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.
14 thoughts on “A Person of Value*”
Wonderful post. And a good reminder that everyone is worthy, especially in these days of partisanship!
Yes, Kathy, a human being’s value has no party.
Thanks for posting this, Ramona. My father had dementia the last few years of his life, and like Max, there were still parts of his personality there, and still things that he enjoyed and recognized.He had been a brilliant man, and I kept thinking about the story “Flowers for Algernon” that I’d read in high school in which a mentally retarded man is given a drug that increases his intelligence until he reaches genius level–and then it starts to leave him.
And he knows that it’s happening. It was very, very difficult and sad. My heart goes out to everyone who has to deal with a loved one going through this.
Nancy, I remember “Flowers for Algernon” and the sadness of his regression. I’m sorry about your father. He must have been proud to have passed on his intelligence and sensitivity to you.
It’s VERY tough. My dad wandered off and was missing for 5 months. It was a long 5 five months before they found his body in the Mississippi, after the ice melted. It’s impossible to prevent this, unless you lock a person up. The tracking gizmo might work, but it might not if the person removed it. I don’t know what the solution is. If you’d locked my dad up, he’d have been frantic.
Oh dear, Kaye, that is terribly sad. I am so sorry your family went through that.
There is no easy answer, is there, but I think a focus on health and mental health and aging issues can’t be ignored. Our elderly population will only grow bigger.
Your line about every person has a mother hit home. I remember when I was 19 (many years ago) my girlfriends and I went on a tour of NYC. The bus driver took us to the Bowery. This was the late 70s and there were people passed out everywhere in the streets–some with their pants down. The other people on the bus were laughing and pointing at each person like we were touring a zoo. I remember feeling very sad and thinking this was very wrong and that somewhere each of these people had a mother and were once sweet little babies.
Janice, what a kind heart you had at 19. This line is one meant to remind writers that their fictional victims are important, but we should probably all keep it in mind each day, all day. Thank you for sharing this story–it obviously stuck with you.
Thank you for a thoughtful post. I lost my mom to dementia. I was heartbreaking to watch people dismiss her as though she couldn’t still feel hurt or neglect or anger. She could, and did.
LD, I am sorry for the loss of your mother. Dementia is heartbreaking indeed, and so many people have memories to share. I hope your mother was treated more with kindness than dismissiveness.
What a wonderful and heartbreaking post. My mother had a debilitating stroke and couldn’t speak, and near the end I don’t think she really knew what was going on around her, but I tried to treat her as if she did. Her own sister didn’t want to come and visit because “she doesn’t know who I am”. I shouted, “Even if that’s true, she knows someone’s there, talking to her and paying attention to her!” Why are people so dense? 🙂 Or is it just that they’re afraid of their own helplessness?
Genie, I’m sorry about your mother. It’s good you had the strength to treat her the way I think we all want to be treated, with care and respect, in sickness and in health.
Another wonderful essay, Ramona. Thank you. In terms of writing, good timing for me to remember to make my victim a full character with a good side (even if everybody hates her…).
Edith, thank you for the comment. I wonder sometimes if non-writers think applying even life’s most difficult situations is callous? But I think about the stories that touched me because they seem real or touch a reality of my life, and that’s what we’re striving to do when we write.