RED FLAGS

by Larkin Vonalt

It’s hard to say exactly when I realized that things didn’t seem quite right.  I’ve known this man for more than eight years, but it’s a friendship built mostly on email exchange and the very occasional telephone call. Still, you pick up a sense of people’s habits, their routines, the way they approach the world.

This is a delicate matter, and I don’t want to cause undue embarrassment, so let’s just call  him “Dave.” We all know a million Daves, right? He’s a member of the last grown-up generation. He is well-educated, eclectic but well-informed in his tastes and opinions.  Compassionate and perhaps just a bit quirky, with a great love for dogs and sailboats and literature. Oh, and wine, he’s a great fan of good wine and can be quite a bore about it. (Sorry, Dave.)

Long before the entrenchment of Facebook in our lives, people with common interests used to communicate through internet forums, and it was in such a place that we met Dave, over our mutually beloved breed of dog. That sounds convivial enough, doesn’t it?  What’s remarkable is the kind of cesspool of backstabbing, jealousy and aggression these chat-rooms become. Factions form up, it’s almost like high school, where Mean Girls rule.

A frequent visitor to the same forum was a sweet, deeply Christian woman we’ll call “Nancy.” Nancy raised this breed of dog too, and had for nearly twenty years. She lived in a very, very remote place and would share the challenges of life there, with all of its triumphs and griefs. We all offered our heartfelt sympathies when she reported that one of her very favorite dogs “got sick” and she had to shoot it with a pistol, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that we were pretty disturbed too.

I confess I didn’t have much patience for her. We lived in a remote place too and I didn’t once find myself having to shoot my own dog. But reading her posts was like trying to swallow dollops of treacle, as she laid on her Christian faith with a cement trowel. She and Dave became fast friends, though their relationship was confined to long phone calls, as they lived on opposite edges of the continent.

Who can understand the attraction that one person has for another?  Past a certain age, physical appearance drops down the scale in importance, but common interests and companionship and mutual appreciation count for a lot. Nancy didn’t strike me as an intellectual wunderkind, but perhaps that was my own prejudice and distaste for her religious fervor. Anyway, Dave found reason to foster their friendship, and beyond that it really was none of my business.

Then a year ago Dave’s Facebook status (because of course, we’ve all fallen into that vortex now) changed from “Single” to “In a relationship” and as jaw-dropping as it was to some of us, Dave had moved Nancy (and her dogs, and her elderly horse) more than 4000 miles to his house.  Well, you know what they say, love is strange. I knew that Dave had been lonely, and I’m sure he must have believed he was offering Nancy a chance at a real life, a release from her struggle in the bush. Maybe this would work for them, and that would be wonderful.

Then Dave’s Facebook page disappeared. I mentioned its deletion in a tax-day email to him that was otherwise about sailboats.

“Nancy felt threatened by the Facebook account, so I deleted it, along with most of Yahoo,” he wrote. Later, Dave confided that Nancy had written a woman with whom he had a friendship of forty years duration and asked the woman not to contact Dave again. It wasn’t then that the little bell began to ring, I only remember feeling very sad. Not sad for Dave, particularly. He’s a grown man and can well make his wishes known, I thought.  No, I felt sorry for Nancy, because I know what it’s like to be in the grips of gut-wrenching insecurity, to see nearly every female as a likely threat to my happiness and well-being.

That was the story of my first marriage and what a misery it was. Poor old Bob wasn’t even doing anything wrong, though he had lots of women friends. I was the problem. I didn’t truly believe that I was loved, and so I doubted him at every turn. I was very sorry to see that Nancy was stricken with this lack of faith in herself, and in Dave. It’s one thing to wrangle these feelings in college, another thing altogether when you and your partner are in the September of your lives, with plenty of past behind you, a collection of friends and old lovers, and a wide variety of interests. How can you hope to circumscribe the full life of another into such a tiny little box?

Then I had an email from Nancy, with a photo from a subdivision entrance that shares my name. “Dave and I get such a kick out of this every time we pass it we think of you.”  The next email message I had from Nancy asked me not to call Dave anymore. This struck me as really peculiar, because in the many years I’ve known Dave, I’ve probably spoken to him on the telephone a dozen times, and mostly he’s called me. Why would she think I’d been calling him and why would she ask me to stop?

“Some partners are very insecure,” Dave wrote. “Since dropping out of Facebook to keep the peace here, I no longer have any way of keeping in touch with all the activities of many friends, some of which communicate by no other way.”

Now the bell was beginning to ring. Then Dave broke his hip falling backwards down the stairs. Then he got food poisoning so severe it landed him in the hospital.  And a second time. Nancy wrote me again citing things I’d said in emails five or six years ago. She complained at length about the relationships he tried to have with other women. The alarm bells were ringing, a cacophony in my head now. Red flags were running up the shrouds.  She told me that if I didn’t support their relationship that I was no longer welcome to contact him.

So I didn’t. I called social services in that mid-Atlantic state instead and talked to a social worker about elder abuse. The National Center on Elder Abuse estimates that over a million older Americans are subject to abuse each year, but caution that the figure could be much higher, as most instances go unreported.  Because of the shortage of reports, there are fewer than fifty peer-reviewed studies on elder abuse, and we rely largely on educated guesses as to numbers and frequency and situation. The American Psychological Association puts the figure at more than double that of the NCEA, believing that more than two million are victims, and their findings indicate that most incidents do not happen in a nursing home. Instead, people are victims of members of their family, caregivers and other individuals in the household. And it isn’t just the infirm at risk.

I spoke with a social worker at length. I explained that Nancy was driving away Dave’s old friends. I explained that although Dave was nearing seventy that he was very active, and not too long ago was running marathons. I pointed out that in the eight years I’d known him he had not been ill or incapacitated in that entire period of time as much as he had been in the last year. I said “Maybe it’s nothing, but this concerns me.” She thanked me for calling and said they’d get back to me in the next few days.

Two months went by. There was a telephone message from Dave, he thought a keystroke logger had been installed on the computer to track the sites he visited and the people he contacted. There was an email message, purportedly from Dave that read “I’m fine, thanks to you! Love ya, Dave.”  Dave is about the last person in the world that I would expect to sign off an email “Love ya!” But Nancy isn’t.

Nancy is not my Facebook friend. Hell, she’s not my friend in any realm. All that sanctimonious treacle, I couldn’t stand it. But 23 of my “friends” are “friends” of hers, and through them I see the photographs of her life there alongside Dave. I’d estimate there are approximately 100 photographs of  my old friend. He is not looking at the camera in a single one of them. In some, he lies on the floor with a dog or two, his hands over his head, as if to shield himself.  My husband urges me to call social services again.

“They must not have found anything,” I tell him. “They said they’d call back, and they never have.” But I am worried and he is too.

And then the letter comes. I have to read it twice, three times to really grasp what’s written.

“In the course of our investigation, we have discovered a preponderance of evidence that (Dave) is in need of protective assistance and we will be making our services available to him.”

A preponderance of evidence. Not just evidence, but a preponderance of it.

It horrifies me, it really does. I am relieved that I made the call, but I am very sad that my awful fears are confirmed.

Some people will read this and they will recognize the characters and they will be outraged that I have written about poor, sweet Nancy this way. Some people will read this and wonder if they should make the call about a situation they’re aware of. Do it. You don’t have to know for certain that abuse is taking place. That’s for a social worker somewhere to determine. But if you think someone you know is in danger, or is suffering, don’t let it go.

I have no doubt that Nancy herself will read this, because it will be pointed out to her, and I don’t care. I want Nancy to know that I know, that we know what kind of person she is under that thin shell of sugar. I want Nancy to know that if something happens to Dave that she will be suspect. I know Nancy thinks she’s landed on Easy Street and that what belongs to Dave might one day belong to her, if she can only control him long enough.

And I have a message for Dave. Dear friend, you’ve earned whatever happiness life gives you, but sometimes capitulation is not worth the false sense of peace you get in return. However you curtail your social nature, it will never be enough for someone so insecure. You might be furious that I’ve left your laundry flapping in the breeze like this. I wouldn’t blame you. We love you anyway, and if you need us, please call.

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