On a family farm east of Ransom, Betty Keilman celebrated her 81st birthday Friday.
There was family, cake, and conversations about fond memories.
However much joy there was to be found that day was tempered by a subtle thread of distress that’s been her constant companion since Aug. 17.
That’s the day her son, Ralph, disappeared from Peabody Health and Rehabilitation Center. As of Tuesday, he was still missing.
“You think about it every day, it doesn’t go away,” Keilman said. “But you push yourself to do other things. You can’t let stuff like this get you down. That’s how we were raised.”
Saturday was Ralph’s 57th birthday.
“You think, ‘Oh, today’s his birthday, wouldn’t it be nice if he showed up at the door,’” Keilman said. “Just crazy thoughts.”
Betty and her husband, Carl, 84, raised four boys and two girls on their western Kansas farm, and most haven’t strayed far away. Ralph’s twin brother, Russell, still lives in Ransom.
Ralph was on track for a promising future when he graduated from Ransom High School in 1977. He did well academically, was a record-setting track athlete, and was class president his senior year.
He was helping a neighbor with harvest in 1980 when an accident changed the course of his life.
“He was driving a combine for a neighbor up by Utica and was crossing to another field,” Keilman said. “The highline was pretty low. It caught on the corner of the combine and he tried to kick it off. It zapped him to the ground.”
The high voltage shock put Ralph in the hospital with serious burns. However, the scars on his flesh paled in comparison to those burned on his psyche.
“After that, he had schizophrenia really bad,” Keilman said. “You can’t imagine how someone with severe schizophrenia acts. He couldn’t rest day or night.”
He sank deep into depression, and he made another fateful choice. In 1983, a self-inflicted gunshot wound left him partially paralyzed and unable to talk.
“That’s what took away his voice and speech, paralyzed his right hand and arm, and made him have trouble swallowing,” Keilman said.
Broken in mind and body, the Keilmans had no choice but to look for programs that could support Ralph’s physical and mental health needs.
What they discovered over the next three decades was that, for the most part, there weren’t any. Ralph has been in between 20 and 30 different programs and facilities all over the state, Keilman said.
“There are no facilities in Kansas to take care of people like that, but there are a lot of people like him,” Keilman said.
Peabody Health and Rehab had been good to Ralph, she said.
“He’s been down at Peabody for over a year,” she said. “I think they liked him. They really tried to work with him and be good for him.”
Two weeks after their last trip to Peabody, Ralph slipped through a security door, scaled a patio wall, and disappeared.
“He left there with no clothes, no money, probably no identification, I doubt he even had a pencil and paper on him,” Keilman said.
Peabody police organized a massive search two days after Ralph’s disappearance. The Keilmans wanted to be there, but they weren’t.
“Our kids talked us into staying home,” Keilman said. “They said there was nothing we could do down there. We’re getting old, so we just stayed home.”
Since his disappearance, Kielman said simple things can trigger both hope and disappointment, like unfamiliar numbers that appear on the Keilmans’ phone. Keilman said she calls police to check the numbers for her, but none have provided leads.
The trail has gone cold, and Keilman has little to hold onto as she vies with competing possibilities.
“I have worries that he hopped a train and got clear out of the country,” she said. “I can picture him living under a bridge in a homeless community. I can picture a truck driver picking him up and looking out for him, but who knows?”
She also can’t dismiss images that no parent wants to struggle with.
“Did he die somewhere in a creek?” she said. “Did he die out there in a field and they’ll find him when someone goes to harvest?”
Support has come from many corners. Keilman said she’s heard frequently from PHRC administrator Melissa Parmley. Clinicians who formerly worked with Ralph have called.
“Other people have just called out of the blue,” she said. “It’s been nice, it’s been good support.”
She said her family also was thankful for the many people in Peabody and surrounding communities who volunteered to search and pray for Ralph.
Keilman said she hoped talking about Ralph’s situation would benefit others.
“All through Ralph’s case, if anybody asks us anything, we tell them,” she said. “Sometime down the road it may help somebody else.”
But she hoped it would help Ralph, too.
“Just be on the lookout for him,” she said. “I hope it will help to find him.”