Quinci Baker has sketched or taken photos of her mother Christa Beverly,… (Quinci Baker/Quinci Baker )
An invitation to a dinner for Howard University, his beloved alma mater, normally would have been the perfect evening for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and his wife, Christa Beverly, also an alum.
But looking forward to the event in March, Baker was anxious. What if Beverly became confused and disoriented? What if she forgot where she was?
Baker would accept the invitation, he told the university, but only if he could also bring along someone familiar to his wife, who could guide her through the evening and chat with her — even if the conversation did not make sense.
Few knew then the private struggle Baker and his family had been living with for two years, ever since Beverly, a 52-year-old civil rights lawyer and well-known presence in Prince George’s, received a diagnosis of early onset dementia.
On that night, all went smoothly. “I spoke, I sat down,” said Baker (D). “It worked well.”
But as Beverly’s condition has deteriorated over the past few months, Baker has had to balance the high-profile demands of running a county of nearly 900,000 people with being the husband of a woman who is becoming harder to recognize.
Baker, 53, said that as the severity of his wife’s illness has become obvious to people outside their close circle of friends, he felt compelled to speak openly about it.
“I had to make a public statement,” he said at a restaurant near his Cheverly home for his first published interview about his wife’s illness. “I don’t want people thinking that she doesn’t like them anymore. I don’t want anything to be misinterpreted.”
By day, he manages a $2.7 billion budget in a county trying to emerge from the taint of corruption left by his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson (D). He runs a county that had nearly 100 homicides last year. Many of his constituents lack health insurance. The county schools superintendent is decamping for Philadelphia. And Baker is in the middle of a political fight to bring a proposed casino to National Harbor.
In the evenings, Baker tries to leave all that behind. He’s learning to make dinner. Salmon and crab cakes just the way she likes them. The Baker children do the grocery shopping. Dad makes up the list, something he rarely did before. He balances the checkbook, too.
But home can be a strange place.
“When I go home, I don’t know what I am getting into,” he said.
Will his wife be happy? Angry? Morose?
“It is hit or miss.”
He tries to remain his normal, optimistic self and still goes through the routine of describing his day to her.
“Aww, that’s nice,” says the woman known as Sis. “I like you. You are the best.”
Recently, Beverly has been having trouble sleeping. To deal with that, the couple will get in their car and tour the county, looking at public-works projects, assessing neighborhoods, just driving. Eventually, Beverly is tired enough to sleep.
“I have looked at ways to deal with it, short of medicine,” Baker said. “Exercise, driving around, playing calming music. Most nights she is able to sleep. It is only rarely that I can’t figure out a way to deal with it.”
The news came in a phone call a few minutes before Baker took the stage at Prince George’s Community College in a 2010 debate in the county executive’s race.
His wife’s mysterious condition finally had been diagnosed. The outlook was not good.
As the debate got underway, Baker was verbally pummeled by his four opponents and did little to defend himself. Top aides huddled afterward to discuss whether he should quit. Baker also wondered if he should give up his eight-year quest.
Beverly, who was then still fully cognizant of the world around her, insisted that he stay in the race.
“You are going to win,” she told him. “I am going to see you put your hand on the Bible as county executive.” A few months later, Baker was sworn in.
For the first year and a half of Baker’s term, daughter Quinci, then in high school, was the first home in the evening, allowing her father to stay late at work as he built his new administration.
About six months ago, Beverly’s condition began to worsen, and her public absences became more noticeable. Constituents who asked for her when they couldn’t get Baker for an event were puzzled, sometimes even offended, when the request was turned down. When she does go out in public, she sometimes will wear clothes that aren’t quite right: jeans at church, a raincoat on a hot summer day.
Baker, too, has become somewhat less visible. His staff has pitched in to speak in his place when he decides that he must be home at night. He has cut back on weekend speaking engagements. He recently took a week off to look for a new caregiver. Sometimes he goes home for lunch.