PORTLAND — Two weeks after he was pulled from the Androscoggin River unconscious, not breathing and so badly injured that doctors gave his parents slim hope for his survival, let alone a meaningful recovery, 10-year-old Maxim McFarland walks, talks, plays video games and teases his parents about all the gifts he keeps getting from visitors.
“You’ve never given me so many presents on Christmas,” he said with a grin.
To be fair, there are a lot of gifts. A T-shirt and cap from Lewiston Police. A Build-A-Bear named Henry the Hero from doctors and nurses. A pair of LifeFlight wings pinned to his T-shirt, brought Monday by the crew that helped save his life. Toys and cards from well-wishers.
At times, the atmosphere is light and upbeat in Maxim’s room at The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital, part of Maine Medical Center in Portland. His parents, after all, consider his recovery a miracle.
“I’ve had a few doctors that I think are even unrelated (to Maxim’s care) come and peek in. They want to see him. Like, ‘How are you even still alive? You’re defying all the odds of medicine,'” said Maxim’s mom, Helena Gagliano-McFarland.
But between the visitors and the gifts and the light teasing, there is trauma and grief and two parents’ growing distress.
Because while Maxim was saved, his little brother, 5-year-old Valerio, is still missing in the river.
“That’s my son and I am going to fight to the bitter end to whatever extent I have to go to get more hands on this. This is the worst nightmare ever,” Gagliano-McFarland said moments after authorities called to request DNA from the family because Valerio’s body may soon become unidentifiable in the elements.
On April 24, Maxim and Valerio were playing at Bonney Park in Auburn, close to the home the family had moved into just a few days before. Their mother was in the house, their father outside with the boys, when Valerio fell into the nearby, rushing river. Maxim was the first to jump in to try to save him. Their 9-year-old sister and father, Jason McFarland, quickly followed.
“I’ve gone to combat into Afghanistan twice. And I’ll tell you what, I would rather see dead bodies from there a million times over than to close my eyes and remember what I saw,” McFarland said. “It was my last look into my son’s eyes, into Valerio’s eyes.”
In the river, McFarland got close to his boys, but “not close enough that I could do anything.” Out of the water, he ran along the road that parallels the river, desperate to keep them in view. He lost sight of them around the Rollodrome.
The boys’ mother arrived soon after and a cluster of first responders asked the couple to stay near them on shore. About 10 minutes later, rescuers radioed that they had one of the boys. For some moments, the couple did not know which son had been saved.
“We tried to find out big or small because that would have told us one way or the other,” McFarland said.
It was Maxim — their oldest, the budding artist who loved to draw and color — but he was unconscious and not breathing.
“Life changed at that point,” McFarland said.
Maxim was rushed to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, then taken by LifeFlight to Maine Med.
For the past two weeks, the family has essentially lived at the hospital. As Maxim improved — first breathing on his own, then talking and walking — his grandparents stayed with him while his parents ventured out to the river to look for Valerio.
On Saturday, Gagliano-McFarland joined volunteer searchers at their makeshift headquarters at City Cab in Lewiston. She carried a neatly folded quilt and a fuzzy teddy bear, for Valerio when he’s found.
In recent days, his parents have taught themselves about river currents, the water table, how a body reacts in the river, where other bodies have been found along the Androscoggin and where a small body — their little boy’s body — might be hidden.
“One of the things that I do is I go along the shoreline and I have a big stick so I can break apart the sticks, twigs and leaves,” the father said.
It angers the couple that they have had to learn about these things. While they are deeply grateful to volunteers for joining in the search, they believe authorities are not doing enough — like coordinating with each other, calling in the National Guard and using specially trained cadaver dogs to search.
The couple left messages for Gov. Paul LePage and has publicly pleaded with him to lend support for the search. Gagliano-McFarland said Monday that she’d heard someone from the governor’s office was planning to reach out to her that day, but by 4:30 p.m. no one had.
Cpl. John MacDonald of the Maine Warden Service has said wardens will not give up until they find the boy.
In the meantime, the family goes back and forth between the river and Maine Med, where Maxim is improving steadily. He is expected to be released from the hospital soon, though the family dosn’t know precisely when.
They aren’t sure what will happen once he’s OK to go home. Will they go back to the Auburn home they’d just moved into near the river? Will Maxim and his sister start school in Auburn with just weeks left in the school year?
At the moment, only one thing is certain.
“We take it one day at a time,” McFarland said. “Tomorrow we’ll be back out there again.”