Published in the Zimbell House anthology “No Trace” in May 2018
In retrospect, I should have driven over as soon as the sitter phoned to say Dad had gone for a walk.
Or maybe, subconsciously, I had Eskimos in mind.
It’s a half-hour from my office. Melinda – she was that afternoon’s sitter, who likes to be called caregiver – said Dad had found an unlocked door while she’d dozed off on the living room sofa. Only forty winks. She was just giving me a heads-up in case I phoned while she was outdoors steering him back into the house.
It’s a friendly neighborhood. Mom and Dad were among the first, 30 years ago. The developer had only two or three models, peas with pods in different pastel shades. Picket fences – everyone had one – were all-white initially, but there are now a few Easter eggs. One-car garages were the only option, so there’s usually a second car on a faded macadam driveway. The folks had a second until Mom’s death. None now, of course. Getting rid of Dad’s involved saying it was in for repairs until he forgot and stopped asking.
Most neighbors take care of the green lawns and shrubbery and flower beds themselves, except for weed-killer services in the spring that sprout little yellow warning signs. Everybody for blocks around knows Dad; the old-timers remember him in better days. Many still grow vegetables, as Dad used to. In the absence of a village green – this development was before town zoning demanded public spaces – those gardens are green social magnets for homeowners of a certain age: People visit after dinner, comparing notes on what bugs and slugs and worms have appeared and what zaps them.
When he’s got it together – as much as he can these days — Dad likes to visit, admire neighbors’ handiwork, praise their industriousness. He’s seldom able to come up with their names, but sometimes can name the flowers and vegetables. “Is that a Big Boy tomato?” Often he’s invited into the kitchen for a visit.
But always with someone at his side, ready to steer him back home. He tires easily and doesn’t walk well anymore, so it’s not as though he’s likely to bolt away. Although he may protest that he’s not ready to go back yet, it’s not hard to humor him for a few minutes and then gently get him back in the house.
And lock the door.
So I let Melinda Whats-her-name (I don’t try to remember their last names; I have them pasted inside the checkbook) go look for him by herself, while I finished the work at my desk.
My first mistake. I didn’t think it would take long.
There aren’t supposed to be unlocked doors, and caregivers aren’t supposed to doze off. I hire three of them on shifts, so they don’t have extra-long hours. Nor do they have much to do: Play checkers, setting the faded board on the ring-stained coffee table by his sofa. Play his music, get him meals, take him for a walk. And just be company: Chat with him, listen and nod mm-hmm whether he’s making sense or not.
Take a break when I phone him, as I do every afternoon, or when I come visit, several times a week. But don’t let him out of the house unless you’re right next to him at every step.
Checkers is Dad’s favorite pastime, a simple game burned indelibly into his brain. He likes classical music, but needs help with the stereo phonograph he and Mom got as a wedding present. When the sitter gets a favorite string quartet going on a vinyl LP – remember vinyl? –Dad folds back into the sofa and soon dozes off. He sleeps a lot.
He can wash and dress and use the bathroom without help, but sometimes needs reminding. Although he used to brag about taking Mom to favorite gourmet restaurants, he never ate out after her death – which devastated him, and maybe brought on this Alzheimer’s thing – and restaurants are no longer an option. Meals are usually out of the freezer or a can, and he compliantly eats what’s offered. That’s not very demanding on the sitters, either.
So where could he be? It’s not as though the house is in an urban jungle or on the edge of a deep forest. It’s a safe environment. Sure, there’s a little farm with a pasture and woodlot a half-mile away, one stubborn farmer who held out when the developer assembled his land. Turned out a plus for the neighborhood, a nice bucolic touch. There are no major highways, so there’s little traffic; mostly people coming or going to work or grocery-shopping.
Melinda must have slept longer than forty winks. I expected a call at any minute to say Dad was safely back home. I had work to do, so I wasn’t counting the minutes and chewing my nails. In fact, when I realized time was passing and looked at my watch, I wasn’t absolutely sure what time it had been when Melinda called. Had to look it up in the smartphone’s log.
All the caregivers have cell phones; I make a point of it, so I can call them to check how Dad’s doing without the house phone’s waking him. I had my phone call Melinda back.
“Mr. Maguire, I hate to say this, but I haven’t found him yet.”
“For God’s sake, woman, how far have you looked?”
“A block or two in each direction, sir.”
“And did you speak to any of the neighbors, ask if they’ve seen him? Maybe someone took him in for milk and cookies.”
“I asked after him, Mr. Maguire, wherever there were folks outdoors. I didn’t knock on doors or anything.”
“Go back and start from the house again, and knock on doors,” I told her. “Keep looking. I’m coming.”
In retrospect, I should have called the police right away. It’s a half-hour’s drive if I’m lucky. The evening rush hour seems to begin in mid-afternoon these days.
I still wasn’t worried, though. It was a mild late-September afternoon, the maples and oaks in their brightest colors, not yet denuded; some neighbors’ burning-bush shrubs bright red. He wouldn’t freeze to death being outdoors without warm clothing. Besides, I didn’t think he was outdoors. Figured I’d just knock on a few neighbors’ doors, and ask them to phone a neighbor or two, and we’d find him in someone’s kitchen.
I phoned Melinda as soon as I got to the house. Had her come back to map strategy, organize the search. She’d already door-knocked all but two of the adjacent blocks. Her relief sitter, Caroline, arrived just as I did, so I had Melinda start off in one direction and Caroline in another to the second tier of neighbors. I set out to cover the remaining territory.
No one had seen him.
People were mostly pleasant. Sometimes I was interrupting dinner – people coming to the door with napkins in their hands — but no one resented the intrusion when I explained. Nonetheless, I was into territory beyond his usual daily walks, so many people didn’t really visualize him. Sympathetic, but remembered no white-haired wanderers.
We wouldn’t going to find him this way. I phoned the sitters, had them come back to the house. It was beginning to get dark; September evenings don’t last forever. We searched the house top to bottom in case he’d come home by himself. Then I called the police.
“Mr. Maguire,” the desk sergeant said, “we can try to organize a search, if you insist, but by the time we get started it will be pretty dark.”
“You can’t help?”
“What I can do is put out an alert to all our officers, and to all the talk radio hosts. Let’s see if I have it right: Alzheimer’s victim, elderly man, tall, thin, white hair. Last seen near his home at 24 Vantage Rd. Do you know what he was wearing?”
Please, I said. Alzheimer’s patient, not victim.
“Of course, sir. Patient. And clothes?”
I asked Melinda. “A red checked light wool shirt, sergeant, and tan khakis.”
Melinda hadn’t seen him leave, of course, but his usual outdoor jacket was still on the hallway clothes rack. “No, apparently not,” I told the sergeant. “Too bad; it’s getting chilly. And almost certainly no hat. He never wears a hat.”
“Well, yes sir, it is a little cool. But I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s not going to be really cold. What number should anyone call who’s seen him?”
I gave him my cell.
“Thank you, Mr. Maguire. I’ll get the alert out. You’ll phone us, of course, if he turns up, so we can call it off?
“Oh, by the way, sir. Just in case he doesn’t turn up, you call us at first light in the morning. Ask for Sergeant Smith; he’ll be on duty then, and I’ll leave him a note. We could get the State Police to lend their bloodhound team.
“Bloodhounds,” I muttered.
“I don’t think it will come to that, sir. I’m sure he’ll turn up. Don’t fret too much.”
I should have said right then to get the bloodhounds. Dogs can see in the dark, and they’re operating on scent, not sight. The troopers must have big flashlights to follow a dog. But I was still optimistic.
Some people, I know, will wonder why I didn’t have him in a nursing home by now.
The first reason is that being in his own house, surrounded by his own things, family photographs, Mom’s tchotchkes, and someone always there — paying attention to him, and to no one else — is a helluva lot better than a Lysol-sprayed cubicle managed by an overworked staff.
On the other hand, it won’t be much longer until he’ll qualify for Medicaid. If we’d put the house in my name at the first hint, we would by now have spent down all his remaining assets, so he’d be eligible. I just hadn’t anticipated that he’d deteriorate so much in little more than a year, let alone the two years our state law in our state requires if the house isn’t to be counted as an asset to be spent down.
In any case, the house he’s living in is now in my name; I’m the only heir. Rent-free, of course; I’m not predatory. I can soon put it on the market and scout out an attractive long-term nursing home that’s not too institutional and promises to give him some personal attention.
Never mind whose house it is now. It’s his home, and on this night he wasn’t at home. He was out somewhere.
I should have let him keep a dog. Should have bought him a new one when his old toy poodle died. Pierre, a little grey lamb, followed Dad everywhere; jumped up on the sofa with him by day and onto the bed at night. Licked his hand, was good company. By now Pierre would have been barking up a storm to tell us where Dad was.
We talked about a replacement. Dad had more frequent lucid moments back then; he wanted to go to the pound, find a grown dog that seemed friendly. I resisted. It would have taken months for a brand-new dog to adopt him as master. The way Dad’s attention wanders, it was unlikely that a new dog would ever bond like Pierre.
And taking care of the dog would have become one more thing for the sitters to do, risking diverted attention. I stalled. After a while, Dad forgot about wanting a dog.
Caroline was the night sitter. I sent Melinda home. She felt bad. I postponed a discussion of docking her pay. I told her to call Caroline first thing in the morning to see if Dad had showed up, and if not, to come back, not wait until her afternoon shift.
Caroline and I turned on every light in the house and yard. A dozen years ago Dad had put lights around the house to illuminate it for Christmas; we turned those on, too. Dad would surely recognize home if he wandered by.
I went out on the patio to shout as loud as I could: “Tom Maguire! Tom Maguire! Holler if you hear me. It’s Tommy! Holler if you hear me.”
I turned on the radio, working my way through the local stations. I had to listen to commercials, the weather, highway reports and baseball scores before the news, and the missing-person alert was usually at the very end. But I heard it on three stations.
Cold comfort: No one telephoned to say they’d seen Dad.
I told Caroline to get herself something from the freezer, but stay awake. Go out on the patio to holler every hour. On the hour. Never mind if the neighbors complain. Call me on my cell phone if Dad shows up. I’ll call you now and then to be sure you’re awake.
My own house is maybe 20 minutes away. Halfway, there’s a good restaurant where I’m known. In a little shopping plaza, more neighborhood friendly than the big-box malls they build these days. Not a steakhouse, but good beef, and open late. I had a martini, then ordered a tenderloin and another martini. Flirted in a desultory way with the waitress to distract myself.
When I got to the car I phoned Caroline. Nothing. Home and to bed. Woke up to pee about 3 a.m. and called Caroline. She answered right away, so she must have been awake. Still nothing.
I admit that in the last year I’ve thought a lot about the end of life. Eskimos, I’ve read, send their failing parents out into the Arctic cold. Sounds cruel, but maybe not so cruel as letting them linger long after life is meaningful.
Then I think about polar bears and wolves. Sounds crueler than I’d ever be up to.
And the bones. I suppose that when the animals are finished, the Eskimos may find the bones. Maybe not; it must snow a lot. Maybe they don’t even look.
In our culture, we find a sense of closure in putting a parent’s remains into the ground, in a place one can visit and honor. Mom is in a nice cemetery, with a next-door plot for Dad. Whether to inter the body or cremains doesn’t matter. Or even, perhaps, bones left over from a polar bear feast.
I had to work at pushing that thought aside.
If people are compos mentis and determined to get it over with, of course, they can refuse food and drink. The body can’t last more than two or three days without water. Four at most. That would be a long time, with nurses and doctors trying to make you drink, threatening intubation, because having you pass away on their watch looks bad on their records. But if you have a carefully-drawn living will, and a stubborn son or daughter insisting that your wishes be respected, they’ll relent. Or worst case, let you be taken home to die. Or to a hospice.
That kind of ending is considerate of the family. They can be called when the dying parent is still conscious, allowing time to say goodbye. It may be frustrating to sit around another day or two: Can’t go home, they might die tonight. So sit by the bed, talk to them even when they no longer seem to hear. Hope that deep down, through the fog, they know who’s with them.
A growing number of states let dying people choose an easier death than slow starvation – but there’s no way for people lost in dementia to make an informed decision. A living will? I can’t imagine any words to solve the problem. “If I don’t recognize my children and can’t remember what I had for lunch, I instruct that you cease all food and hydration?” Not likely.
When I phone Dad every day, he recognizes my voice maybe half the time. When I drop in, he may scold me for not keeping in touch. “Tommy, I never see you any more.” Memories disappear like coins dropped in a well, into absolute darkness, maybe a faint splash. Not even enough cognition to make a wish.
Maybe the Eskimo way isn’t so bad. The predators probably don’t arrive until after death, which in bitter cold must be quick and less painful than three days without water.
I’d set an alarm, and called Caroline at 6:00. No sign of Dad. I dressed without showering or shaving, called Sergeant Smith, and on the way to the house bought drive-in coffees and donuts for me and for Caroline and Melinda, too; this must be hard on them.
The local police – Corporal Roach and two patrolmen — arrived soon after I did. To my relief, they had a state trooper and his bloodhound with them. He had his dog smell Dad’s clothes and his bed and chair, getting a solid sense of what to look for. Sniff for.
“The trail’s a little cold, sir,” Trooper Adams said. “I wish we’d started last night. But there’s been no wind, and Durante here is terrific. We named him that because of his nose, you know?” He smiled at his joke. Jimmy Durante, the comedian of Dad’s era, called the schnozz.
Unleashed, Durante poked around the yard, found a scent trail out the back gate, and was off — but looking over his shoulder, so to speak, trained to follow the trail but not get too far ahead of his trooper. The town police corporal came along, but sent his two patrolmen back to other duties.
Seemed Dad walked straight through the neighborhood, on the sidewalk, heading toward that little farm.
“If Durante found your father had stopped in a yard, sir,” Trooper Adams explained, “he’d hesitate, maybe go into the yard, then find the scent again and go ahead. Your father must have headed straight to that farm up ahead.”
To get there, he had to cross the main road. Not a highway, no divided lanes. Just a road from this town to the next. Enough traffic, though, for exhaust fumes to obliterate the scent trail. Durante picked it up on the other side.
When he’d reached the cornfield, if Durante had it right, Dad had wandered a bit, then headed toward the little woods. Not a forest: maybe an acre of trees, second growth on what was a few generations ago a woodlot for fuel to heat the farmhouse.
Why didn’t we come this far last evening? I thought. Might have spared Dad a cold night. We’d surely find him now, curled up under a log, chilled but otherwise okay, not remembering how he got here.
But we didn’t find him. We found a little hollow where Dad lay down for a while, if Durante was to be believed. No way to tell how long, Trooper Adams said.
Durante seemed to think Dad had started back home, and wanted to follow. The trooper put him on a leash. The farmhouse was maybe a football field away. We walked through the corn stubble, knocked. Someone shooed away a barking dog inside – Durante’s hair stood up on his neck – and came to the door to hear us explain.
“Y’know, I saw a man yesterday evening who fit that description. The dog barked and carried on, the way he just did. I came to the door just in time to see the fellow head back into the woods, and didn’t think anything more of it. He couldn’t do any harm, this late in the season. Didn’t let the dog out.”
We thanked him. Trooper Adams led Durante back to the woods, to the hollow where Dad had maybe slept, and unleashed him. The dog picked up the scent immediately, and off he went again. “Seems like that’s a stronger scent trail, sir,” Adams said. “Maybe fresher.” Maybe as recent as this morning?
Out of the woods, the housing development in view again. Not quite the route we’d come; off to the east. At the highway, the dog cast around, back and forth, nose to the ground.
Adams led him across the road, made him go back and forth over there. He obviously didn’t find anything. Stymied. We crossed back to the farm side, where Durante found the scent again, but again went back and forth with no apparent direction.
“Sir, I think your father got into a car here. Durante says the trail doesn’t go beyond this. Do you suppose he might have flagged someone down? Hitchhiking, you know? Would that be like him?”
It was hard to imagine. Dad lucid enough to ask for a lift to Gurneyville? Maybe he just wanted to sit down and go anywhere. He must have been cold and tired.
The corporal phoned and had headquarters put out an all-points bulletin, looking for a driver who might have picked up a possibly-disoriented man on the Gurneyville Road last night or this morning. Trooper Adams called state headquarters with the same errand.
“Was he carrying money, sir?”
I doubted it. Those khakis he wore all the time usually just had a handkerchief and comb in the pocket. He wore a cheap watch, not worth stealing. But we looked, back at the house, to be sure. As I’d expected, his wallet and coin purse and his gold retirement watch were all in the top drawer of the dresser. I found a good recent photo, and gave it to Corporal Roach to add to the missing-person information. Found another I’d use myself.
“Thank you, Mr. Maguire,” the corporal said, “I think we’ve done all we can for now.”
“I’m afraid I agree,” the trooper said. “I’d better take Durante back in case he’s needed elsewhere. Sorry, sir.”
But they would have a trooper and a local patrolman out on the Gurneyville Road late in the afternoon. Stop every car for a few hours, asking if they’d seen him. If no luck, they’d do it again the next morning.
I wrote checks for Caroline and Melinda and Sheila, the third caregiver, who’d arrived by then, and sent all but Sheila home. I wanted someone in the house in case Dad somehow found his way back. Laid out a schedule so one of the three would be here at all times, keeping the house lit up like a beacon when it got dark, going out to holler.
Asked them to carry on for a couple of days. If by the end of the week he hadn’t been found, we’d have to give it up, and I’d then phone if I needed them. We all knew that if Dad was found, he would need a hospital, not a sitter. Caregiver.
I went to the office and made a poster on the computer. Have You Seen This Man? Took it to an instant-printer, with the photo, and had them make up two hundred posters. Bought a heavy-duty stapler, and headed toward Gurneyville, putting a poster on phone poles at every intersection. I went on to the next town, doing the same thing. Then back into town, plastering Dad’s mug everywhere.
It was hard work. I went back to Dad’s house to take a nap, telling Melinda, who was back by then, to wake me at 3:00 so I could meet the police at the Gurneyville Road. I hardly slept, though.
A trooper and town patrolmen showed up as promised. They welcomed my help stopping every car going in either direction, asking every motorist if he or she had seen Dad. Showed them the picture. A few accepted one of my posters to put up down the road.
But no one remembered seeing him. When it got to be pitch dark, we gave it up. I offered to buy the officers a drink, which they declined. Sent them off, and went to my roadhouse for a steak and a drink. Phoned Melinda; no sign of Dad.
We did it again at dawn the next morning. “The dog seemed to think the trail was fresher coming out of those woods, sir,” Corporal Roach said. “Maybe he got that ride early in the morning.” We ran the car-stop until mid-morning, then gave it up.
By the end of the week, it was clear we weren’t going to find him. I paid the ladies off.
I still stop by the house several times a week. I’ve begun packing up Dad’s things. I’ve found someone whose business is holding a tag sale, and taking anything unsold to a homeless shelter or the like. We’ll do that soon. I’ve talked with a real estate agent.
My mind invents gruesome possibilities. Maybe someone gave him a lift, panicked when he died in the car, and disposed of the body God knows how. Or did he fall into the hands of demented cold-blooded murderers? In China, people are kidnapped to harvest body parts for implants, but not here, surely? And not likely men as old as Dad.
A recent newspaper article said half of all people 85 or older have some type of dementia, and two-thirds of those can be expected to wander. Nationwide, every year, more than thirty thousand people wander off. Most get no more than a quarter of a mile before they’re found.
“There are no statistics on how many are never found, but it’s thought to be a relatively rare occurrence,” the article said.
So Dad’s disappearance is a rare occurrence. That’s little comfort.
It’s been two months now. It’s over, but it will never be over. In our culture, we expect closure. The way it happened, there’s no closure.
You have wonder again whether the Eskimos have it right.