It’s taken me a few days to wrap my brain around the events of last Wednesday.
That morning, I headed to the nursing home for a face-to-face visit with Mom. The facility has loosened its COVID policies following widespread vaccination of residents and visitors, allowing up to ten guests a day to spend an hour with loved ones inside their rooms.
Mom and I spent the time talking, while I helped to clear out some old items from her shelves and closet and organize the items that remained.
From the moment I walked into her room, Mom began excitedly telling me about the many things that had happened since we’d spoken the previous day.
“Your dad and her [pointing to the lady residing in the conjoining room] husband went for a drive and accidentally hit a dog,” Mom reported, shaking her head at how awful it was. “I think the dog might not have made it, but your dad hasn’t said anything about it.”
As I’ve learned to do, I pretended that Dad was involved in the incident Mom recounted, is alive and well and engages in conversations with Mom. I lamented with Mom over the dog and assured her that Dad was probably just trying to spare her by not sharing the dog’s fate.
Next, Mom shared a visit from my grandmother, who brought some children by and asked Mom to watch them for the day. According to Mom, she did as her mother requested but was “sure tired by the time they left.”
These stories are grounded in memories of people and events that occurred in some fashion sometime in the past. On a farm, it’s not unusual to harm animals in the process of going about the work that has to be done. And Mom has always had a soft spot for kids, often watching a neighbor’s children for a few hours or teaching a classroom of third graders.
But the final memory Mom recounted was far more disturbing.
“Have you been watching all the news about your brother?” she asked.
“Um, not really,” I replied, searching for the words to respond to anything that might be coming pertaining to Joe.
“He’s all over the news,” Mom continued. “He went in a store and shot up all those people, and he killed his wife . . . they’ve got to keep him locked up after all that!”
This final “memory” revealed a few things about Mom’s state of mind:
- She remembers that her only son is unstable and that the safest place for him to be is inside a prison cell or a psychiatric institution.
- She feels remorse for “how Joe turned out,” for the manifestations of severe psychosis that continue to cause pain and suffering to many.
- She is struggling to differentiate between what she sees and hears on television and what is happening in her immediate surroundings. Following a diagnosis of sepsis a few weeks before Thanksgiving in 2020, Mom began to confuse the images and stories on the screen with reality. I realized as Mom continued to recount Joe’s latest actions that she had seen news about recent violent attacks across the US and placed Joe at those scenes.
Before I left the nursing home, I gave Mom a hug and kiss and told her that I’d be picking her up in a few days to spend the day at the house. Bruce was planning to make pot roast, and we’d be sure to have Mom’s favorite ice cream in the freezer.
“Oh, good!” she said, smiling at me in a way that reminded me of Mom from an earlier time. Before Alzheimer’s.
I drove home, thinking about the visit, and set about getting some work done before dinner. My email inbox revealed a new voice message from Idaho, this time from the clinician at the state hospital in Blackfoot assigned to Joe’s case asking me to return her call.
I called and shared a familiar exchange with this latest institutional representative who had the ill fortune of being assigned to interact with my sibling.
“He’s threatening the staff and other residents,” she told me. “We’ve had to place him in the maximum security wing of the hospital and have taken away some of his privileges.”
“Like what?” I asked. I had to ask.
“We’ve put certain numbers on a no-call list,” she said, explaining that patients are allowed to make three calls per shift, each dialed by a staff member prior to handing over the phone to the patient.
“The list includes several local hospitals and emergency numbers,” she continued. Apparently, Joe had been calling these places to request a ride “out of the nut house, since there’s nothing wrong with [him].”
She shared that she’d also been required to make a case to the “override board” at the facility, since Joe was refusing to take his medication, screaming at her that he isn’t mentally ill. The override was granted, and Joe is now being forced to take his medication. I’m neither surprised by his refusal nor hopeful that taking meds now will make any difference in the long run. Like always, I’m certain that Joe will stabilize somewhat inside the facility, be released, and within two days, be off his meds and back to his violent self.
As I hung up following the call with Joe’s assigned clinician, it struck me that Mom’s cognitive decline has done little to erase the emotions she feels, and has long felt, for certain people and events.
She looks forward to time spent with family, interacting with children, chatting with my dad.
She fears Joe’s actions and the mind that makes the horrors on television not so surreal after all.