A couple of years ago, at our annual neighborhood holiday party, I reached across the crab dip and said hello to my down-the-street neighbor Max.
“Max!” I said. “I never see you and Rhonda anymore. How are you enjoying retirement?”
Max shoved a cracker into his mouth, chewed, swallowed, and then frowned at me.
“Who are you?” he said.
I was taken aback. I hadn’t chatted with Max in several months. He and his wife Rhonda had a big dog and, like me, were avid walkers. But they walked at midday and I walked early in the morning, so our paths didn’t always cross. Once school started and cold weather hit, we saw one another mostly coming and going in cars. Waving neighbors, I called it. But still. I had lived down the street from Max for 10 years. He knew me.
I glanced at his hand. It held a cup. A-ha. Maybe Max had overdone it with the eggnog.
“It’s Ramona,” I said. “So what are Teresa and Samantha up to these days?”
“Sam’s engaged. She sells real estate,” Max said, and this time I frowned. Samantha was his younger daughter, still in college. Teresa, older, was the one I knew had a realtor’s license and a longtime boyfriend.
Before I could respond, Max turned to his wife. “Rhonda, what’s Teresa doing now?”
Rhonda paused from the conversation she’d been enjoying and put a hand on Max’s arm. She smiled at me. “Teresa sells houses. She and Jimmy just moved in together. Samantha is a Junior at the college. She’s studying accounting.”
She spoke carefully and patiently, in short sentences. When she finished, Max nodded. He turned back to me and said, “Who are you?”
I told him again, wondering exactly how much eggnog he’d had. Or, if it wasn’t eggnog at all that caused his confusion.
Max is a few years older than I am, so at that time he was early 50s. He’d retired from his state government job a year before. Even if he’d drawn a blank on my name, he certainly would know which of his daughters was a realtor and which was a student. What was going on?
Later, I captured our host and asked if something was amiss with Max.
“Oh yeah,” he said, and told me Max had been diagnosed with a progressive illness that included dementia. “It hit him hard and fast.”
Hard and fast, indeed. That summer, our families had sat together to watch 4th of July fireworks. Now, at New Year’s, Max didn’t recognize me.
A couple of years have gone by. I see Max and Rhonda out walking but usually Rhonda and the dog are together and Max lags behind. Where before he was robust, he is waxy pale. His right hand has a tremor that I suspect is induced by medication. He looks at me when I say hi, but he doesn’t answer.
Max is a middle-aged man who should be enjoying his early retirement. But he’s not.
Once, when I offered to walk their dog, I told Rhonda I thought Max’s situation was tragic. It is and it isn’t, she’d said. Max isn’t verbal anymore, but to some degree, he knows what’s going on. Max had always been a worrywart and an insomniac, but now he sleeps like a log all night. He never gets upset or displays anger or lashes out. He attended Teresa and Jimmy’s wedding. After their first child was born, Max was able to stop trembling long enough to hold his grandchild for a photo.
Part of Max has disappeared, but not all of him. Looking at him, it would be easy not to think that; easy to forget to say hello to him because he never responds; easy to discuss his illness right in front of him as if he cannot hear or understand. That would be wrong. Max is still here.
And even if he was not, even if he had no clue who he was anymore, treating him like anything less than a valuable human being with feelings would still be wrong.
A few months ago, I glanced out my office window and saw Max, alone, on the sidewalk. I watched, waiting for Rhonda to show up with the dog. She didn’t, and I got worried. I rushed downstairs, out to my porch, and just as I was heading into the yard, I saw Rhonda jogging up the sidewalk in a bathrobe, her hair wet.
“Max, you know better than that!” she scolded. She saw me, shook her head, and said, “He still tries to make a break for it.”
It must be hard to watch someone 24/7 but that’s what must be done. If I hadn’t seen him, if she had stayed in the shower a little longer, who knows how far he could have gotten?
Max’s story is sadly not rare. In my city of Newark, Delaware, just this past month a Gold Alert was issued by police for someone who went missing. His name is John Dohms. He is a retired University of Delaware professor who suffers from dementia. He went out for a walk on September 13 and never returned. He has been gone for more than a month. There were organized searches immediately after he went missing. Now, there are no formal searches because a specific area where he may be cannot be pinpointed. Fliers with his photo hang around town. Former students and concerned people search the area where he was last seen. Hikers keep an eye out. There’s a Facebook group that keeps people informed.
John Dohms may have disappeared, but he is somewhere. He is a person of value and should be treated as such—every stone unturned, every available resource utilized— until he is found.
Because this is a blog aimed at writers, I try to tie in every post to something useful for my writing friends. A common problem when people write fiction about mysteries and crime is how to make the victim matter. Often, a story victim is a character whose purpose is to get the story started. A sensitive and fair writer understands that even fictional victims should be treated with respect, even when bad things befall them. In publishing, there’s a phrase that covers this: Every person has a mother. That’s meant to remind writers that every victim has someone who cares about them.
We are a nation that proves time and time again that we care and can be generous and compassionate, but somehow, we fail miserably in caring for the elderly and the mentally infirm. We can do better at this. Start with one person in your life, or near your life, and reach out.
Every person has a mother. Every person has value.
*Note: While the anecdote of Max is (mostly) true, names and details have been altered to protect privacy.