Death in a High Rise: A Tribute to Maureen McDonald

by Nancy McDaniel

October 25, 2003

When I think of dangerous occupations, I think of firefighter and police officer and window washer and miner and construction. I never thought paralegal.

When I think of dangerous places, I think highways and skyways and oceans and prisons. I don’t think high rise office buildings.

At my age (56), I have started reading obituaries more often, sad to say. And I see friends and acquaintances and people my age dying of cancer and heart ailments. But not smoke inhalation.

And then my friend Maureen McDonald died. Friday night. At around 6 p.m. Trapped in a smoky stairwell on the 21st floor of the County Building in downtown Chicago. And it just stinks.

A Dedicated Free Spirit of A Woman
I didn’t even know Maureen all that well, but I considered her a friend. I would see her once a year or so for lunch and we’d trade emails every now and then. And we would run into each other at theater sometimes. In fact, the last time I saw her alive, we just waved at each other in passing, when going into see a play. Just last week. I planned to talk to her at intermission but I didn’t see her. That makes me sad.

I first met Maureen nearly ten years ago, after she had participated in an Earthwatch project in Zimbabwe. It was the same one I had volunteered on, just at a different time. I had become good friends with the scientist on the project, Prisca Nemapare, (read The Beverly Hillbillies Head for Binga) and she told me I should meet Maureen, as she thought we would get along.

So we met and discovered we had so much in common. We were about the same age, single, and had each worked in our respective occupations for most of our careers. We both loved theater, we both loved Africa, and we both loved Chicago.

Maureen was a lifelong South Sider and I grew up in the suburbs but lived on the North Side. I imagine she was probably a White Sox fan and I a Cubs fan, though we didn’t talk about it. She was Irish Catholic through and through and told me wonderfully funny nun stories. I was an agnostic, I guess. Other than that, we were pretty similar.

We both loved to travel. She spent several years living in Australia and was very adventuresome. My friends think I am, I think she was more so.

Guardian of the Elderly
Maureen had the most generous spirit of anyone I know, I think. Her job in the Cook County Public Guardians office was all consuming and she was so dedicated. She worked with elderly people who needed help; she helped care for over 500 disabled adults, many of whom had age-related dementia. I can’t imagine how difficult that job must have been. She seemed to thrive on it and was passionate about her people. As someone said, they weren’t wards of the state, they were Maureen’s People.

Maureen was so quick and easy to laugh – she had a warm smile. I think of her smiling most of the time, kind of like me. Photos of her were always with a smile on her face.

A Face without a Smile
That is why it was so hard to see her in the funeral home, lying in the coffin with her hands crossed on her chest, no smile on her face. That wasn’t the Maureen I knew. It is also why I will not have an open casket after I die. I don’t want anyone to say “That isn’t the Nancy I knew.” Through my tears, that’s what I said when I saw Maureen. That is not the way I will remember her. I will remember her impish smile and hearty laugh.
Why in the World Did She Die?

So what happened? No one knows right now. There was a fire on the 12th floor of the office building at 5 p.m. Friday. It was hot and smoky and scary and terrible. But at 7 p.m., they said the fire was struck and wasn’t it wonderful that there were only 3 minor injuries. A miracle, some might say. Then I went to a party. I got home at 10 p.m. and turned on the news and all of a sudden there were 6 people dead. They found their bodies trapped in stairwells 9 floors above the fire. They were trying to escape.

In the morning I saw that three of the dead worked for the Public Guardian’s office. That was where Maureen worked. I had visited her office in that very building. Though I couldn’t remember her floor, I remembered it was high up. I loved her office. It was full of African art. It was full of life, like Maureen.

The Wrong Person Answered The Phone
I waited till 9 a.m. and finally got the courage to call her home phone, to check in, just to make sure she was OK. I fully expected her to answer the phone and either say she had left early and missed the fire or that yes, there was a fire and it was scary but she was fine. A man answered the phone, a bad sign since Maureen and her mom lived together with no men in the house. I asked to speak with her. He asked who I was. I told him I was a friend and that I was just calling to make sure she was OK. He said “This is her brother. Maureen passed away last night.” I really didn’t expect that. He asked how I knew her and we chatted a little and I just kept repeating how sorry I was

I can’t get it out of my mind. I keep wondering if she was scared, trapped in that stairwell with some other people. I just wanted her not to be scared or in pain. A friend told me that with smoke inhalation, you pass out quickly and aren’t aware. I don’t really pray, but I pray that is true. I can’t bear the thought of her suffering.

Let’s Celebrate Maureen’s Life
I went to Maureen’s wake this afternoon. I hate wakes. If people have one for me when I die, I promise I will come back to haunt them forever. But I had to go, just to pay my respects. I drove 45 minutes each way to stay 5 minutes. But I had to go to say how sorry I was. I will go to the funeral mass tomorrow. I know that people will celebrate her life. I know that I do.
I wish I had known her better. Like me, Maureen was a member of The Saints, a volunteer organization for theater. Like me, Maureen was a member of the Chicago Greeters, volunteers who love Chicago and love to show visitors our favorite spots in our beloved city and be a friend for them while they are here. Like me, Maureen loved Africa. We always talked about our trips when we returned and wished we were back there again.

Conclusion
I will miss her a lot. Even though I didn’t see her often, I was glad that she was in my life, at least a little. Go well, Maureen McDonald. You will be missed.

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