Wilhelmina Franklin and Walter Scriber had been an item for years. They saw movies together, went to family dinners together and both loved to sing. Sometimes he would chase her around, he in his wheelchair, she in hers.
This was at D.C. Village, the city-run nursing home across the Anacostia River in far Southwest, where the elderly pair had been romancing for more than a decade.
Now both of them have died, within two months of each other. The 86-year-old Franklin froze to death in January when, for unknown reasons, she went outside in her wheelchair wearing only a red cotton dress, a sweater and socks.
Last month, Scriber died, but his death was not as easily explained. After reviewing Scriber's file, city public health officials would not reveal the cause of his death except to say that it was of natural causes.
Death certificates are not public records. They are available to family members, but D.C. Village officials said the 71-year-old Scriber, who had lived at the nursing home for 25 years, had no next of kin.
Some of Scriber's friends at D.C. Village have developed their own explanation of his death, however. "He just stopped eating" after Franklin's death, said James Thompson, a D.C. Village resident. "I think he died of depression. He didn't care anymore."
"I think he wasted away. He missed Wilhelmina," said Fay Mays, an ombudsman with the Southeast Cluster, a church group that acts on behalf of D.C. Village residents. Nurses there had tried without success to get him to eat, Mays said.
Staff aides there said he had been sick before, but that after Franklin's death he got depressed.
"He just didn't have the will," said a staff member there, who asked not to be identified.
D.C. Public Health Commissioner Andrew McBride dismissed the idea that Franklin's death had contributed to Scriber's. McBride referred to anorexia, a serious lack of appetite, though he did not say that was what caused Scriber's death.
"With the elderly, anything can cause anorexia," he said. Depression could cause it, but that would be one of the last things he would expect, McBride said.
Franklin had been in District institutions for more than 40 years, including St. Elizabeths mental hospital and D.C. Village, where she had been since 1969. Scriber had been at D.C. Village since 1960.
"As far back as I can remember, they were together . . . . They loved each other," said one staff member who has been at D.C. Village since the early 1970s.
"He used to chase her around the building when they argued. She would get out of her wheelchair and wobble like a duck from side to side, and he would go after her," the staff person said. "Nobody was going very fast."
Franklin was a large woman, whose son said that her size sometimes made it difficult for her to walk. Scriber was always skinny and never ate very much, according to the staff and Franklin's son, Willie M. Franklin. Scriber sometimes accompanied Franklin to her son's house for Mother's Day and birthday dinners.
Willie Franklin said Scriber approached him at his mother's funeral and said he had something important to tell him. But Willie Franklin never found out what it was. He said he went to visit Scriber at D.C. Village afterward but could not find him.
And before they had a chance to talk, Franklin attended a wake at a funeral home and saw Scriber's name in a funeral bulletin.
"He was weak and thin . . . but he didn't look like a man about to die," Willie Franklin said of Scriber's appearance at his mother's funeral. "He was mad, he was upset, I know that."
Wilhelmina Franklin's death was investigated by the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Department of Human Services officials have not yet released a report on the death and would not discuss specific findings, but a spokesman said that disciplinary actions against staff members are being recommended.
Franklin was found frozen next to her tipped-over wheelchair on D.C. Village grounds. She had been missing from her room for three bed checks before the staff started looking for her, and D.C. police finally found her 50 feet outside the building at 4 a.m., persons involved in the investigation said at the time.
No autopsy was done on Scriber, according to the D.C. medical examiner's office. McBride said there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death, so there was no reason for an autopsy or investigation. He said he declined to specify the cause of death because it was confidential patient information.
Both Franklin and Scriber liked to sing, and Scriber's favorite song was "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," according to friends at D.C. Village.
"I miss him," said one staff member. "Every time we had a talent show, he was in it." Asked if it was difficult for a couple to have enough privacy for a love affair at D.C. Village, which is home to more than 400 people, the staff aide indicated that they were able to make do.
"They would kiss one another out in public," and they found time to be alone together, the staff aide said. "They really had a romance for a long time."