Elaine Ellbogen refused to be confined, even while under a court-appointed guardianship.
At 85, she often signed herself out of her Libertyville nursing home, walked to the Metra station and took the train to Chicago. She'd board a bus, then window-shop along Michigan Avenue or stop in art stores and greet the proprietors, who became friends.
She showed up at the Tribune Tower one frigid February afternoon, after talking to me only once before by telephone.
She wanted her independence, she said. She wanted to punish the people who had forced her out of her Highland Park home, citing her inability to care for herself. "I do not believe I should be under guardianship," she said.
That day earlier this year marked the beginning of a short friendship that ended with tragedy, and proved to me, once again, that people can be amazingly complex.
Elaine dressed fashionably, wearing a scarf and a splash of red lipstick that offset a crown of white hair. Articulate, witty, and dramatic, she quoted literature and discussed current events each time we met.
She spoke about working as an account executive in the 1950s for Daniel Edelman's public relations firm in Chicago. Much like the era was depicted in the "Mad Men" series, it was unusual to find a woman in that role at the time. For Elaine, it clearly remained a source of great pride.
She left her job within a few years to marry and raise two sons in Highland Park, filling the home with artwork and staying active with her children's activities. At one point, she tried to get back into the public relations world, but too much time had slipped by.
By the 1980s, when her sons left for college, Elaine's collections of artwork, newspapers, mail and clothing from frequent shopping sprees became unwieldy.
That was when the hoarding began and her marriage unraveled, said her son Andrew Ellbogen. Elaine stopped allowing family members in the house, which was in dire need of repairs. One side of the roof was caving in and mold was spreading throughout the home.
"Early on, the art covered walls at home," Andrew said. "In later years, the artwork was on the floor when she ran out of wall space."
After a small fire in the home, her family members begged her to move, offering options and financial help. They asked the city of Highland Park to intervene, but Elaine refused to move or clean up the house as needed for its sale. When I asked Elaine later if she considered herself a hoarder, she replied, "That is a matter of interpretation."
Eventually, a phone repairman who was allowed entrance to the house was so disturbed by what he saw that he took photographs and sent them to city officials, who contacted the guardian's office, Andrew said.
And so in 2011, the private guardian removed Elaine from her home by having her declared disabled in court. The guardian took control of her finances and major decisions regarding her life. This was a drastic step, and Elaine did not handle it well, feeling betrayed and lied to by the guardian.
She started to write letters, compelling and coherent in tidy cursive handwriting. She addressed them to a Lake County judge, a former presidential candidate and to news reporters, including myself.
"Awakened at 7:40 a.m. by pounding on my front door, I was informed by (guardian) that she would personally return me to my home in one hour if I would accompany her to the Highland Park hospital to answer a few doctor's questions," she wrote in one four-page letter.
"I never saw my home again," she wrote. "Thus began my surreal Kafka-like agonizing true story. I am a real-life example of the horrifying fate that can befall a low-income, elderly woman."
I was interested in learning more about guardianships, which are often necessary to obtain help for people who are incapacitated, but can also be abused.
But Elaine's case, as I soon learned, was no simple matter. She did not suffer dementia, as some court records stated, though she had received psychiatric care and was not taking her medication as prescribed.
Elaine was moved into a skilled nursing home in Libertyville in 2013, after a year of failed attempts to move her into a less-restrictive setting, such as assisted living, court records state. "She was resistant to the limits placed on her for spending and outings," the guardian wrote, describing her as verbally abusive.
The last time I saw Elaine, at a coffee shop near her nursing home, she spoke about the Oscar Wilde play, "A Woman of No Importance" and her fear, after guardianship "that I was nothing now. That I was absolutely unwanted, destroyed."
Yet she seemed happier than on past occasions. After her funds ran out, the state took over Elaine's guardianship, and authorities were working on moving her to an apartment. She was allowed more freedom, and continued to leave the nursing home for short excursions.
She had begun piling papers and items in the private room she had at the nursing home, and clothes still carrying their tags hung along the wall. She had made some friends and enjoyed a good relationship with her ex-husband, her son Andrew said.
"The goal was always to let her have as much independence as possible," he said.
So, it was shocking to learn that, on June 2, Elaine left for a shopping trip and never returned home.
She had been struck by a train in Deerfield, and was not identified until a day later. Her death was ruled an accident by the Lake County coroner's office.
"She just miscalculated crossing the tracks," said Orlando Portillo, chief deputy coroner.
Her family members remain horrified that she met such a violent end, despite their attempts to keep her safe. She had been looking forward to her granddaughter's upcoming dance recital, Andrew said.
I couldn't stop thinking about her after learning the news. She had astonished me with her eloquence and mobility, and I enjoyed our visits. While I initially questioned why she was under a guardian's care, I began to understand why her family had become frustrated and sought the city's help.
Despite her eccentricities — or maybe because of them — I was touched by her and considered her a "woman of importance."
I wish she had lived long enough for me to tell her that.
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A late-in-life friendship and a lost opportunity to say 'you matter'