Losing Max

Photographs by Sarah Leen

 Bert Greenberg reads to her husband, Max.

Bert Greenberg reads to her husband, Max.

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Losing Max is Sarah Leen's timeless story about Max Greenberg that she photographed for the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine. Published on December 1, 1985, it is a story as much about Max's caregiver, his wife Bert, as it is about Max losing his self-identity. After 35 years of marriage, and now caring for a partner who can't recognize himself in the mirror, Bert is fighting to keep caring for him at home—even if she has to remind him every day what her name is.

 

Losing Max

published December 1, 1985

 

Since the first symptoms of Alzheimer's disease appeared eight years ago, Max Greenberg has lost the ability to play dominoes, carry on a simple conversation, or find his way around his Bucks County, Pennsylvania, apartment. As he walks through his home, the rooms vanish behind him like soap bubbles. For him, nothing exists but here and now. Feeding himself, going to the bathroom, even recognizing himself in a mirror takes all his concentration.

The one person Max does recognize consistently is "Mommy," which is what he now calls his wife of 35 years. When his wife, Bert, is away at work or out shopping, and Max is left at home with the woman Bert hires to care for him in her absence, Max sits patiently at the window asking over and over, "Where's Mommy?"

Bert loves Max fiercely. She fights to keep him at home with her as long as possible and to preserve what's left of his mind. "What's our address?" she quizzes him. "What's our phone number?" When he answers, she says "Good. Very good."

"It's part of my marriage vows," she says. "...if I ever have to institutionalize him, it would devastate me.... I'm going to fight like hell."

Still, if Max's case follows the norm, the day will come when Bert can no longer care for him at home.

This is something Bert can't think about.