She was a feisty Scotswoman, proud and independent. And as she stooped with age and took to walking with a cane, she became cantankerous, as many old people do, and resisted making new friends. She never went out. For years, the only fresh breeze in Kate McDougall's life came in through the window of her one bedroom apartment at 4600 Connecticut Avenue NW.
On July 20, she celebrated her last birthday, but there was no party. A card arrived from her cleaning lady and several others from friends who had moved away to Florida. She passed the day like every other, says the janitor who fetched her groceries and took out her trash. Alone. At 85, she simply wanted to die.
"This is a weary world," she used to say. "I don't know why I'm living so long."
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of Kate McDougalls in Washington, D.C., and they live alone with their plants and their memories inside spotless apartments all over town. And they die alone.
McDougal, a retired senate staffer, bore the arthritis without complaint. She kept up her reading -- Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic -- but she didn't like what she read. An orthodox Republican, she fumed often about Jimmy Carter and the decline and fall of the American empire. "I won't say another word about that redneck if it kills me," she promised friends in a letter dispatched to Florida last month.
She was a faithful correspondent, clipping items from the papers about the plight of the elderly -- skyrocketing food prices, crime, apartments converted to condominiums right out from under the spindly legs of grayhaired tenants. In fact, McDougall herself had only 30 days left to vacate her apartment when she died. She had no intention of leaving. "I've lived in this apartment for 20 years and I'll die in this apartment," she vowed.
She resisted all attempts to help her move. After all, she said, she had no place to go. She bristled at the notion of a nursing home. The image of herself in a wheelchair, dependent on someone else for power, haunted her, say friends.
She remained alert to the end, her sharp, quick mind imprisoned inside an aging body. Indeed, the other day, Grace Lee, her cleaning lady for 15 years, forgot her dentures, but shrugged off returning home to get them. Lee figured she'd put one over on McDougall.
Where are your dentures, Grace?"
"I left them on the dresser."
They had a good laugh, and McDougall sent lee a note advising her to remember her teeth the next time.
"She was a nice lady," says Lee. "She treated me like a human being."
She wanted Lee to have the ottoman and her bird pictures. The silver was to go to the Gehr's, longtime neighbors who had moved to Vero Beach, Fla. And she asked that a robe be saved for a friend in West Virginia. It was all in the letter they found July 30 on a table by the front door.
Kate McDougall failed to take in her newspaper that day. So, at 11:30 a.m., James Jones, the janitor, asked the front desk to ring 813. When there was no answer, they unlocked the door, surprised to find it unchained. She was resting in a pink night gown, beneath clean linens in bed.
She was pronounced dead by Dr. Dennis Hand, an internist with an office in the building. But he refused to sign the death certificate. Kate McDougall had been his patient, often remarking that she wished to be done with living, he said. He thought it too coincidental that the letter instructing Riggs National Bank how to dispose of her personal property was set on a table by the door, "as if she knew something was going to happen."
Hand found a half-empty bottle of sleeping pills in the medicine cabinet, but says that the purchase date afforded McDougall ample time to deplete the stock normally. One friend, Lillian Kingsley, insists Kate killed herself, but a homicide detective says he found no evidence of it. The medical examiner cited old age as the cause of death. No autopsy was done, and Kate McDougall was cremated and the ashes forwarded to the family plot in Michigan, as her will instructed. There was no obituary. She had no one to notify the papers.
"She was very depressed, just waiting to die," says Hand. "She had the attitude of a lot of older people -- "I'd be better off dead." I have a number of patients who want to get it over with. As their friends and relatives die, they become solitary members of their families. They get lonely. They have neither the physical ability nor the inclination to get out. And even if they could go out, they have no one to go out with.
An 82-year-old man once told me, 'If I'd known what old age was like, I wouldn't have tried so hard to get here.'"
As for McDougall, "she may have committed suicide simply by willing herself to die," says Hand. "She certainly had no reason to live."
The visitors found the apartment immaculate, nothing in the sink, clothes hung up, everything in its place.
"These old people can sense it," says homicide detective David Forbes,35.
"They know when they're getting ready to go, and they get their affairs in order."
Two weeks earlier, she had pressed an envelope with $50 on the janitor. The money was wrapped inside a warm thank-you note. She arm-twisted another employe into accepting an antique vase.
McDougall instructed that her furniture be sold at auction and the proceeds -- along with $55,000 in securities and savings acquired as a hedge against illness during a long and frugal life -- be given to Children's Hospital. She'd had polio as a child and nursed a lifelong affection for sick children.
She never married, though friends say she had plenty of opportunity, just never found the right one. A sister died several years ago at 91. The closest she came to children of her own were the two Meloy brothers. "Her boys," she called them. Francis E. Meloy, Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, was gunned down by terrorists in Beirut in 1976. Daniel, his brother, a career foreign service officer and former CIA employe, drowned mysteriously. They had kept in touch from around the world.
"After they died, she just lost interest in living," says Dorothy Gehr, a former neighbor. "She was ready to go anytime."
But the crowning blow, say friends, was the apartment with the garden view. She had until September 1 to get out. "She said she wasn't up to packing and moving," recalls Lee. "It was a sunny apartment and she loved it. I told her, 'Don't worry, things will work out where you won't have to move.'"
The building had gone condominium five years back, but McDougall stayed on as a tenant. Now the owners wanted to sell. Friends say she could have bought the $68,000 apartment, but refused. She turned down other high-rent apartments, too. She might appear old and helpless she said, but she wasn't going to be "gouged."
Once when angry creditors tried to collect charges billed to her on a stolen credit card, she raised the roof, dispatching a lawyer to set the record straight. She would not be pushed around.
"She was one great gal," says Kingsley. "She had character. You don't find that today. She did her own cooking. She sounded like 16 over the phone."
As McDougall became increasingly ornery and withdrawn, Gehr baked cookies for her. "I forced her to be my friend," says Gehr. "I hated the thought of her being alone."
Grace, pray for me," McDougall asked her cleaning lady a few days before she died.
"I pray for each and everybody," said Grace. "I ask God to take care of us all."