Max Maisel was quiet. The 21-year-old college junior was a self-described "recluse." But that didn't mean he wasn't engaged in life as it was happening around him.

"He was a quirky kid and that may have put some people off, but he was a sweet, sweet, boy and was growing up into a special young man," Meg Murray, his mother, recalled of the young man missing since Feb. 22. "What he loved, he loved deeply, and what he felt, he felt deeply."

Murray, her husband Ivan Maisel, a senior writer with ESPN.com, and their two daughters are coming to grips with the fact that Max is dead -- probably drowned, either accidentally or intentionally, in the Genesee River in upstate New York, near the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he was studying photography.

And the family -- residents of Fairfield's Stratfield neighborhood -- knows it is a reality they will likely have to face again in the coming months if Max's body is found.

A witness saw Max walk down the Charlotte pier around 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22. When an hour passed and he had not returned, the witness called police. Had that man not been there, Murray said, who knows how long it would've been before Max's disappearance was noticed. Police found his car near the water the next day and SCUBA teams repeatedly searched the frigid waters without success.

"The police worked so hard," she said. "Ivan and I can't say enough about the care and dedication of all of the departments. They searched areas so thoroughly, they are baffled and mystified. We've learned a lot about science ... and all the scientific evidence says he should be there, and they're just stumped as to why he is not."

"He's going to do it his way," Maisel said, with a small chuckle. At times, both he and his wife refer to Max in the present tense. On her wrist, Murray wears a watch that had been her son's, given to Max by a classmate on his bar mitzvah.

A `different' kid finds his path

Max Maisel grew up in a close-knit neighborhood in the Stratfield section of Fairfield. On Southwood and Northwood roads, there are 11 kids who went to school together from kindergarten through 12th grade.

"Most of us moved here in the early '90s," Murray said. "We raised our kids together, we've had a lot of neighborhood parties, Halloween parties, blizzard parties, Easter egg hunts. The kids had a comfort with each other. Even if they weren't especially close, all of the kids looked out for one another."

Max, she said, was different. "He was quirky and the kids protected him, especially the Stratfield kids, and he knew that."

When he was at Fairfield Warde High School, they expected they might hear of some trouble Max encountered with another student, Ivan Maisel recalled. It never happened.

Their son developed interests -- photography, sparked by the love of a panoramic shot of Steamboat Springs, Colo. -- as well as online gaming and anime, a type of Japanese-influenced animation.

"In high school, he developed online relationships in the anime community, people with like-minded interests," Murray said. Max "started talking to people all over the world." One of them eventually became his roommate at RIT. "It really opened up a world to him," his mother said. "He was not an expert in sports, he was not into local theater like some kids, but he found like-minded friends."

And those who knew Max were aware of his well-honed sense of humor. "He had a very sharp wit, arid, and he didn't show it outside much, but these people had all heard or seen it in gameplay or anime," Maisel said.

Julie Fedoryk, Max's Latin teacher at Warde, saw it, too.

"I smile when I think about Max uttering a dry but witty remark under his breath, just loud enough so that classmates right in his vicinity could hear his remark," Fedoryk said. "Max deserved the respect he got from peers because he earned it. I remember seeing them turn quickly in surprise and admiration for his quick wit and subtle delivery. I remember hearing that sense of humor come out at the most charming moments."

Well known for puns, Max set a high bar for humor and had a low tolerance for bad jokes, Murray remembered.

Max, according to Fedoryk, was an individualist who worked hard and took his studies seriously. "He always seemed to enjoy the esoteric nature of the study of Latin," she said. "In his years of high school, I also had the honor of seeing Max grow from a young, and sometimes awkward freshman, to a much more thoughtful and reflective young man his senior year."

James D'Acosta taught Max American history in his junior year. "I had a sense that Max felt beaten down by school rather than encouraged and inspired and that our fast-paced, high-powered life style was uncomfortable and intimidating to him," D'Acosta said. "He was genuinely curious and eager, even thirsty for knowledge, but he had a hard time expressing his intelligence and enthusiasm in traditional ways. He could, for example, get a `D' or `F' on a standardized test on something like World War II, only to follow up minutes later with an accurate and engaging description of some aspect of that subject."

Any low grades, D'Acosta said, "were a condemnation of many of our methods. He must have felt intense frustration."

"Max was a non-traditional learner who was crushed by tradition," D'Acosta said. "He kept me on my toes and challenged me to be a better teacher."

He also did not shy away from things that might have made him uncomfortable. The summer after his freshman year at RIT, Max got a job scooping ice cream at Timothy's Ice Cream shop in Bridgeport's Black Rock section. "He was so nervous about dealing with the public," Ivan Maisel said, "but he did it."

Despite feeling nervous the first two weeks on the job, Murray said, he then made up his mind he wanted to succeed "and it was like a light bulb went off."

And a chance to meet Don Tudor, the Colorado photographer who helped to inspire the shutterbug in Max, turned the normally taciturn young man into a chatter box. "Max was a real quiet kid. He did not enjoy conversation," his father recalled. Overhearing the conversation between Max and Tudor, Maisel texted his wife: "You wouldn't believe what I'm hearing."

`Melancholy' self-perception

Max had been seeing a counselor in Fairfield, his parents said, most recently in January. "I asked him if he wanted to see him again," Murray said, and "he said, `No, I'm good.' "

College can be stressful, she said, and they encouraged him to take advantage of any counseling services offered by RIT. Ten days before he went missing, Max did just that, meeting with a counselor on campus, giving assurances that he had no thoughts of harming himself or others, according to his parents.

About three days before he disappeared, Max paid for a year's subscription to a service. And that Sunday, he took photos for a class assignment.

"In the end, it may have been intentional or it may have been an accident, but what difference does it make?" Maisel said of his son's disappearance. "Either way, he's not here."

When the search began, Max's camera was still in his dorm room.

"We knew at the outset that this was an area he was familiar with, he's been going there every summer since he was 5 years old," Maisel said of the riverside site where Max's car was found. "It's about 20 to 25 minutes from the campus. It was a place Max went to and was comfortable with. We didn't have to connect any dots about why he was up there."

Both parents had texted him the week before. "He was a little less communicative than normal," his dad said.

Max is seen on security video going into the campus parking lot. "We called Sunday at 6, the police think he was either still in his room or had just left," Murray said.

Her lanky 6-foot, 5-inch tall son, she said, described himself as "very melancholy." "He defended his right to see things as a half-empty person," Murray said. "The rest of us were more half-full."

"Sometimes, I think he did that just to stake out his territory" in the family, Maisel said.

Insights through Max's lens

As they prepare for Friday's memorial service at Congregation Bnai Israel in Bridgeport, Murray and Maisel are poring through photographs -- some they know by when they were taken or why. Others, the ones taken by Max, they're mostly seeing for the first time. Like the one of Ivan Maisel, sitting unsmiling in a chair. "We couldn't smile," Maisel said. "I think I sat in that chair for at least a half an hour while he fiddled with something. He was so convinced he wasn't doing it right. I never saw this until now."

It was at Hanukkah or Christmas last year that Max finally gave his mother a digital frame with 40 of his photos because, Maisel said, "Meg finally threatened him with the wrath of Mom."

When Max went missing Murray began to look through his prints, Maisel said. "I was mortified, I thought he would be mad," he said of his son's sense of privacy. "The police still have his camera and hard drive."

In the last four weeks, they've found solace in their family and friends, and Max's "community" of online friends.

"He would play games on the Wii, battling people in his community in Minecraft," Murray said. Some of those friends, Maisel said, "described these legendary games where Max pulled some stunts -- it was like me talking for hours about a great football game 25 years ago -- they would talk about these games."

Murray has since meet with five of Max's most recent professors. "To a person, they all told me how much he had touched them and how special he was," she said. "One professor said, `I will never forget your son,' and that was really meaningful for us to know he had that kind of effect."

RIT has given the family some CDs of Max's work. "I haven't brought myself to look at them yet," Murray said.

There is one thing the family is certain of, Murray said. "The four of us are very certain we will get through this together," she said. "There's no handbook, and no timetable, and we know that, intellectually."

Intellectually, Ivan Maisel said, it's easier to understand the process than emotionally accept it. "The policeman who called that Monday morning a month ago today, I knew before I hung up, I knew the pieces didn't add up to anything good. People say you don't have closure. I feel I started toward it with that phone call. He was not a kid who was going to ditch his car and go on a joyride."

They look through the photographs their son had taken. The prints are spread over the dining room table, their fingers tracing outlines of trees, of Max.

"Both of us, we're very aware that Chapter 2 of the hard part starts after Friday," Murray said.