His name was George Adlerhurst.
I was 8 years old, and he lived upstairs from us on the third floor. He had one leg and I liked him a lot. He was a nice man and he seemed to like me. I never knew what happened to his other leg. Then, one morning he became the first dead person I ever saw.
We lived on Orange Street in New Haven, Conn., in a rented flat on the ground floor of a three-story, Victorian-era house. My mother and father also liked Mr. Adlerhurst, so one day, when he did not come down the back stairs to say good morning, my mother told me to run up to see if he was O.K. The stairs took me past the door of our landlord, Mrs. Markesey, who lived on the second floor and always kept our heat too low. When I got to the top floor I saw Mr. Adlerhurst lying motionless on the floor beside his bed. He was on his back. I turned and ran down the stairs to tell my mother. From then on I knew what it meant to die.
I have no idea who this Mr. Adlerhurst was before he was the kind man upstairs, and my efforts to find out have failed. In my imagination, he lost his leg in World War I and was able to survive on his veteran’s allowance even though he had to climb the two flights of stairs to his aerie several times every day. I don’t know how he carried groceries or managed the dozens of other chores necessary to live alone in an era when there were few social service organizations for people with disabilities.
I think of him often and admire the strength that led him to live so independently and with no visible frustration. There was nothing abrasive about him. He was soft-spoken, gentle and polite. My guess is he was educated to some degree. He was trim, always neatly dressed, with the sleeves of his shirt carefully rolled to the elbows. I remember he always kept the pants of the missing leg carefully pinned, and he used wooden crutches. I had no concept of age in those days but am guessing he was in his 50s when he died in 1946.
How did he spend his time? I am certain he did not work. He was always around when my sisters and I came home from school. I can see him leaning forward on his crutches to talk to my mother or to make some comment to me. I do not remember him having meals with us or even sitting in our kitchen to visit. He seemed most comfortable standing on the one leg while resting on the crutches. I suspect in good weather he managed to walk the two blocks or so to local stores. There was a bus line that ran up and down Orange Street and he might have used it to get to and from the center of New Haven. But I never saw him waiting for a bus. I also never saw him carrying any sort of package, so he may have arranged for deliveries of the quotidian necessities.
And then he was gone. I do not remember the way my mother explained his death to me, but I do know she made it seem normal and part of life. I believe it was because our Catholic faith was such a reality to me, even at age 8, that I never experienced any nightmares over his sudden death. I do remember it occurring to me that death might come to my parents as it had to Mr. Adlerhurst, but my mother told me my father and she would live for a long time, so I quickly put those fears aside. For a while I missed him and his friendly greetings but soon he disappeared into the mists of childhood. On occasion, I still can bring up the sight of him awkwardly sprawled on the floor beside his bed. And there is much that is sad about the scene, including the fact that I never could say my goodbye and I never knew where he came from or what happened to his leg or how he filled his days. I bet he and I would have had much to talk about. He must have wanted his story to remain his. Thus far it has.