Bob Becker sits in a wooden chair pulled up close to the TV as his wife, Luanne, inserts a tape into the VCR. It’s a documentary on baseball legend Mel Harder.
Bob leans in, his elbows on his knees, and watches interviews with the likes of Herb Score, Bob Feller and Lou Boudreau. His eyes tear up and Luanne brings him a tissue. Bob pets Buckeye, their mixed-breed rescue dog, without ever taking his eyes off the TV.
Harder, we learn, started with the Cleveland Indians in 1928 and pitched 20 years, stymieing guys like Joe DiMaggio, then coached for another 20, inspiring dozens more. He was a man of “dignity and grace” who would help anyone. He loved the game, but he loved his wife and two girls more.
The film’s last image is of Harder walking off the field with Charles Nagy — the past and the future. Bob turns to face Luanne, tears running down his face. “Oh, stop it,” she says sweetly. “Don’t you cry.”
Bob made this documentary in 1996. He and Luanne had both quit their jobs and decided to launch a freelance video production company. They each chose one project they’d always wanted to do. For Luanne, it was the art of quilting. Bob was set on Harder.
Luanne objected: Harder wasn’t that well-known. Why him?
Now, watching the documentary two decades later, Luanne finally knows the answer. Bob was just like him, she thinks.
Almost five years ago, at the age of 58, Bob was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He began his career in radio at Cleveland State University, where he met Luanne, then went on to work as a reporter for WKYC. He paid his dues at various stops on the dial before landing his own show on WTAM 1100. He may be best known, though, as the guy who picked the winning Ohio Lottery numbers between Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! Along the way, he racked up a slew of awards for reporting on subjects ranging from Cleveland trolleys to racism.
His was not the booming voice that demands attention. It was warm and confident, inviting you in. Now, it’s all but gone. Alzheimer’s has attacked Bob’s executive function. So it’s hard to know what he’s thinking as he watches the prized Harder documentary.
Tears are running down his face, but there’s a spark in his eyes, too. He has the look of a dad watching his daughter walk down the aisle.
Is he crying for what he has lost? Does he know what he has lost?
“Do you miss your work?” I ask.
Bob turns to me, his hands buried in his pockets. Silence.
“Are you sad?” Silence. “Are you happy and sad?”
A beat passes, and Bob says the one word that seems to roll off his lips easily these days. “Yeah.”
Then, it’s time for lunch. Bob sets out a USA Today in front of him and eats his soup and muffin. He’s happy again, smiling and laughing at Luanne, who tells every story as if she’s a comedian onstage.
This is the way Bob is most of the time. But I was afraid to see him. In fact, I dreaded it. I felt irrationally embarrassed for him, as if the old Bob wouldn’t want to be seen like this.
While he was a well-known personality in Cleveland, Bob was a bonafide celebrity at the Lutheran church I grew up attending in Lakewood. In addition to his media fame, he alternated between president and vice president of the congregation (with my dad) every year. As an aspiring journalist, I was even more in awe of him than most.
My parents kept in touch, but I hadn’t seen Bob in years. And, as much as I believed that the Beckers’ story should be told, I did not want to be the one to do it.
That, experts say, is the most common reaction after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Stay away. It’s a reaction that can shame a person into hiding at home and avoiding people. The shame snowballs into isolation and, for the caregiver, depression.
Maybe you’ve been lucky and have lived on the fringes of the disease. Just wait.
Currently, there are 5.4 million people with Alzheimer’s in the United States. By the year 2050, that number is projected to swell to 16 million as the baby boomers age. Bob and the 200,000 others currently living with early-onset Alzheimer’s are merely the warning wave before the tsunami.
“We’re definitely not doing enough to prepare for it,” says Cheryl Kanetsky, vice president of programs and services for the Cleveland area chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. “It will definitely contribute to the bankruptcy of Medicare, and it is the most expensive disease there is.”
In 2016, the direct cost to the United States is estimated to be $236 billion. Nearly one in five Medicare dollars is spent on Alzheimer’s. Then there’s the pain and panic it causes families and, especially, caregivers.
“This thing is going to take us down,” says Luanne. “It takes you down in all sorts of ways.”