Back in the Land of the Living

updated 05/29/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/1989 01:00AM

Paul bends over his white leather sneakers, gathers the laces in his hands and deftly knots a neat bow. Standing up, he smooths his sweater vest and flashes a proud grin that stretches across his clean-shaven face. Such childlike joy at mastering a simple task might seem odd in a 65-year-old man, but for Paul, who is retarded and not long ago was thought to be almost unreachable, such small triumphs are profoundly delicious.

They bespeak also a kind of rebirth. For it was only eight years ago, in June 981, that a social worker and a nurse found Paul frightened and bewildered in the attic of a weathered house in Gaithersburg, Md. As far as anyone could determine, he had not been out of the house—and perhaps seldom out of the attic—in more than 30 years. Yet despite his extended isolation, "He's extremely giving and gentle," says his social worker, Annise Chapmon-Stewart. "If someone has endured a life of abuse, they're usually not that loving. For Paul to be able to show the type of love and affection he shows, he had to have received it at one point in his life."

The discovery of Paul's cloistered existence came when the social worker and nurse were summoned to the Gaithersburg house by a report that the elderly woman who lived there was gravely ill. They found Lena Dasher, thought to be in her 90s, slumped in a chair and incoherent. Then they heard footsteps on the stairs leading to the attic. At the top of the narrow passage stood a gaunt, toothless man with shoulder-length hair and a long, matted beard. He was barefoot, dirty and disheveled. When asked his name, he answered in raspy whisper, "Me Paul."

Lena Dasher was rushed to a hospital, where she died two days later without revealing much about herself or Paul. The attic in which he had lived for decades was hot and fetid. A chamber pot sat at one side of the filthy room, and the bed was soiled and rumpled. On the mattress lay a carefully arranged collection of rocks. Authorities could find no record of Paul's birth. A next-door neighbor's account, corroborated by files at a local public school, indicated that Lena and her husband, Gleason, a carpenter who died some 30 years ago, were not his natural parents, but that Paul apparently had lived with them most of his life. Who his natural parents were, and whether he had been officially adopted, is unclear.

Taken to Great Oaks Center, one of Maryland's largest institutions for the mentally retarded, Paul underwent a battery of tests and observations. The doctors there initially determined that he had the mental capacity of a 7-year-old and an IQ under 50, which is considered severely retarded. He could not tie his shoes, bathe or correctly use a knife and fork. He was partially deaf in both ears, and his speech was limited to "Me Paul" and guttural sounds. He understood "come," but requests to "sit down" or "touch the table" baffled him.

Once given the chance, though, Paul showed what he could do. Within months he was using eating utensils and learning to dress himself and tie his shoes. "He learned so quickly that the staff was amazed," says Chapmon-Stewart. "Some things they had to show him only two or three times." As Paul's gentle spirit and zest for life began to emerge, his teachers surmised that his mind was not a blank slate, and that, although he had apparently been kept indoors for years, he had probably been cared for and nurtured.

Yet Paul's lost years have remained largely a mystery. Longtime residents of the area, which was mostly rural 50 years ago, remember him as a child playing in the Dashers' yard. He often helped Gleason Dasher mow the grass. Records show that he attended school for only two years, from 1932 to 1934. His contemporaries remember waving to him when he was out in the yard, but no one recalls playing with him. "I knew he was there," says Rodella Campbell, 61, "but he got like a hermit. I heard that after Mr. Dasher died, Mrs. Dasher shut up the house."

Doris Day, 62, who still lives next door to Paul's former home, says she also occasionally saw Paul in her youth but rarely after that. "I was in school and he wasn't," she says. "But every time I saw him, we spoke. He'd say hello and smile. He wasn't able to talk that much. My father and Mr. Dasher visited back and forth. In later years Mrs. Dasher and my mother talked on the phone but very seldom went into each other's homes. We were private people and so were they."

The Reverend Charles Shepard and his wife, Margie, lived across the road from the Dasher house for four years before Paul was discovered. For two of those years, they planted and tended a vegetable garden in the Dashers' back yard. "I was shocked," says Margie Shepard. "I never dreamed Paul was there. I never saw him until they took him to the hospital. He looked like a mountain man." Reverend Shepard says that Lena Dasher was always friendly and that the boarder she took in after her husband's death sometimes came out to chat, but no one mentioned Paul. "I told my wife I always thought someone was peeping at me from the window," says Shepard. "It makes you wonder sometimes."

Paul's recovery from his years of isolation is itself a wonder. He now lives with a family in suburban Rockville, Md., and spends his days at the Centers for the Handicapped in nearby Silver Spring. When Chapmon-Stewart stops by for a visit, Paul, spotting her in a corridor, waves exuberantly and makes a beeline for his friend. His most striking physical features are his enormous ears, followed by his prominent nose, close-cropped graying hair and a thin-lipped smile. "Hi, how you doin', how you doin'?" he mumbles to Chapmon-Stewart, pumping her hand and grinning while embracing her with his other arm. He studies her face intently, then earnestly inquires again. "How you doin'?"

"I'm line, Paul," she replies. "How are you?"

In the center's class for the elderly mentally disabled, Paul shows off a watercolor he painted. "Nice," he says, smiling broadly. Some of his paintings were displayed in a local restaurant, and Paul has sold a few pieces, but according to the staff, he seems to take more delight in giving them away. Paul also loves to play with the Polaroid cameras supplied by the center, and he keeps a large scrapbook of photos and mementos of trips he and his classmates have taken. "That's me...that's Blackie," he says, pointing to a picture of him and a dog, the family pet in the home where he lives with Don and Linda Loring.

Paul moved in with the Lorings in December 1981. After six months at Great Oaks, he had progressed to a menial age of 9 years, and the social workers and psychologists handling his case agreed that he was ready to live a more independent life. They approached the Lorings about foster care for Paul, and Paul settled in.

The Lorings were already building a remarkable family when Paul arrived. In 1977 they began caring for Christina, who is now 20 but looks much younger. She has the mental age of a 2-year-old, is incontinent and does not express herself vocally except by crying and laughing. Tanya, a 24-year-old with the mental capability of a preschooler, arrived in 1980. Her retardation was the result of having been thrown down a flight of stairs by her mother when she was an infant. In addition to brain damage, she suffered partial paralysis, and usually makes her way around the house by crawling on her hands and knees.

In keeping with the mental ages of those who live there, the Loring household reverberates with rambunctious activity, punctuated with childish shrieks and wails. Paul sits in a rocker bouncing his favorite teddy bear on his knees, pausing only to pop up and hail visitors. Tanya, while pounding on an electronic game that beeps and flashes in response, nags Linda about going swimming. Christina squeals with delight as Don gives her a piggyback ride around the room. A few minutes later, Linda and Tanya burst into song as Tanya randomly plunks notes on the piano. Then Christina starts crying, needing a diaper change. Paul, thrilled with a tiny plastic film canister he has recently acquired for his collection, shows it around, then stuffs it in his pocket. Crawling into the kitchen, Tanya brays, "I want coffee, Mama."

The Lorings, devout Baptists who teach Sunday school to the retarded, say loving and caring for the disabled is a mission for them. "It's what God wanted us to do," says Linda, a teacher at her church's school. "I can see growth and courage," says Don, a systems analyst for a computer firm, speaking of the man and women who share his home. "Sometimes they seem totally withdrawn, but then they blossom."

Paul has flourished in the bosom of this family, and the Lorings call him the mayor because of his outgoing personality and friendliness. "He loves to greet everybody we meet," Linda says, laughing. "He goes around shaking everybody's hand, saying 'How you doin?' and 'Is this your little boy?' or 'Is this your little girl?' " He is like a grandfather to Tanya and Christina, though his childlike nature remains evident in his private domain. The top bunk bed in his room holds a menagerie of stuffed animals, and he often takes his seashell collection to bed with him.

Paul can do simple tasks such as preparing pudding, slicing potatoes or making a sandwich, often with the fresh tomatoes he picks from the garden. He likes to show a bit of sartorial flair, and he has a collection of about 20 hats from which he makes a different selection each day. When he is feeling particularly well turned out, in his shiny black oxfords or a new suit, he doesn't hesitate to ask: "Do you like it? Nice?" In addition to helping with household chores such as vacuuming, mowing and dishwashing, he also feeds and walks the dog and accompanies Linda to the grocery store. Because he cannot read or write, Linda supplies him with index cards on which she has pasted pictures of the food she needs. "I have to watch out for him sometimes," she says. "He can't always pick the best fruit. But sometimes that's okay. If he picks up squashed bananas, then we just have squashed bananas for that week."

To the Lorings, squashed bananas and dirty diapers are a small price to pay for the love they receive from Paul, Tanya and Christina. The couple also finds an abiding satisfaction in helping three unusual people live their lives with a sense of belonging, and watching them grow however they may. "I don't mind being happy with small successes," says Linda. "That makes it easier, not expecting fantastic miracles. All the small steps add up to one big step." Whatever the source of love that enabled Paul to survive his years in the attic, he has returned it many times over to those who have opened their lives to him.

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