The Caregivers

The Caregivers

An imprisoned artist, the couple who saved his life, and the extraordinary gift he gave in return.

By Kelly Loudenberg

The Atavist Magazine, No. 125

Kelly Loudenberg is a filmmaker and artist who has been exploring the American justice system for more than a decade, most recently through Exhibit A and The Confession Tapes, two Netflix series she created and directed. Loudenberg has contributed to The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and National Geographic. Her three-part investigative podcast, The Beige Room, was produced by Pineapple Street Media and released in 2021.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Naomi Sharp
Photographer: Jarod Lew

Published in March 2022.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

—1 Corinthians 13:4–8

Danny Valentine sat alone in his threadbare single-wide trailer, staring out a window at green and red holiday lights flashing in the distance. It was 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve 2016, and the snow blanketing Rock, a rural area in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, seemed to swallow every sound. In the heavy silence, Danny tried to fight off the dark thoughts that dogged him relentlessly. This was one of the hardest times of the year for the rangy 55-year-old with blue eyes. He didn’t have a tree to decorate or a family to eat a big turkey dinner with. Fresh off parole after a 23-year stint in prison, he didn’t have shit.

Above: Danny Valentine and Janie Paul.

As Danny pushed cigarette butts around an ashtray on the windowsill, his phone rang. On the other end of the line was a woman. She sounded like she’d been crying.

“I just can’t do it alone anymore,” the woman said. “Can you please come?”

On Christmas morning, Danny got in his black GMC pickup truck and drove 12 hours through a wicked snowstorm to Ann Arbor. It was evening by the time he pulled to a stop in front of a large house, and Danny could see lights reflected in the windows. Even though he’d been invited, Danny was hesitant to approach the house. It glowed with a warmth that had been alien to him his whole life.

When he worked up the courage to go inside, he entered through the neatly organized garage, then walked down a hallway. The woman from the phone was waiting in the dining room. Her name was Janie Paul. She had dark hair, and she was bone-tired. When she saw Danny she smiled.

Sitting on the couch nearby was Janie’s husband. He was lanky, with gray hair. Danny sat down next to him and patted his arm. “Hey, Buzz,” Danny said gently. “How you doing?”

Buzz couldn’t answer, not really—but Danny knew that already. He was there to help Buzz. He’d do whatever his friend needed, and he’d stay for as long as it took.

Like Buzz, Janie believed in art as politics, art as liberation, art as a means of building bridges. By the end of the canoe trip, they were friends. By the end of the residency, they were in love.

Buzz Alexander wasn’t someone who had often needed help. He got his undergraduate degree in English literature from Harvard, continued on to Cambridge for his master’s, translated poetry in Italy while writing verse of his own, then went back to Harvard for a doctorate focused on the novel as an art form. With his wife, an art history student, he became a house parent in a dormitory, then a parent to two kids of his own. He moved his family to Ann Arbor in the early 1970s, when he accepted a teaching position at the University of Michigan. Buzz would remain there for the rest of his career.

Participating in the antiwar movement while U.S. forces were in Vietnam cemented Buzz’s commitment to social justice, and he approached activism through his first love: the arts. He wrote a book, Film on the Left, about radical documentary filmmaking of the 1930s and ’40s. He also traveled to Peru and participated in street theater performances about community empowerment, public health, and self-discovery.

Buzz was in his fifties and divorced by the time he met Janie Paul at an art residency in the Adirondacks in the summer of 1992. She was a painter and educator, with degrees from Hunter College and New York University. “The first day at breakfast,” Janie recalled, “we were sitting in a huge lodge overlooking a lake, and I asked, ‘Does anyone want to go canoeing?’ ” Buzz took her up on the offer. Janie was glad he did. “He looked like Henry Fonda,” she said. About a decade Janie’s senior, Buzz was tall and wiry, with a rugged, expressive face. He walked with a forward slant, as if eager to get where he was going, and carried an extra-large backpack full of books and yellow legal pads scrawled with notes.

As they paddled the canoe under canopies of trees, Janie told Buzz about her experience as a little girl landing on the shore of Lake Atitlán and being greeted by a swarm of people. Janie’s father was a prominent anthropologist, and in her childhood she traveled to Guatemala, where he conducted fieldwork studying the mysterious bonesetters, Mayan healers who treated injuries with powers they believed they derived through dreams. On the trip Janie described to Buzz, which occurred in the early 1950s, she remembered sharing a bag of art supplies with local children, a communal creative experience that would stay with her forever.

Like Buzz, Janie believed in art as politics, art as liberation, art as a means of building bridges. By the end of the canoe trip, they were friends. By the end of the residency, they were in love.

The following year, Buzz went on sabbatical and moved to Manhattan to be near Janie. They shuttled between his tiny sublet on West 74th Street and her spacious loft, which she shared with other women and their children. Janie confided in Buzz that she had spent time as a young adult in a controversial “therapy” cult, the Sullivanians; the members disavowed the nuclear family and lived—and slept—together in several apartments on the Upper West Side. He didn’t judge her. Janie and Buzz made love, discussed human rights, shared passages from Proust, and went to movies at Film Forum. Buzz was taken by Janie’s curiosity and passion for adventure. She loved that he was a scholar but also down-to-earth. “I could talk to him about a Henry James novel in the same conversation about his experience giving sheep baths in Peru,” Janie said.

After that idyllic year had passed Buzz went home, but he and Janie couldn’t stand being apart, so she looked for a job near Ann Arbor. She soon landed a coveted position teaching color theory in the University of Michigan’s art school. Janie moved into Buzz’s three-story Victorian, adjacent to campus. To colleagues and friends they seemed inseparable, a package deal: Janie and Buzz, Buzz and Janie. It would stay that way for more than twenty years.

Above, from left: Photos of Buzz Alexander and his family; Janie in her art studio.

Before meeting Janie, Buzz had led several poetry and theater workshops in Michigan’s prisons. He was part of a nationwide community of progressive activists, academics, and artists responding to the injustices of the carceral system through arts programming. By the 1990s, U.S. prisons were overflowing with people, many of them men and women of color swept up in the War on Drugs. Since Buzz’s arrival in Michigan, the state’s incarcerated population had leaped from under 10,000 to more than 30,000. He believed the arts would enable people trapped behind bars to express their creativity, tell their stories, and find healing.

Buzz’s workshops revolved around improvisation, including performances inspired by the inmates’ own life experiences. One play, staged inside a women’s prison, was titled Bodies on Slabs. It took place in a morgue where corpses came back to life and told the audience what had happened to them. They soon found that they couldn’t get out of the morgue, couldn’t escape their fate.

With Janie as a partner, Buzz expanded the work he was doing in prisons. They both thought academia was too conservative, a stodgy bubble where people indulged in niche pursuits. They preferred to invest their energy in civic engagement, and especially in making art more accessible. Together they formed the Prison Creative Arts Project, a University of Michigan program dedicated to promoting the arts behind bars.

Before long their lives revolved around PCAP. Janie and Buzz hosted Sister Helen Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame, and Jimmy Baca, a formerly incarcerated poet, memoirist, and screenwriter, at their home when they visited for PCAP events. University students came over for potluck dinners and to discuss the injustices of U.S. prisons.

In 1996, Janie and Buzz decided to put on an exhibition of painting, sculpture, and other visual work created by Michigan prisoners. They knew from experience that there were men and women in the state’s incarcerated population who were producing exceptional art that too often went overlooked. The PCAP show would be held at one of the university’s art galleries, where students and colleagues, as well as the family and friends of the participants, could see it. The works would be for sale, with proceeds going to the artists.

To get the project started, Janie and Buzz asked contacts at the prisons where PCAP worked to recommend incarcerated artists. Phil Klintworth, the activities director at a prison in the city of Jackson, suggested a guy who, in his words, “could do anything.” The man had volunteered to clean up after the prison’s clay workshops, even though he didn’t participate in them. Day after day, month after month, he filled a five-gallon bucket with scraps of clay from other prisoners’ work spaces. He used those leftovers to sculpt an array of figures, including mermaids and ballerinas. When he didn’t have clay, he used other items—toilet paper and soap, for instance—in his work. Anything he could get his hands on, Klintworth told Buzz, the man used to make something beautiful.

People at the prison had taken notice. When a guard was renovating his bar at home, he paid the artist a few hundred dollars for hand-sculpted figures, including a pair of dolphins. The inmate also drew family portraits for guards, and for other men doing time, for $100 a head—or, if he liked you, $50. He based them on photographs, and they were strikingly realistic. (The sales were aboveboard, made through official channels inside the prison.)

Buzz was impressed. He knew right away that he wanted the artist to be part of PCAP’s first exhibition. To find out if the man would be interested, Buzz wrote him a letter. He was prisoner number 156689. His name was Daniel Valentine.

When Danny was six his grandmother gave him a coloring book full of dinosaurs and spaceships. He added his own figures and shapes. He didn’t understand why he should color someone else’s drawing.

Danny grew up in a blue-collar family on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, the second of five kids. His mom, Mary, worked in an auto-parts factory and sometimes held other jobs to make ends meet. His dad, a mechanic, was “an abusive but good man,” Danny said. He once whipped Danny with a fan belt from one of the trucks he used for work. Sometimes he’d make Danny pay for the food he ate. Mary was afraid of her husband; he’d once threatened to hit her with a crowbar, she told me. But given the time she spent working, she didn’t witness much of the abuse he inflicted on their children. She did recall one occasion when she caught her husband on the verge of purposefully breaking Danny’s leg.

Amid the violence at home, Danny was able to teach himself to draw. According to Mary, when Danny was six his grandmother gave him a coloring book full of dinosaurs and spaceships. He added his own figures and shapes. He didn’t understand why he should color someone else’s drawing.

Danny ran away when he was 12; in response his dad called the cops. This kicked off Danny’s long career in the carceral system. He spent time in juvenile detention, ran away, and was locked up again for fleeing. It happened over and over. Danny was an escape artist, a regular juvie Houdini. He once faked a leg injury so that he could be sent for X-rays at a hospital; there, he went into a bathroom, climbed into the drop ceiling, and made his way out of the facility. Another time, Danny jumped on the desk in his cell until he loosened the iron fixture that secured it to the wall enough that he could remove it entirely. Danny waited for weeks for a thunderstorm to come; he knew that in bad weather the guards were required to turn off the motion sensors in the yard. Once the rain started, he used the iron fixture to break the window in his cell and pry the bars apart, until he could fit his head through the opening and wiggle his way out. He hid out for months in an empty cabin belonging to his uncle before the authorities found him.

While his home life was dangerous, Danny was no safer in detention centers. He was an attractive boy, with girlish features and curly blond hair. According to Danny, he was sexually assaulted many times. When he was 17, locked up in an adult prison for stealing a motorcycle, security came in the form of a boyfriend. “He was one of these guys who was feared among everybody in the prison,” Danny said. “He was a real gruesome-looking guy.” But with Danny the man was soft, sensitive. “He wouldn’t show this side to nobody else, but he would show it to me, and it was beautiful,” Danny said. The man bought Danny coats from guys on the yard and cookies and ice cream from the commissary.

As an adult, Danny continued to break the law. He said he never carried a gun or intentionally hurt anyone. He was mostly trying to survive, shoplifting food and once stealing a car, a Chevy Impala with a vinyl top, for shelter. He lived in the car for two months of a brutal Michigan winter.

During stints behind bars, Danny drew. At one point a friend gave him a tablet of paper and a set of Prismacolor pencils. “They were like magic,” Danny said. He liked to draw people doing everyday things. With the right pencils, he could mimic the chrome of a motorcycle or the fuzzy texture of a mother’s bathrobe. Sometimes he coated the tips of his pencils with wax to achieve interesting effects on the page.

During one period, Danny was free for about a year. He picked up odd jobs, pumping gas and working in hotels, before landing a position at an art gallery in downtown Ann Arbor. According to Danny, the gallerist was also an amateur photographer, a poor man’s Hugh Hefner who liked to photograph beautiful, scarcely clothed women, particularly university students. He paid his models ten dollars an hour and sometimes supplied them with booze and cocaine during shoots. An admirer and collector of old pinup drawings, the gallerist asked Danny to render the photographs he took as illustrations to sell.

One day the gallerist hung a few of Danny’s artworks in the gallery. Two of them sold: a colored-pencil drawing of a muscled woman sitting on a motorcycle, and a pen-and-ink drawing of a woman’s half-shadowed face. Danny made about $1,500. “It was a first for me, a big deal,” he said. “I thought I had arrived.”

He promptly went out to celebrate—and burn through the money he’d earned—at a biker bar and strip club called Leggs Lounge. It was the kind of place, Danny said, that had a room designated for blow jobs. He was having a blast, snorting coke while stuffing cash into the countless G-strings, when a pair of sex workers solicited Danny, promising him a night of erotic splendor.

Danny later claimed that he paid one of the women up front, and when she ran off with the money—plus some extra she’d taken from his pocket—he and the other woman agreed that he’d settle up with her when they were done. They went back to his place, where according to Danny the woman refused to do what they’d agreed upon, so he didn’t pay her. His landlord, who also happened to be his employer, the gallerist, later informed him that cops had come by looking for him. After evading the police for a few months, Danny was arrested for rape.

He denied the charge, but a jury found him guilty. Danny was given 20 to 30 years in prison, and he started his sentence at a correctional facility in Jackson. His only lifeline was his art—and in time his wife.

Danny had been dating a woman named Diane for a few months before he was locked up. She loved him, and she was loyal—she’d been there every day of his trial, sitting alone on his side of the courtroom. Danny’s family was nowhere to be found. Now Diane racked up hundreds of dollars a month in phone bills calling him in prison. She sent him clothes and helped him buy art supplies. She spent as much time as she could seated across from him in the prison’s hollow, sunless visiting room.

After Danny had served a year of his sentence, he and Diane decided to get married. Danny asked the prisoner in the cell next to him to be his best man. Diane wore a thrift-store blazer and dress. They kissed through a bulletproof window.

Together the newlyweds came up with a plan to get Danny back on his feet financially once he was out of prison: Danny would mail Diane the art he made in his cell, and she’d sell it in Ann Arbor. They assumed Diane could get more for Danny’s drawings and sculptures on the outside than he could hawking them to guards and other prisoners. But the plan didn’t work. Diane wasn’t an art dealer—she was a nurse supporting an adopted daughter. She wasn’t sure how to sell Danny’s work, or to whom.

The relationship eventually became tense; the couple’s calls and visits routinely ended in anger. Diane moved several hours away for a new job and began seeing a doctor from the practice where she worked. When divorce papers arrived at the prison. Danny signed them.   

Without Diane, Danny had no one. “I had not one person to call,” he said, “and that’s a lonely, desolate, hopeless space to be in.” He figured that he’d be almost sixty by the time he got out, and without money or a family to support him, not much good could happen after that.

Danny spiraled into a deep depression. He saw no way out.

Above: Two of Danny’s drawings.

It was autumn in Jackson, and the leaves outside the prison’s walls were changing: Green was giving way to electric yellows and neon reds, which would soon fade until there was nothing left for the muted leaves to do but fall to the earth. Danny was just shy of 35. He had served four years of his sentence and didn’t think he could last even one more day. He planned to kill himself one evening at chow time, and he had two backup plans in case jumping from the rafters of his cell block’s atrium didn’t work: a noose and a fatal shot of heroin.

The way Danny would later tell it, as he was contemplating the last hours of his life, a guard tossed a letter through the bars of his cell. He told himself he had no interest in what it said—anything that threatened to get between him and his impending oblivion felt meaningless. He tried to ignore the envelope on his bunk, but some force compelled him to open it.

Inside, printed on University of Michigan letterhead, was an invitation. Danny would read it countless times in the coming hours and days and years. Dear Daniel Valentine, he remembers it saying. I am Buzz Alexander, professor of English literature at the University of Michigan. My colleague Janie Paul and I are organizing our first annual show of art by Michigan prisoners next spring. I have heard you are a terrific artist and would like to know if you would be represented in our exhibition.

Danny felt a rush of emotion. Some might call what he experienced hope or even euphoria. In Danny’s words, it felt like “when you are coming off cocaine, and you are trying to feel as good as when you took that first line, and all of a sudden someone shows up with an eight-ball. It just woke me up instantly.”

An ear-piercing bell rang out. It was dinnertime. Danny made a choice: For now, he would keep living.

Above: Danny in Ann Arbor.

When the first annual PCAP exhibition went up in 1996, it boasted works by 50 artists from 16 Michigan prisons. Prices were set by the artists, ranging from $20 to $300. According to Janie, more than 400 people came over two weeks to see the show.

Danny created two works for the exhibition. One was a large Prismacolor drawing that he called Stereotypes, featuring a blue-skinned man and a pink-skinned woman embracing. PCAP set out a guest book where visitors could write notes about the show. “D. Valentine, I didn’t even know colored pencils could do that,” one entry read. “Amazing.”Danny’s second piece was a pen-and-ink reproduction of a work by the Czech Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Maria Mucha. Both pieces sold, and Danny got a cashier’s check for $150. With the money, he could buy snacks from the commissary and, of course, art supplies.

Danny soon realized that his talent afforded him more than money. Among some prisoners it gave him status, and with that came safety. According to Danny, he formed an alliance with the leader of a powerful faction of radical Black Muslims. Their leader asked Danny to help him with a creative project, a book intended to educate Black children about race and racism. Danny painstakingly drew dozens of scenes depicting village life in Africa and a young boy’s rites of passage—learning to hunt, for instance, and paying homage to the king. The book’s author paid Danny, but the greater reward was that he now had Danny’s back.

There were also men jealous of Danny’s success. A few who worked in the craft shop, making sculptures from the kinds of molds anyone can buy at a Joann or a Michaels store, would break Danny’s work in the prison kiln. Danny got permission to use air-dry clay, so his sculptures could set in his cell instead of the studio.

Things took a turn for Danny when the prison converted its cells to hold bunk beds. Spaces originally intended for one man would now house two. The situation was uncomfortable for Danny, not least because he had paruresis, or shy bladder syndrome. The sexual assaults he’d suffered made it hard for him to use the bathroom in front of other people, and his condition worsened as he got older. With a cellmate there was no chance of privacy, and the paruresis went from a nuisance to a health problem.

According to Danny, he devised a hack: If he acted suicidal, the guards were required to take him to what prisoners in one facility called the “bam-bam room”—a segregation cell. The upside was that he got to be alone, which meant he could use the bathroom without anyone watching or, worse, harassing him. The downside was that the room was a bare, concrete, windowless box. It didn’t even have a mattress. “You are stripped naked and put into a nylon drape resembling Fred Flinstone’s,” Danny said. “All you get is a tarp to lay on, not even a square of toilet paper, which you must request.” In a place where he literally had to ask permission to wipe his ass, access to art supplies was out of the question.

Though he sought the solitude of the segregation cell, it wore him down mentally. When Danny wasn’t spinning out, he was bored. He spent a lot of time staring straight ahead at the always shut cell door. One day he noticed some words etched into the metal: “To win the war, you must first win the battle of the mind.” Just as Buzz’s note had arrived right when he was ready to take his own life, Danny felt like a stranger was delivering what he needed at the moment he needed it. The words on the door became Danny’s mantra. He’d chant them over and over to keep himself from collapsing mentally.

By Danny’s estimate, from 2000 until the end of his time in prison, he spent at least half of every year in the segregation cell or mental-health ward of whichever facility he was in. (He was transferred more than once.) When he was in isolation, he lived inside his mind. He’d imagine the drawings and sculptures he’d create one day. He’d also meditate for hours at a stretch. “I decided to build a house brick by brick, in slow motion, like I was watching a movie,” Danny said. “Mixing the mortar, gathering the stuff to do the brickwork, envisioning everything that I needed, the wiring and the tools. I’d see myself going into the hardware store, arguing with the cashier about the price of drywall screws.”

Even though he’d never met them, he imagined Buzz and Janie inside the house. “We’d talk about what artwork they wanted to take for the show,” Danny said. When he was returned to his cell, he made sure to spend enough time in the general population, with access to art supplies, to create new work for PCAP’s annual exhibition. “That’s what I lived for,” he said.

In 2004, eight years after Danny began showing his work through PCAP, he finally met Buzz and Janie when the couple visited the prison where he was being held, to visit with various artists and look at their work. Janie recalled her bond with Danny as instant and profound. “I remember looking into his face and grabbing his hands between my hands. I could feel his presence as I had felt his presence in his drawings,” Janie said. “The intensity of the work comes partly from the content, which is often about loving relationships between mother and child, man and woman, but also from the intensity of the labor that goes into the drawing.” Danny remembered Janie’s physical touch as warm. “I felt the same kindred connection as when I opened that letter from Buzz the first time,” he said. “I felt like I had met the other half.”

In 2009, Danny saw Buzz and Janie again, just as he was coming off a hunger strike protesting double bunking. Danny hobbled into the visiting area with the aid of a cane. He had a scraggly beard and long, unkempt hair. “He was in his late forties, but he looked 65,” Janie recalled. He’d come with art to share. “He pulled out his drawings,” Janie said, “and they were luminous and light filled.” They were in stark contrast to Danny’s lived reality in prison.

Two years later, when Danny was up for parole, Buzz and Janie wrote a letter of support, singing his praises as an artist. The parole board denied Danny’s request, and he swore off going before the panel again. “I was not getting out of bed to go talk to these motherfuckers,” he said. “I made up my mind to max out”—to serve the rest of his sentence—“which was six more years.” But he wouldn’t have to wait that long. In 2013, he was told to pack his belongings. He was being paroled whether he liked it or not.

On October 15, Danny was called to the warden’s office and handed a sack of state-issued clothes: khaki pants, T-shirt, blue coat. His brother Randy, whom he had reconnected with a few years prior, was waiting in the prison lobby. They walked into the cold, damp day—the sun hung low and hazy in a faded blue sky. Then they set off in Randy’s sedan to what would be Danny’s new home: a halfway house just off the interstate outside Ann Arbor. They turned onto a long driveway flanked by lion’s head sculptures, and when they pulled up to the house, one of Danny’s new housemates opened the door. “Welcome to freedom,” the man said.

The problems had seemed small at first. Always a careful listener and conversationalist, Buzz now occasionally fell out of step when talking to people. He didn’t always answer questions—it was as if he hadn’t heard them or couldn’t understand.

Danny had six months to get his life together. He was in his early fifties by then, had never had a bank account, and didn’t know anything about smartphones. Now he needed both, as well as a job and permanent housing, neither of which would be easy to come by for someone on the sex offender registry. Randy had set aside the $10,000 that made up his inheritance from his now dead father. Danny used the money to buy a 2001 silver Dodge Caravan, a car he could live in if need be.

Danny had been out for a month when he looked up Buzz in the phone book. Buzz was ecstatic to hear from him. The next morning, Buzz and Janie had Danny over for blueberry pancakes. They talked about art, which Danny didn’t make much anymore—he’d lost the sight in his left eye. The last drawings he’d made were for a PCAP show; one of them depicted a set of three eyes. Whatever sadness she felt about Danny’s situation, Janie was delighted to see him out of prison garb. “He looked much younger now and freshened up,” she said. When she drove Danny back to the halfway house, they made small talk about cars.

When his parole was up, Danny moved in with Diane, his ex-wife, and the doctor she was still seeing, until she found him a run-down trailer overlooking an alfalfa field in the Upper Peninsula. The landlord said Danny could live there for free until he fixed it up. While looking in vain for a job, Danny survived on ham and cheese rollups. The first winter, without heat in the trailer, he bundled up in every layer he owned. He was no longer in prison, but he felt trapped.

A world away, Janie had a big, beautiful office with a window overlooking the University of Michigan campus. She spent time interviewing prisoners who had participated in PCAP programs. When Danny came in for his interview, before he moved up north, he told her about his upbringing and the abuse he’d suffered. He said he must have been reincarnated, because he was born knowing how to draw and sculpt. He admitted that his lonely life was taking a toll on him: He’d been thinking again about suicide.

Janie watched through the window as Danny got into his van to drive away. Her heart ached. After that she made a habit of checking on Danny, and later he made a point of coming to Ann Arbor to see her and Buzz. Sometimes, if Buzz was busy, Janie and Danny would spend time alone together, eating chili dogs at a local diner or sipping hot tea while they caught up.

Danny didn’t know it yet, but Janie was worried about Buzz. The problems had seemed small at first. Always a careful listener and conversationalist, Buzz now occasionally fell out of step when talking to people. He didn’t always answer questions—it was as if he hadn’t heard them or couldn’t understand—and sometimes his replies were totally off topic. Janie wondered if Buzz might be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, yet his memory seemed fine. It was how he spoke and interacted with the world around him that was becoming muddled.

In mid-2013, Janie and Buzz went to visit a friend who lived in the hills outside an old walled town in Italy. The town had picturesque stone streets, sienna houses, and a piazza where one day Janie and Buzz met a few people for pasta and prosecco. As the group talked, Buzz blurted out a story about his prison theater workshops without any prompting or context. As he rambled on, unaware of how confused his friends were, Janie became convinced that something was seriously wrong.

Not long after the pancake breakfast with Danny, Buzz saw a doctor, who diagnosed mild cognitive impairment. In January 2014, a neurologist ran more tests and changed the diagnosis to Alzheimer’s. The diagnosis changed again a few months later: Buzz, the doctor said, had a type of dementia called frontotemporal degeneration, or FTD. It can cause problems with language, behavior, and eventually motor skills. There is no cure.

Above: Sculptures from PCAP exhibitions.

Buzz’s decline was gradual at first—Danny hadn’t even noticed anything was wrong until Janie mentioned it. She took care of Buzz as best she could. She continued teaching at the university and managed to carve out bits of time for painting, though long hours in the studio were a thing of the past. Janie needed art like she needed air—the feeling of layering oils or stroking charcoal onto paper, images that emerged unplanned but turned out to be meaningful. When Janie painted a series of small, abstract watercolor and gouache pieces for a New York show titled Proximities, Buzz accompanied her to the opening. A friend of Janie’s kept an eye on him so she could relax and bask in the appreciation of her work.

A few years into the illness, Janie could sense it worsening. Buzz, who had never yelled at her, now did so at the drop of a hat. Once, when she was heating up some water to make tea, Buzz towered over Janie screaming “No!” for no apparent reason. His ability to take social cues diminished, and he came off to people as rude. Small tasks like washing dishes and folding laundry soon became overwhelming—Buzz seemed to get lost while attempting them.

Most devastating for Buzz, a stalwart intellectual, he also began to lose his hold on language. Communication through speech—choosing the words he wanted to say—was all but impossible. For a while, though, Buzz could still read aloud, and he would read his own poetry to Janie.

On any given day, Janie didn’t know which tasks Buzz could or couldn’t handle. He prepared his own breakfast every day, until one morning he poured the milk directly onto the counter. After that Janie made him breakfast. She took him shopping at Plum Market, an upscale grocery store in Ann Arbor, and one day Buzz left her side and began yelling as he roamed the aisles, alarming customers and employees. Standing between shelves of pasta and chips, Janie cried, “It’s OK, he has dementia!” When Janie decided Buzz could no longer take care of their big green lawn, she hired a landscaper. But as soon as Buzz saw a stranger mowing outside, he threw a patio chair at the man. In the future, it was decided, Buzz would need to be away from the house when the yard was being tended.

Between medical appointments, keeping her own work on track, and dodging the curveballs Buzz’s dementia threw at her, Janie was overwhelmed. It wasn’t just the effort that wore her down. Seeing her soulmate changing, diminishing, becoming helpless, was draining. “You are constantly trying to figure out what to do,” Janie said. “That tension is exhausting emotionally.”

Janie updated Danny on Buzz’s condition during his visits to Ann Arbor. On one occasion, in the summer of 2016, Janie asked Danny if he wanted to make a few hundred bucks helping organize the garage. It was one of those things she just couldn’t get to on her own that needed to be done. Danny came over to the house, and within a few hours the garage was in order. It happened to be around the time of Danny’s birthday, and banana pudding had been prepared for the occasion. Buzz sat silently during the visit, except when it came time to sing “Happy Birthday.” It saddened Danny to see a man he knew to be full of thoughts and ideas appear so reserved, so distant.

Janie hired a home health aide at one point, but soon decided the person wasn’t a good fit. She wanted someone who loved Buzz to care for him. His children were grown, with kids and careers of their own—they couldn’t drop everything to look after their dad. Janie called on two of her most trusted former students, ones who knew Buzz, to keep an eye on him when she couldn’t. They helped cook and keep Buzz safe. But after several months, they needed to move on with their lives. Janie was at a loss. There was no one left to call.

Right before Christmas 2016, Buzz became confused, walked out of the house, and fell, injuring himself. As Janie sat next to Buzz’s bed in the emergency room, she suddenly found herself thinking about Danny. Danny, who’d credited Buzz with saving his life, who’d spent time with Buzz and understood his condition. Danny, whom Janie had felt bound to from the moment she met him. Danny, who was looking for purpose and direction. Danny, who’d done one hell of a job organizing the garage.

She realized that Danny was who she could call. “I got the feeling that he was a person who took great care and was thorough and patient,” Janie said. “I had the idea that he might be a good caregiver.”

Janie called Danny on Christmas Eve, and the next day he left the Upper Peninsula. Janie asked him to stay for a few months, but it wasn’t long before Danny again made a choice: Buzz would be his reason for living, and this time Janie would be too. “I will stay,” Danny told Janie, “until the end.”

Above: Danny cutting Buzz’s hair. (Courtesy of Janie Paul.)

Danny moved into Buzz’s old home study, where he was surrounded by books he’d never heard of: The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal, Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee. “I’d never been in the academic world,” he said. “I was blue-collar all the way.” He was the kind of guy who, rather than get it cut, shaved off his hair or grew it into a ponytail, the kind who kept car parts in the living room to work on them. “The world I grew up in, we fixed our own shit,” Danny said. At Janie and Buzz’s, he had to be careful not to track dirt and grease inside.

At first Danny helped with basic chores around the house. He made Buzz’s bed, did his laundry, loaded and unloaded the dishwasher. If the tasks were mundane, they were also deeply felt: Janie could breathe again. As the weeks went by, she relied on Danny more and more. He shopped for groceries, tied Buzz’s shoes, brushed Buzz’s hair. After Buzz went to sleep, Danny and Janie would sit in her home studio talking about the new things Buzz was doing and the old things he couldn’t do anymore. They had the same goal: to make him feel loved.

People with FTD often develop obsessive-compulsive habits. For Buzz, this manifested as a constant need to make sure the lights in the house were off and opening and closing window blinds incessantly. He also liked collecting things from around the house—clothes, books, paintings—and making piles with them. Janie and Danny would awake to stacks of random objects, and the day’s work would include putting everything back where it belonged without Buzz noticing.

Gillian Eaton, Buzz and Janie’s best friend, described Buzz’s face during this period as a mask of terror. He was conscious that his brain was being destroyed and could do nothing to stop it. He couldn’t express the simplest thoughts. To communicate what he wanted, he screamed or grunted. Sometimes, rather than deal with his situation, Buzz simply refused to engage.

And then there was the excrement. It wasn’t so much that Buzz couldn’t control his bowel movements but that he’d forgotten where he was supposed to have them and what they were even for. Danny once opened the fridge and found a Pyrex bowl full of feces. Buzz would leave poop on the kitchen counter or on furniture, where Danny would quickly scoop it up to stop it from soaking into the fabric.

When Buzz awoke with soiled sweatpants, Danny cleaned him up. This presented another challenge: Buzz didn’t like showers or baths, because his condition made him extremely sensitive to stimuli. Danny’s only option was to sponge-bathe him. Buzz, who was a foot taller than Danny, would stand on a towel in the kitchen as Danny reached into a bucket of soapy water and asked permission to wash each part of Buzz’s body.

“Can I wash your feet?” Danny would ask. “You don’t want gangrene, so I need to get your feet.” Buzz would protest but eventually concede. It became something of a dance, with Danny almost singing his words. “OK, how about your arms?” he would intone. “Now we have to get your back.”

Eaton recalled coming into the house once to find Danny hunched over Buzz’s feet, clipping his toenails. “Raphael couldn’t have painted something more beautiful,” she said.

When Buzz lost dexterity in his hands and could no longer eat with utensils, Danny came up with a menu of finger foods. One of Buzz’s favorite things was watching Danny prepare meals: the delicate smearing of peanut butter onto bread, the slicing of a blueberry muffin into equal halves, the topping of toast with perfect squares of butter. After eating, Buzz seemed hypnotized by how Danny rinsed the dishrag, the way he twisted it into a ball to wring out the water, then unfolded it to full size again.

Danny became an expert at coaxing Buzz to do things Buzz was not inclined to do. “I don’t want you to catch a cold, come in now,” he would say when Buzz refused to get out of the car after returning home from a doctor’s appointment. When Buzz didn’t budge, Danny would say, “OK, you can stay there. Just come in when you’re ready.” That was usually all it took—Buzz would get out of the car and walk into the house.

Danny could sense when Buzz needed to be left alone, when he wanted poetry read to him, when he needed to eat. At certain points, Buzz didn’t want anybody but Danny around; he would get frustrated when Janie cared for him. At first this felt like rejection, but she learned not to take it personally—it was the illness pushing her away, not Buzz.

There were days when Danny took Buzz on long drives. They loved these outings. Their first stop was McDonald’s. “We’d order chocolate milkshakes, and he’d suck his right down and reach over and grab mine,” Danny said. Buzz still had his sense of direction, and he’d point Danny here or there, to a house where he once lived or the place on campus where his office used to be. One time, Danny recalled, “he started crying a little bit. He pointed, he tried to tell me something, and it sounded like speaking in tongues.”

“Yeah, Buzz, I know,” Danny said. “You worked there for 47 years.”

Buzz just shook his head.

Above: Danny and Janie, along with various artworks, in their home studio.

Danny’s presence freed Janie up to spend time in her studio making a new series of drawings, using oil pastels and charcoal. The collection, titled Still Here, included imagery influenced by Buzz’s condition. Sometimes, though, Janie didn’t use her time alone to work—she just sat still, decompressed, and let her mind wander. With Danny in the house, she often felt at peace.

Still, as she spent more time with him, Janie saw that Danny had a dark side. Decades in prison had damaged his psyche and left him with a mountain of trauma. He had mood swings and a temper. Sometimes he reacted to situations based on instinct and fear. Once Janie took him to Zingerman’s Roadhouse, a popular restaurant in Ann Arbor, to thank him for taking care of Buzz. When she asked him if she could compensate him for his time, the wires in Danny’s head got crossed and started to spark. As Janie talked about money, he suddenly feared that she was going to stiff him, cheat him, ruin him. Other people had done it—why not her? In that moment Danny was convinced that if he agreed to something Janie said, she’d betray him.

Janie was stunned by his reaction. For all the time she spent in prisons, she’d never witnessed so intimately the long-term effects of the carceral system’s abuse and isolation, which often compounds prisoners’ earlier traumas. Her mind raced. She wanted to help but didn’t know how.

They left Zingerman’s without resolving things, and it took a day for Danny to realize he’d been wrong. After that, Janie encouraged him to communicate his feelings as a way of managing his anger. She was patient when he went on paranoid tirades, and with time they happened less and less often.

Though they came from different worlds, Janie and Danny always had something to talk about. She listened without judgment to stories about his life. Danny told her how he’d cared for his art supplies in prison, making them last as long as possible. She was taken by his commitment to creating beautiful things in oppressive conditions. At night, sitting together with Buzz, they worked their way through long TV series, including The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Sometimes Danny couldn’t look away from Janie. She was beautiful and sophisticated, kind and approachable.

To cope with her grief about Buzz, Janie tried to live in the present moment as much as she could. “It was unfathomable that he would be dead, and at the same time it was perfectly obvious that he would be dead,” Janie said. “There was no way to reconcile that.” When Buzz suffered an embolism and a doctor said he might not walk again, Janie made the painful decision to put him in a care home. But Buzz did walk again—so well, in fact, that he’d wander around the facility at night trying to escape. Danny went to visit Buzz every day. He couldn’t bear to see his friend so miserable.

After just two weeks, Janie and Danny took down the art on the walls of Buzz’s room, packed up his belongings, and moved him back to where he belonged. Together, at home, they would help Buzz live out his last days.

Danny had spent nearly three years caring for his friend; he knew what to do. He put Buzz’s favorite hat on his head and pulled the sheet up to keep him warm.

Buzz was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich one day when he started choking. It was a moment Janie and Danny had feared was coming: Some people with FTD eventually lose the ability to swallow food. Already Danny was practiced at using a finger to wipe away food stuck to Buzz’s gums and cheeks. Now Danny gave Buzz the Heimlich maneuver. By the time he was breathing normally again, the two men had tears running down their faces.

When Buzz started refusing food and water in September 2019, a hospice nurse gave him four, maybe five days to live. He spent that time in bed. Janie lay down beside him and put her arm around him. He wanted company, but no talking, no stimulation. When Buzz tried one last time to get up and flip the light switch in his room, Danny helped him back to bed.

Buzz’s breathing got noisier. His skin turned purple. “Any day now,” Danny and Janie kept saying to each other. Finally, on the twelfth day without food or water, Buzz stopped breathing.

It was 7 a.m. on a Thursday when it happened. Buzz’s daughter from his first marriage was with him. She woke Janie, who woke Danny. He went to Buzz. Danny had spent nearly three years caring for his friend; he knew what to do. He put Buzz’s favorite hat on his head and pulled the sheet up to keep him warm. He told Buzz that he loved him.

Before employees from the funeral home came to collect Buzz’s body, Janie pulled all the pots and pans from the kitchen cabinets. With the help of an Australian rain stick, a musical instrument, she and Gillian Eaton made a joyful noise while singing to Buzz. “We are with you on your journey,” they sang as he was ferried away.

Above: Danny in his workshop.

“Dannyyyyyyy!” Janie called downstairs. “Can you bring us a glass of water please? Oh, and a piece of that chocolate.”

Janie smiled as I reached to take a photo album from the shelf. We were looking at black-and-white pictures taken by Janie’s parents in 1941 in Guatemala, images of local people making food, textiles, art. There was so much of the past in the house. By the time I visited in late 2021, Buzz had been gone for two years, yet I almost expected him to walk into the room at any moment, because he was everywhere—in the books and the art, in the framed photos of the life he and Janie had lived together.

Still, there was a freshness in the house, too—a sense of life going on. The walls were recently painted. A white linen couch lacked any creases from long-term use. New Turkish rugs were soft underfoot. Janie pointed to a bookcase that Danny had laid on its side, converting it into a long, elegant shelf. “He just knows how to make things look nice,” she said.

Soon after Buzz died, Janie had asked Danny to stay with her. Buzz was her soulmate, but in a different way she loved Danny too. There was no question that he loved her. “She’s like seven Betty Whites,” Danny said. “She’s all that and a bag of chips.” When Danny told her one day that she looked good, something clicked for Janie: This was how it was supposed to be with them.

Theirs wasn’t a classic romance, but in a way it was deeper. “Even now, with Buzz no longer here, Danny and I still feel like there’s this circle of love,” Janie explained. “I want to maintain my connection to Buzz through Danny and me taking care of each other.” Danny described himself and Janie as “bound by memories of Buzz.” He’d taken to wearing a bracelet and a watch of Buzz’s. He often cried when he talked about his friend, about what three years of being by his side as he died had meant. “I wish him back every day,” Danny said.

Danny and Janie, Janie and Danny—now they were a pair, a package deal, born of necessity and intimacy. “They filled each other’s loneliness in a way I don’t think anyone else could,” Eaton said. “They needed each other to look after Buzz, but now they need each other to look after each other.”

During my visit, I watched as Danny brushed tenderly against Janie as they moved around the house. He called her “ladybug.” She bragged about his banana cakes—they were sugar- and gluten-free, she said. For breakfast one day, Danny made eggs and endless pots of strong coffee. When Janie scanned the pantry for peanut butter, Danny’s hand went right to the jar. After he did the dishes, Danny looked out the back window into the yard, where birds were sipping from a bath. “I think I’ll tackle the lawn next,” he mused.

Janie had bought Danny a sketchbook and told him he could use her studio whenever he wanted, to get back to making art. He said he might one day. It wasn’t his sight that made him hesitant, and he hadn’t lost his passion for creating. For the time being, Danny explained, he just preferred to run errands, do chores, and nurture the life he shared with the woman he loved.

“My world is right here, and this is all I care about,” Danny said. “Some people are good at writing, some people are mechanics. I’m good at taking care of people.”

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