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No Good Deed

I just wasn't grateful enough, Liz.

Elizabeth Titus

“I just wasn’t grateful enough, Liz,” Lynn told me on our final encounter, as she was being forcibly evicted from the bungalow I had bought and was renovating.

Five years later her words haunt me. Was she right? Did I let her live rent-free in my home for six months not because I felt sorry for her, but for some insatiable need for gratitude? For validation, proof that I am a good and generous person?

“No good deed goes unpunished,” friends told me as they tried to console me. “You just wanted to help her.”

“You really got taken,” the forty-something woman lawyer told me as I walked into her office for the first time. “This one’s a real taker.”

Lynn, in her late fifties, was a woman with a past when I met her. “A woman on the run,” is how my straight-shooting lawyer described her. She had packed her car and fled from her last husband in Texas in the dead of night, covering her tracks so he’d never find her. The lawyer had some difficulty collecting material on her. “A clever one,” she called Lynn.

Under ordinary circumstances I likely would not have met Lynn. We came from vastly different worlds in socio-economic terms. I met her in September 2005 when my husband Gregory, at age fifty-four, was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. We lived in Connecticut, and he commuted daily to New York City for his work as a partner in a large architecture firm. With the diagnosis and the surgeries and all that followed, I often accompanied him to hospitals in the city. I needed a dogwalker for Abby, our golden retriever, and someone suggested Lynn.

She was reliable, that much was certain. I recall days when Gregory and I were delayed getting back to Connecticut due to snow, and Lynn always managed to get to our house in her four-wheel-drive to walk and feed Abby. “Abby’s fine,” she’d tell us as we drove home. “I’ve got it covered.” She was a tall woman, with platinum blonde hair and a tendency toward Western dress. She had an NRA sticker on her four-wheel drive. Both Gregory and I began to count on her; a relationship of sorts developed, and he even took to calling her Lynnie. “Lynnie’s here,” he’d call to me.

In the final stages of Gregory’s illness, when he was at home, I continued to have Lynn come to walk Abby. The truth is that had she not come, I would have stayed inside all day, curled up on the sofa, frozen with fear. Her entry into our home at noon each day gave us something to count on. I often walked with her as she took Abby down the road. Insane, I know, since I was paying her good money when I was essentially walking Abby myself.

One day Lynn said to me, “I have some wonderful news!” I knew a little about her life. She grew up in Connecticut, married a local boy at a young age, and had a son. The ex-husband worked in a local restaurant washing dishes. Her second husband was a salesman in Texas, where they had a nice home with a swimming pool. But he drank and abused her, so she split, returning home and moving in with her elderly father. Soon she found her calling as a dogwalker and built a good clientele. Had I left it at that, hiring Lynn to walk my dog, it would have been better. But I was lonely, terrified, almost comatose. She provided entertainment, an escape from the inevitable that I faced with Gregory’s impending death.

Her wonderful news was that a baby boy she had given up for adoption at birth over twenty years ago had found her. (I cannot imagine how, given what my lawyer later said about her covering her tracks.) She had driven to New Jersey to meet him and his wife and two young daughters. At first, all appeared happy with this discovery. Soon, though, clouds began to gather, and I sensed that Lynn, a very aggressive woman, had pushed her way into their lives too quickly.

Apparently the baby had been adopted by a wealthy family in South Jersey and named Mark. Soon after, they had a biological child, a daughter, and the mother turned on the baby boy. “His childhood was miserable with that awful mother,” Lynn told me. “What she did to my baby.”

The family drama became more fascinating to me each day. I waited for Lynn’s noon visits as people wait for their favorite soap operas on TV. Mark’s wife, a nurse, seemed like a nice sort of woman, and I wondered what she made of Lynn’s bullish ways. Lynn told me that Mark had begun to drink heavily, and his wife was concerned. Lynn said he was depressed, from having such a rotten adoptive mother. She seemed to believe that her giving him up for adoption had little impact on his psyche. She had no interest in self-reflection. Her failures in life were because of her selfish, bigoted father, whose small house she was now living in. “What I do for him,” she’d tell me, “and he never even thanks me. I cook his meals, I wait on him, and he just sits there, silent.”

She believed that her father needed her, that her evil sister who lived nearby was useless. “She’s jealous,” Lynn said. “I got out of town and she never did. I have a successful business and hers failed.” The sister and a brother out in Colorado, though, had a different take on the situation. They felt Lynn should pay rent to their father.

“Can you believe it?” Lynn told me one day. “I am buying groceries with MY money and cooking for him!”

“I know, Lynn,” I responded, “but it sounds like they’re going to sell your father’s house and he’ll move in with your sister. So you’d better be ready for this.”

When Gregory died in April 2007, Lynn was very much a part of my life, and she helped with the ceremony in the modern home he had designed. I had come to count on her and believed we were true, if unlikely, friends. How wrong I was.

She came to my house one day in tears. Her father’s house had indeed been sold and she was given just weeks to pack up and get out. What heartless people they seemed.

“We’ve been through so much together,” I told her, “and I won’t let you become homeless. You can stay in the bungalow while it’s being renovated for the next six months.”

“Are you sure?” she asked. “Really, really sure, Liz?”

“Yes, it’s yours,” I responded. And with that, my life turned to hell.

Lynn moved in within days, using a borrowed van. I was amazed by the amount of junk she owned. Stupidly, I thought she’d arrive with a few suitcases, not an entire life’s worth of possessions. Rusted lawn chairs appeared on the front terrace, along with terrible sculptures. The tiny bungalow was suddenly bursting at its seams, in a state of shock at what was happening. The closets bulged with her dresses from another era. She put sheets up over the windows, essentially barricading herself in. I knew it was bad when on Thanksgiving Day, she told the workers to go home and have turkey the way everyone does. (They were from Guatemala.) I told her this was not acceptable, that she had to be more flexible. With that, she and I never spoke again. I figured I’d give it until Christmas, since she was due to leave right after New Year’s. When it was clear she had no intention of leaving (possession is nine-tenths of the law), I found the lawyer. An eviction notice was served, giving her thirty days to leave. If she didn’t, I’d have to evict her, hiring a marshal and paying all her moving costs. It’s the law.

She waited until the very last minute to leave: midnight, December 31. I never saw her again. But her parting words haunt me.


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