A woman who reportedly went to extraordinary lengths to protect herself, and still died in a freak accident, reminded me of another who did much the same thing, and still met death in an unexpected way. The two had little in common except how far they went in order to stay alive, which––as it turned out––was not in the cards.
I never met Ruth, the woman whose death was reported in my local newspaper, but I did know the other one. Dorothy was my neighbor some years ago. Their stories are quite different in some ways but similar in others.
Ruth was known as an eccentric (some called her a crackpot) who was afraid to leave her valuables and personal papers in her house when she went out, for fear of being robbed, so she wheeled them around town with her in a shopping cart. The electricity to the house had been cut off years earlier because she complained that people were spying on her through the power lines. A "No Trespassing" sign hung in the front window and the shades were always drawn. Neighbors said they barely knew her, that she rebuffed any effort to be friendly, so they turned away when she passed them with her shopping cart, which seemed to be what she wanted and made her feel safer. Strangers who saw her on the downtown streets thought that she was a homeless person, but she wasn't. She owned the house, and lived there alone.
Few people knew that Ruth had once been married and had grown children living in another city. No one ever visited, neighbors reported. After she died, family members came forth with stories about how paranoid she had become over the years, and obsessed with protecting herself from anyone and anything that might do her harm.
Harm found her anyway, while she was standing on a corner waiting for the light to change before crossing the street on a sunny afternoon. An SUV and a pickup truck collided in the middle of the intersection. The SUV was hit broadside by the truck, sending it rolling over and crushing Ruth, still on the sidewalk. She died instantly.
Dorothy, my neighbor, had a different obsession, but hers was just as compelling as Ruth's. She was extremely cautious about what she ate and drank, convinced that nothing but the most bland diet, eliminating meat, fats, oils, sugar, wheat, eggs, dairy products and alcohol would guarantee her a long and healthy life. She jogged up to ten miles every day and lifted weights besides.
She was friendly and outgoing, and even joked about her obsession with health and the extremes she went to in order to avoid ills that other people suffered when they "clogged up their arteries" with cholesterol. She scolded me good-naturedly when I ordered a steak and a glass of red wine in a restaurant and she had a green salad (no dressing) and mineral water. She would ask me how I could eat that stuff, and I would ask her the same thing!
Did she enjoy life? Or was she just keeping one step ahead of the Grim Reaper, denying herself all the things that most of us consider life's little pleasures? I don't know. I do know that I was shocked when she called me one day to say goodbye. Where was she going? To a sanatorium, she said. The doctors had given her three months to live. It was a brain tumor. She died two months later, at the age of 50.
I pity both of these women because they seem to have missed out on so much of life while striving to avoid death. I can't help thinking that Dorothy would have been happier eating and drinking anything she wanted. The cause of her death was not related to diet, in any case. And Ruth, if she had been less fearful of other people, might have enjoyed normal relationships with family, friends and neighbors.
On the subject of mortality, are some things simply inevitable? Or does it just come down to the luck of the draw? And if we knew what the future held, would we do anything different with our remaining time on earth? As to that, Doris Day may have expressed it best in "The Man Who Knew Too Much," when she sang,"Que sera, sera/ whatever will be, will be/ the future's not ours to see/ que sera, sera."