I hadn’t seen Natalie for a couple of years before her death. More and more, she was a no-show at family gatherings, and in any case avoided my then-husband’s harsh judgments and preachy, unwelcome advice – disguised as concern - about her slip-sliding life (“You have a son now, what are you thinking? Have you ever even considered marrying his father? You’re really gonna keep stripping in a bar to support yourself?”). And on and on, judgments so far from Natalie’s sphere of reality that all of those words just slid into background noise, an off-key repetitive tune that just pushed her away faster and faster on a river of shame before offering her up in a fetal position with bubbles of dribbled vomit running down her cheek on top of her filthy bed with her old zebra-striped throw (her signature pattern), dead of her last heroin overdose at 29. Parents, siblings, extended family and her dwindling roster of friends had all turned their logic and rational tongues to explaining – oh, so earnestly! - that Natalie just had to get over herself, take an unstoned inventory of her life, and turn over this bad chapter in her life to something better. All futile, all a waste of time, energy, and oxygen she wouldn’t even be able to recognize, let alone breathe in.
So why Natalie? She had two sisters who do just fine, who don’t neglect their kids or stick needles in their veins or take their clothes off to grinding music for a bunch of leering men in down-at-the-heels bars for a living. She was born Catholic; in retrospect the guilt, even stoned and long fallen away from the Church, must have been bone-crushing. What were the first signs? Could we have somehow headed her off the path she was on before she travelled so far? These are the sorts of questions we asked ourselves as we picked music and flowers for her funeral. The words were different and each of us asked them differently, but they all came down to the same thing: Why couldn’t anyone save her? What could anyone have done differently, what could I have done differently, to give her a reason to live?
The memorial was odd. Though her parents were Catholic neither had attended mass since Natalie was a toddler. So her service was essentially delivered by a chaplain nobody had ever met to a bunch of mourners who had never cracked a Bible. The same thing happened at her great-grandmother’s memorial. There’s something about the threat of eternal life that drives even the most committed heathens out from the unobservant shadows. About three-quarters of the way through the service, during a long passage about never walking alone because Jesus is at your side, there was a commotion at the back of the room. Natalie’s boyfriend Jeffrey, who had found her body and called 911, had slipped into a seat in the last row. He might as well have had a scarlet M for murderer emblazoned on his shirt as news of his arrival rocketed up and down the pews. In a sharp boomerang away from the Christian charity urged in pious tones from the pulpit, the mourners pointed at Jeffrey and whispered viciously. “It’s HIS fault that Natalie’s dead,” they hissed. “He did drugs with her.” Ah, we humans…always looking for somebody to blame for the unanswerable and inexplicable. Lost on these harsh judges were the facts that Jeffrey didn’t even see Natalie during the two days prior to her death, or that he paid for her (separate) apartment and cell phone so that she would have a place to live and the means to call for help once her family and friends had finally washed their hands of her for good. In the police report, he was also the only one who cried during his interview.
Then it was all over and everybody went home (Natalie lived and died in Tempe, Arizona). Being me, I had to order the police report, I was the only one interested in seeing it. In due time it appeared in my mailbox. There’s something comforting about police reports, though it could be because I’ve read so many of them over the years: the short, declarative sentences, the dry, matter-of-fact prose. (“I saw that there was purge coming from her mouth and nose area.” “Rigor Mortis was set and lividity was fixed.”) The report noted, chronologically, the legal markers along the bumpy road to Natalie’s fall: the aggravated DUI, the dangerous drug possession/use, the two counts of forgery of credit cards swiped at the bar where she was a stripper. Also noted was a month-long hospital stay a couple of years earlier for abscesses on her legs (from shooting up), and a rampant infection. The photos were hard for me to look at, even after a professional lifetime of seeing photos just like them in other places, at other times, as a reporter. The meticulous evidence collector listed four syringes recovered from Natalie’s kitchen trash can, the floor in her living room, the coffee table, and the trash can in her bathroom. Also collected were two glass pipes, several empty pill bottles, three blue straws on the bed beside her body, and a bottle of polyethylene glycol, which I’m told can hasten a clean urine sample if you’re being drug tested. The chaos in her apartment, described as “unkempt” in the police report, was especially poignant since she was extremely neat and organized since she was a little kid. We with messy kids marveled that a little kid could be so neat.
Nothing in the photos and descriptions of her apartment could prepare you for her bedroom, where she died. She’s wearing black socks and underpants, her left arm thrown across her chest. Her eyes are half open but strangely clear, much clearer than in her Tempe PD mugshots. Her beautiful, thick brown hair is a tangled mess on a red satin pillow, but the bright magenta highlights in her most recent police shots had grown out. Colorful tattoos, one probably self-inked, snaked up both arms from her elbows to her shoulders. The silver abalone-shell ring that we picked up at the police department in a zip-lock bag was still on the ring finger of her right hand, which curled up the side of her face where a single tendril of her hair snaked down into the frothy brown vomit from her purple lips. She seemed pared down to her essence; gone were her coquettish air, her heavy makeup, her short-shorts and sexy clothes.
I had a last lunch with Natalie’s mom and two sisters before it was time for me to catch the flight at Sky Harbor that would bring me home. I tried hard to ease the guilt of their what-ifs and if-onlys. There was nothing they could have done to save Natalie aside from locking her up in a remote tower somewhere. In the eyes of the law she was an adult, a bitter legal pill that those of us with troubled 18-year-olds have learned the hard way. She was beyond the reach of all who loved her, beyond anyone but herself. I encouraged them to abandon the siren-call temptation of picking apart Natalie’s past, searching for clues that might explain how she chose the path she did while her two sisters avoided even a single step in the same direction. They’ll never figure it out. Had she survived, Natalie herself probably would not have been able to find the words to explain it.