Helen’s door sat a hand-delivered beautiful Valentine’s basket full of hand-baked goodies, roses, snacks, and a beautiful note.

Emotion hit me like a ton of bricks. She was loved! She would be missed! And someone delivered this gorgeous gift basket for her this morning and they had no idea Helen had died the day before.

I stood at her door, tears rolling down my cheeks.

The letter on the package was signed- Susan, Michael and Apple Fairy. There was a reference to an orchard and the Farmers’ Market. Also, Susan wrote her last name. Thank goodness; she’d be easy for me to find.

I unlocked Helen’s door and pushed the beautiful package inside, “Helen- Susan, Michael and Apple Fairy have sent you a beautiful Valentine’s Day package. Here it is; I’m going to go find them now.” I left the package on the floor just inside the door and quickly left, locking up behind me.

Googling Susan and Michael’s name gave me an address. I cross-checked it on our local assessor site and saw that it matched. I drove by, drove by again, and again. Finally, I knocked on their door and delivered the news to Susan. She was so sweet and kind and I think she was also shocked.

Helen’s eldest sister called me that same day. That first call, we spoke for over an hour. She told me all sorts of things about Helen and their childhood and their family. She told me about the foursquare house they grew up in, which was so similar to the house where Helen passed away.

Helen’s sister is one of the raddest 76 year old ladies I’ve ever “met” (thanks for bringing us together, Helen).

Because Helen’s family is all older and lives out of state, I extended the time they had to come collect Helen’s things. Giving them more time showed respect and care.

I imagined all the other landlords I know; some of which own 20+ properties. I imagined how they’d handle Helen’s death given everything I know about them, their operations, and the advice some of them had personally given me.

You know, I don’t think any of them would have handled Helen’s death as well as I did. I don’t think any of them would have been as compassionate.

When we bought this property, I had grand dreams of converting it back into a single family home; it’s weeping potential. I still have that dream but it’s hold over me has waned. Maybe this is partly due to Helen. Maybe I would make an alright property manager…

Thank you, Helen. I hope once in a while, you’re smiling down on us from those beautiful Sycamore trees.

You’ll be missed <3

HouseRat Zero

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