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Max lived nearly 10 years amid love that many drug babies never feel

His name was Dionysus, but you’d be forgiven for thinking the gods had conspired against him.

Dionysus was the Greek god of wine and revelry, but life was anything but a party for the boy his family called Max. Given his many troubles, you might think his life was fated before he took his first breath. You might think he never really had a chance.

You might, but then you would miss the lesson in his small life.

Max died July 2 about a month shy of his 10th birthday following a lengthy respiratory illness. He never walked, was fed through a stomach tube, and had to have his airway suctioned to keep him breathing.

Max was a drug baby. His mother an addict. His father unknown. When no family stepped forward to claim him, Max became a ward of the state and wound up in foster care.

Like many drug babies, he cried almost nonstop and would rarely be consoled. The patient affection that calms even colicky kids doesn’t work on drug babies.

When his first foster mother shook Max so violently that his brain bled, he was taken to the hospital, where he underwent a series of surgeries. He emerged with a damaged brain and suffered a loss of eyesight and hearing. His hearing gradually improved.

He never had a chance, I guess.

But this is where our story really begins. When a terribly troubled 5-month-old baby is sent to the home of Judy and Bill Himel.

The Himels have gained a reputation for embracing some of the most challenging, medically fragile children in Nevada’s foster care system. They commonly find themselves juggling schedules and nurses and even courtroom appearances as child advocates.

In the Himel house, there’s no shortage of children and dogs. And Max was not alone in his disability. There is Jaime, a near-Sudden Infant Death Syndrome child, and Ashley, a drug baby brain-damaged from seizures who rarely makes a sound.

Max had so many factors working against him that it’s easy to dwell on all the negatives. But he had something in his favor, something essential to understanding this story. He was surrounded by a loving family.

When Max arrived at the Himel house, he was bundled up and placed right in the middle of the action in a crib near the kitchen. There was also a bedroom for him upstairs, but he spent most of the time amid the chatter of familiar voices and the barking of friendly dogs.

In time, Max began to thrive. Not like you’d imagine in a Hollywood version of his life, but about the way you’d expect a brain-damaged drug baby to improve.

Some of his hearing came back.

“He didn’t respond to any noise when we first got him,” Judy Himel says. “Eventually, his hearing was really good.”

Max grew to recognize several voices, became eager at the approach of his nurses. He liked being read to, loved going to school. His days were always difficult, and not one was what you might call normal, but his new family saw to it he was cared for.

When Max died, his spiritual sister, Ashley, cried and cried. She rarely makes a sound.

“He was part of our family,” Judy says. “My children all grieved when he died.”

At his funeral last week, a series of photographs played over and over on a screen. There was Max shortly after his birth, then once more after his brain surgeries. There he was, dressed up for a visit with Santa. There he was, in a turtle costume at Halloween.

There he was, surrounded by his family: Not the sketchy apparitions he was linked to biologically, but the ones who took him in and refused to abandon him during his difficult life.

They are the ones who gathered to say goodbye one last time.

“Some people would look at him and think, ‘Poor little thing,'” Judy says. “He never rolled over. He never sat up. But he knew the people around him.”

The lesson of Max is not about all the things his short life lacked, but about what he had while he was here.

Max knew the joyful song of a caring family.

Against all odds and lesser gods, the boy was loved.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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