A Widow in Need After Violence, Fire and a Son's Death

Neediest Cases Isabella Rivera

February 9, 2012 By Anastasia Economides
The New York Times 

Isabella Rivera, 86, had expected to live out a quiet, peaceful life in her golden years. But she did not count on the naked attacker armed with a knife. She did not count on losing a second son to illness. And she did not count on being forced out of her home because of a fire.

The triple dose of tragedies came in a six-month period this summer, leaving Ms. Rivera, a widow, shaken, grieving, but determined to keep going — even though she is having a hard time sleeping.

It started one afternoon in August. The police said that Christian Falero, 23, went around the co-op building where he lived in Washington Heights, naked and randomly knocking on doors. When people answered, the police said, he slashed them with a 10-inch kitchen knife. Ms. Rivera and three other tenants fell victim to the rampage: two of her neighbors died. Her home attendant, Zoila Lopez, was punched in the face and knocked down, and Ms. Rivera was seriously injured.

“He twisted the knife inside my neck,” she said. “The doctors don’t know how I lived. I was on blood thinners.”

Her son Edwin Rivera, 62, who was battling cancer and lived across the hall, witnessed the attack from his peephole, Ms. Rivera said.

Mr. Falero was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and is being held at the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center on Wards Island.

Ms. Rivera said she had known Mr. Falero since he was a child. “I held him in my arms when he was a baby,” she said, showing the scars from the slashing on her right forearm, right leg and neck.

After Ms. Rivera was treated for her wounds, she went home to recuperate. Then, in September, she noticed water leaking from her ceiling. An electrical fire had started in an apartment a few floors above; after firefighters put out the blaze, Ms. Rivera’s apartment was left uninhabitable because of severe fire and water damage.

Her son Edwin had been in the process of moving upstate, and another son, Marcus, was living in a walk-up apartment in the Bronx that would have been hard for Ms. Rivera to get to. So a close family friend, Manuel Vasquez, and his wife opened their home, two blocks away from the fire-damaged building, to Ms. Rivera.

“She’s my second mother,” Mr. Vasquez said. “It’s so sad; life is hitting her hard.”

For now, Ms. Rivera pays $150 a week to live in a brightly lighted room with a comfortable full-size bed in the Vasquez home.

Recently, contractors completed an inspection of her own apartment, and repair work is scheduled to begin this month. Ms. Rivera, who came to New York from Puerto Rico with her husband at age 18, had lived in the apartment since 1967. Now, furniture saved from the fire is piled up in the kitchen and another room. The ceilings in the bathroom and Ms. Rivera’s bedroom are nonexistent. The linoleum in various rooms is peeled away from the wooden floors, and Sheetrock is torn from the walls. Family photographs from Puerto Rico were destroyed, Ms. Rivera said.

But the kitchen, where she had enjoyed spending much of her time, looked intact.

“I just want to cook in my kitchen again,” Ms. Rivera said. “I like making rice and beans, tostones and my own coffee.”

The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development requires that Ms. Rivera continue to pay her share of the maintenance fee for her apartment, $153 a month, to keep the unit. The rest is subsidized.

With her monthly income of $688 in Social Security benefits and $148 in Supplemental Security Income, Ms. Rivera can barely afford anything else. She turned to Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, which drew $918 from the fund to pay the fee for her apartment for six months.

But in January, Ms. Rivera was dealt another blow. Her son Edwin succumbed to liver cancer. Ms. Rivera said she could not believe she had to bury another child: her son Bobby died of a heart attack in the 1980s.

Clutching a rosary bead necklace, her nails glistening with the gray polish that her home attendant’s daughter had painted on them, Ms. Rivera began tearing up as she recounted the turmoil of the past six months.

“Vivo dia por dia,” she said. I live day by day.

Ms. Rivera said she was grateful for the extended family that God had given her over the years.

“You don’t find too many people like her,” said Ms. Lopez, her home attendant of seven years, who sometimes lies beside her and chats about life until she falls asleep.

Ms. Rivera keeps her mind busy playing computer games and burning CDs of salsa music. She said her son Marcus had promised her a new computer when she returned home.

“Mal tiempo, buena cara,” she said. In bad times, show a good face.

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