It can start with a dull ache or even a shooting pain that feels like an icicle stabbing deep into your heart.
The catalyst is usually a fateful phone call that comes in the wee hours of the morning. That lonely time when the world outside is struggling to find its way back to some kind of normal. Sometimes the call is expected, but many times it’s not. It’s the unexpected ones that drive the cold wedge of despair into the depths of your being.
Other calls that arrive during the comfort of daylight hours, often seem innocent until the fateful message is heard. But, regardless of when or how they arrive, these phone alerts all have one thing in common. The announcement of the death or terminal illness of a loved one, a relative, or a good friend.
Over time, as the messages increase in relentless frequency, they collectively usher in what we in the trade call, the start of the sad days.
It’s that time of life—the later years—when a person gradually feels the full impact of the erosion of their social support network. The disappearance of key relationships they have come to rely on. The start of the sad days is often triggered by the passing of someone quite close. A loss that seems to leave an unfillable void.
I know about these sad calls, first hand. I’ve seen the devastating impact they can have on people’s lives. I’m in a position to know because I’m the head of grief counseling for the Golden Ages chain of senior’s retirement homes.
My name is Lawrence Rosewood. I’m thirty-nine-years old, divorced, no kids, and damned good at my job.
At my age, I never expected to get one of these calls, but then I guess we never do. Mine arrived at 5:15 this Friday morning—it was one of the icicle-in-the-heart types. The call was from Angie Villeneuve, my business partner's wife.
“Larry, thank God you’re there …” Her voice broke into uncontrollable sobs.
“Angie, what's wrong? Calm down and tell me.”
“It’s Ted …” Again, she faltered.
“Take a deep breath, Angie, let it out slow, and talk to me.”
There was silence on the other end, then, “I’m at Memorial Hospital. The doctors took Ted away. I don’t know what’s happening. Can you come here?”
“Sit tight, hon. I’ll get there as fast as I can.”
I didn’t stop to shower or shave, just threw on yesterday’s clothes and rushed out of my townhouse to the parking garage. Memorial is normally a twenty-minute drive from my place. This morning I did it in ten.
Jumbled thoughts rushed through my head as I drove. Theodore Villeneuve was not only my business partner he was also my best friend. As far as I knew, Ted was in relatively good health except for a minor heart murmur, one he had since early childhood. Probably a little heavier than he should be and maybe a little too fond of good Scotch whiskey, but nothing of a serious nature. Our birthdays were only a few months apart, so he wasn’t an old guy at all.
I tossed the keys to the valet and ran to the emergency room waiting area. When I spotted my friend’s wife, I lost my breath.
Angie was sitting in a corner, all alone staring into space. Other than the understandable pasty-white face, Angie was an absolute knockout. A rare combination of wholesome natural beauty, intertwined with a wonderfully warm and generous personality.
Although she didn’t appear to be much older than the day, she won her title as Miss Connecticut, I knew Angie was of a similar age to Ted and myself because we had all attended the same class at Thornbury High.
When Angie spotted me coming down the hall, she ran and threw herself into my arms. She was sobbing, but seemed relieved help had arrived. I cradled her in my arms for a few moments, trying desperately to keep untoward thoughts from crossing my mind. But her musky scent was unnerving, and after all, if Ted hadn’t jumped ahead of me with his invitation to Angie to be his date for the Senior Prom, things might have turned out a whole lot different in both our lives.
I ushered Angie back to her seat, intending to hear the rest of the story. All I knew at this point was that something had happened to Ted. Angie had just started to speak when the doctor arrived in the waiting room. I knew from his serious expression, and my own long history of delivering unfortunate news, that something bad was about to be announced.
“I’m very sorry, Mrs. Villeneuve. We did everything we could, but your husband suffered from the effects of cerebral hypoxia too long. We couldn’t resuscitate him. A member of the nursing team will be with you shortly to explain the next steps. Again, my condolences to you and your family.”
The doctor departed as two men headed our way. One was a uniformed policeman, the other dressed in a baggy brown suit that had seen better days.
I was still reeling from the shock of hearing that my best friend had died. “Hypoxia, Angie, that’s a shortage of oxygen to the brain. I guess Ted’s heart condition must have been worse than we thought.”
Angie turned to me; her face stricken. “I thought I told you, Larry. Ted didn’t die of a heart attack this morning.”
“Well, what happened to him?”
I could hardly make out the words through her sobs. “Ted hung himself in the bathroom while I was sleeping.”
I didn’t get a chance to respond because the law arrived en masse.
The heavier of the two men, Mr. Brown Baggy Suit, identified himself as Detective Sergeant Joseph Killam. He looked to be about fifty-years-old with a face that had seen everything. As he took out his leather-bound notebook, he said to Angie that he was sorry about the death of her husband.
He didn’t look sorry to me.
“Mrs. Villeneuve, the hospital contacted us. It’s routine in the event of a death deemed unnatural by the attending doctor.”
I wanted to establish my presence officially, so I asked the detective a question. I already thought I knew the answer, but I wanted to give Angie some time to think.
“Why did the hospital assume it was an unnatural death, Sergeant?”
Killam looked over his glasses at me and said, “Because her husband still had a bath towel wrapped tightly around his neck. May I ask who you are, sir?”
I didn’t want the detective to exclude me from the conversation, so I fudged my response, “My name is Lawrence Rosewood. I’m Mrs. Villeneuve’s legal advisor.”
You might say my statement was a bit of a stretch. While it’s true that I had attended two years of law school, I was never admitted to the bar. On the other hand, I hadn’t outright lied to the police because I never actually said I was her lawyer. The degree I held was as a Doctor of Psychology.
Killam raised his eyebrows. “The timing here seems a little unusual. Do you always travel with a lawyer, Mrs. Villeneuve?”
I answered before Angie could. “I’m here primarily as a friend of the family. Ted Villeneuve was my business partner and one of my oldest friends. Mrs. Villeneuve called me from the hospital and requested my presence. I just arrived a few minutes before you.”
He gave me the cold fish-eyed stare before continuing to grill Angie. “Mrs. Villeneuve, we realize this is a difficult time for you, but could you take us through a step-by-step accounting of the events leading up to the death of your husband?”
Angie nodded. “I’ll try.”
“First of all, do you share a bed with your husband?”
It might have been my imagination, but I thought Killam and his partner both glanced at me when the question was asked. Angie told them she and her husband shared a king-sized bed.
“The doctor has indicated a preliminary time of death at approximately five a.m. this morning. The coroner will establish a more accurate time after the autopsy. What time did you discover your husband was not in the room with you?”
“I’m not sure. It was dark when I woke up. I thought I heard a noise. Ted wasn’t in bed, but that wasn’t unusual. He’s a restless sleeper and often gets up at odd hours.”
Killam’s partner was busily writing notes while the detective continued. “You mentioned a noise, Mrs. Villeneuve. Could you elaborate?”
“We have a large bedroom suite. To get to the master bath, you have to go through the dressing room. The noise was faint, but I thought it was coming from the bathroom. I called out to Ted, but he didn’t answer. I became quite concerned when I saw the knot on the outside of the bathroom door.”
“Yes. The bathroom door was closed tight, but there was a large knot in one of our long bathroom towels. The knot was jammed up against the top of the door frame.”
“What did you do then?”
“I kept calling out to Ted, then I tried to open the door, but it was locked. Our son Toby got himself locked in the same bathroom once. It terrified him, so as a precaution I bought one of those special wire lock openers. I used it to open the lock, then I pushed as hard as I could on the door. It swung open, and at the same time, I heard a loud thud.”
Killam asked quietly, “Exactly, what did you see, on opening the door?”
Angie began to sob again. “It was Ted. He was lying crumpled on the bathroom floor, our bathroom towel was wrapped around his neck, and his face was an awful blue color. My vanity stool was lying on its side.”
From Angie's description of what had taken place, it was quickly apparent to me that my old friend hadn’t bothered with the niceties of a traditional noose. He had simply tied a large knot in the towel, slipped it over the top of the bathroom door and then locked the door to anchor the knot in place.
After stepping up on the vanity stool and tying the towel around his neck, Ted had just stepped off the stool into oblivion. The noise Angie heard was probably Ted’s feet banging against the door as he slowly suffocated himself.
I knew what Ted had done, but I didn’t know why.
Killam resumed his questioning. “Was your husband still alive when you found him?”
“I thought I could see his eyes fluttering, so I ran and called 911. They sent an ambulance, and the men took Ted away.”
“You mentioned a son, Mrs. Villeneuve. How old is he?”
“Toby’s only eleven-years-old. Thank God he’s away at boarding school. He’ll be devastated when he hears about his father.”
“Just a few more questions. Do you know of any reason why your husband might try to kill himself?”
“None. Ted had a few business problems now and then, but he never gave any indication he was thinking of committing suicide.”
“Do you know if your husband was heavily insured?”
“He has a few old policies but nothing of any significance that I know of.”
Killam signaled to his partner to wrap up his notes. “Mrs. Villeneuve, a forensics team is currently at your home. They should be gone by the time you get there. After they finish their analysis, and we have the results of the autopsy, there will be a coroner's inquest. We’ll advise you of the date.”
I noticed that Angie flinched at the mention of an autopsy, so I moved closer to take her hand as a gesture of reassurance. Detective Killam didn’t miss my gesture of support. He was already moving toward the exit doors but stopped. “One more question, Mrs. Villeneuve. Was there anyone else in the house at the time of your husband’s death?”
This time there was no question, Killam looked directly at me as he spoke.
Angie answered firmly. “No, Detective. I was all alone.”
After I dropped Angie off at her mother’s home, I raced over to the office. I knew there would be apprehension and plenty of rattled nerves when word spread through the organization that our president and co-founder was dead.
My earlier mention that I was the head of grief counseling for the chain was a bit of an inside joke because, no matter how trivial, anything that caused anybody any grief in the company usually ended up on my desk.
While it’s true I did spend a certain amount of time in my role as a psychologist providing grief counseling to residents of the home, the bulk of my efforts came from my involvement as the vice-president and forty-five percent owner of the Golden Ages chain of retirement residences.
As a company, Golden Ages retirement residences had expanded rapidly after our start-up thirteen years ago thanks to the availability of relatively low-interest mortgages. Starting with one modest retirement home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the chain had grown to fifteen facilities spread over six states. Ted and I continued to work out of the Bridgeport facility, partly out of nostalgia, but mainly because it made economic sense.
Ted and I worked well together. He handled the financial and marketing parts of the business while I oversaw the human resources, counseling, resident interface, and all other aspects that came my way. Although we worked as equal partners, Ted had control because of his fifty-five percent share ownership. This was only fair because, at our start-up, he was able to raise more capital investment at the last minute than I could.
Even though Ted had more shares than me, we always treated each other as equals, even to the point of alternating the office of the president every three years. I wasn’t due to become president for another eighteen months. I guess the phone call this morning changed my world forever.
Even in my grief, as I entered the impressive lobby of our Connecticut senior’s residence, I felt a tingling of pride. Ted and I had made a pact right from the first. No halfway measures. If we were going to do this, it was going to be done right.
In contrast to those abysmal human warehouses where ungrateful families offload aging relatives to live out their days in misery, surrounded by the stench of urine and cries of distress, our residences were an oasis of serenity. Each resident had a small but luxurious single or double apartment. The Silver Sands Café, a feature in each of the fifteen homes, served gourmet fare designed to entice all appetites. Cocktail hour was only one of the many enjoyable highlights of each structured day.
Providing an upscale retirement experience as we did, was not inexpensive. In fact, in the early days, Ted and I often had to forgo our salary to make sure we could meet the ever-growing demands of the payroll department. But, gradually, as word of our good reputation spread, we were doing much better financially. We were starting to build a long waiting list at most locations.
I hiked up the one flight of stairs to my office signaling Gemma Clarkson, my assistant, to join me on the way. Gemma entered my office, notepad at the ready, smiling until she saw the look on my face.
“Whatever, is wrong, Larry? You look like hell if you don’t mind me saying.”
“Brace yourself, Gemma, I’ve got some bad news. I just came from Memorial Hospital. Ted Villeneuve is dead.”
“Oh, my God. Was it a heart attack?”
“No, I’m afraid it looks like Ted committed suicide.”
“Suicide? You must be kidding, Larry. Why the fuck would Ted kill himself?”
Gemma’s crude response was not unexpected. My assistant and right-hand person was a feisty early middle-aged woman who didn’t take crap from anybody, including me. After a run of two husbands, she finally abandoned the marital scene and decided to focus on her career. She loved her job, the company, her cat Doodle, and me, in that order. There was no one more dependable than Gemma when it came to making things happen.
“Gemma, I haven't got a clue. Maybe after the coroner’s inquest, we’ll get some answers, but for now, we have a crisis on our hands. Staff, suppliers, residents, and bankers will all be uneasy by the sudden loss of our president. We need to control this situation, and we need to control it fast.”
“Okay, start talking.”
“First, set up a telephone conference call with the fifteen facility managers for ten a.m. Then, get all head office staff in the lunchroom by ten-forty-five. After that meeting, I’ll hit the phone to advise our key suppliers, the bank, and anyone else I can think of.”
“What about the residents here at Bridgeport?”
“I’ll talk to them in the dining room at lunchtime. In the meantime, draft up a notice for all company bulletin boards and a separate one for the outside world. It’s important not to mention or discuss the cause of death until the official coroner’s report. Oh, and you better get Carole down here first. Don’t tell her what it's about.”
Gemma made a disparaging face at the mention of Carole Downey, Ted’s administrative assistant. When Gemma disapproved of anything or anyone, she didn’t attempt to sugarcoat her feelings. Her summary of Ted’s assistant was, “all tits, no brains.”
While I waited for Carole to arrive at my office, I sat back and tried to think of any reason my lifetime friend would want to do himself in. As far as I could tell, his marriage was okay. Not the kind you see in Hollywood pictures maybe, but the couple always seemed civil together. If it was a serious health concern, I’m sure he would have told me.
My musings were interrupted by Carole’s arrival. She was wearing one of her trademark scarlet red, skin-tight sweaters. The kind that left little to the imagination. Ditto for the skirt. She sat down in the guest chair in front of my desk looking slightly affronted at being summoned to my office, almost as if she was doing me a favor by showing up.
Although Carole had been with us for over a year, she still hadn’t grasped the basic nature of the relationship of equals between her boss and me. As far as she was concerned, she worked for the president, and everyone else was an underling.
Before I could start talking, she stretched a few times to show off her treasures. I gathered it was her standard opening gambit to try and distract an unwitting male off his game. It wasn’t working this morning. I had too many important things on my mind to take the bait, as enticing as it was.
“Carole, I have some bad news, I’m afraid. Theodore Villeneuve died at Memorial Hospital early this morning.”
Carole stopped stretching and started to cry. Her face contorted and turned a pasty shade of white. She stared at me, speechless for a moment, then blurted out, “But what about my job?”
I got angry at her callous response. I must have let Gemma’s low opinion of Carole influence my thinking because, at that moment, I didn’t like the woman. Not a word about the death of her boss, or the impact on his wife and family, just total self-preservation.
I tried to keep my response measured. “Carole, it’s too soon for us to know what organizational changes might be needed. For the time being, you will report to Gemma. We have much to do, and Gemma will need your help.”
Her response caught me off guard. Carole’s face shifted from pasty white to flushed red as she snarled, “I won’t work for that bitch. I’m the administrative assistant to the president. As soon as a new president is hired by the board, I should be in place to help him get oriented.”
I stood. “Carole, the board won’t be involved in the decision. I’m the new president of the company as of this morning. You have two choices, report to Gemma, and give her your wholehearted support, or have your resignation on my desk by the end of the day.”
Carole stood, glared at me, then turned and left. She slammed the door on her way out. Gemma heard the loud noise and walked into my office, smiling. “That went well, Larry.”
“Shut up, Gemma. What about the conference call with the managers?”
“They are all waiting breathlessly on line four. When they asked me the reason for the call, I told them you were giving them all a raise.”
Despite the inner sorrow I was still battling, I had to laugh. “You take the cake, Gemma. You have a warped sense of humor, and you’re definitely one of a kind.”
The conference call was set up over a speaker so I could talk and listen while taking notes at the same time. The men I would be talking to were all capable managers. Ted and I were highly selective in our choices of the individuals to run each facility. We encouraged them to think of each residence as their own business, providing they adhered to our strict corporate code of standards.
After I made the announcement of Ted’s death, there was a long silence on the speaker, then the questions flooded in. I assured them all that the most important issue was to continue business as usual. When they heard that I was assuming the presidency, everyone seemed to calm down. I had a fairly good personal relationship with each of them, and I knew I had their respect.
All of the managers asked to pass on condolences to Angie and made inquiries about the funeral arrangements. I told them they would hear as soon as plans were put in place. After pledging to keep them up to date, I said goodbye and left for the staff meeting.
As soon as I entered the staff lunchroom, I could tell by the hubbub that the word was out. I assumed Carole Downey was the rumor monger, but I couldn’t spot her in the crowd. A sea of faces turned toward me expectantly, waiting for reassurance.
The Bridgeport facility was also our head office, so the gathering was large. Because of various building expansions, the home itself is larger than normal, housing just under two hundred and forty residents. The people I looked out on held positions as gardeners, cooks, chambermaids, security, medical, administrative, and more. They all had one thing in common, though, they were concerned.
I’ve been a psychologist long enough to know the unsettling effects of change, so after announcing the sad news about Ted, I repeated the mantra that it was going to be business as usual. At the end of the meeting many of the long-term staff members knowing that Ted and I were more than just business partners, stopped to shake my hand and express their condolences on the way back to work.
I asked Gemma to schedule calls to our corporate lawyers, the bank manager, and our top five suppliers, but first, I wanted to touch base with Angie to see how she was holding up. I dialed Angie’s mother’s house first. I had known Betty Turner since my high school days.
“Hi, Betty, it’s Larry Rosewood. Is Angie there?”
“No Larry, she decided to go home. She’s fretting about having to call the boarding school to tell Toby about his father. She was in bad shape when she left here. I tried to get her to stay overnight, but she was adamant that she had to get started on arrangements.”
“Okay, Betty, thanks. I’ll try to get her at home. I don’t know about you, but I’m still in a state of shock.”
“Me too. I just can’t believe Ted’s gone. See if you can help Angie, Larry. She trusts you, and you’ve been a good friend to both her and Ted for a long time.”
“I’ll do everything I can.”
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