My friend and neighbor calls it “the death board.”
She’s talking about a section of the bulletin board in our building’s lobby where notices and photos of residents who have died are posted. I live in Westbeth Artists Housing in the West Village, and it has been declared a NORC, a naturally occurring retirement community, which means a substantial number of residents are over 60. I’ve lived here for two decades. Now I’m a senior citizen, too.
The building has experienced a wave of departures over the past few years. When I first arrived, I’d occasionally see a notice. Now it happens with regularity. And it shakes me up. Who will be next?
Last year, I was away a lot, dealing with a death in my family. I’d return and see the death board with new names. I’d tell the front-desk security guard every time I came back from New Jersey, of a new entry on the board. He quipped, “Don’t go away.”
Some deaths are shocking, like the vibrant musician who was walking in the park and had a heart attack. Or the visual artist found in her apartment after neighbors smelled an odor. Some deaths are expected, but still sad, like the brilliant photographer who lost her battle with cancer.
For many tenants, the death board is how they find out the news. “Oh no,” shrieked a gray-haired man as he looked at a recent notice and leaned on the wall for support. “I just talked to her last week.”
The death board is like our version of the wailing wall, as neighbors add poems and photos, share stories, seek information, and shake their heads in disbelief.
“How old was she?”
“He was a fantastic teacher — before he got dementia.”
“Did she die here or at a hospital?”
I am touched by the residents who knew they were dying and requested to return to Westbeth. They wanted to spend their last moments in their homes, cared for by family and friends. I also recalled waving to a neighbor who was wheeled out of the building and placed into an ambulance. She never returned.
As I processed the latest passing by talking to a neighbor, I noted the death board was a phenomenon in our artists community. He said, “Well, unless we move, we’re all gonna be up there some day.”
True. When my time comes, I hope they post a good picture of me.
Kate Walter is the author of “Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing.”