I have been thinking today about a story that doesn’t really belong to me; it is the story of two people that I took in mostly by observation and just a touch of interaction. It is their story, although I have long since lost contact with them. So, I am telling it from my point of view of the omniscient narrator of experience, and inferring from their actions and other documents what may have happened behind the scenes. This is the story of a woman I will call Barbara, and her mother, whom I will call Dorothy. Their names and a few details have been changed. Their story remains a point of light in my life.
Dorothy had never lived anywhere that she could remember, except the big building on Forest Avenue. She couldn’t recall what she had for breakfast or for lunch. Sometimes she would notice a bird fly by her window, or a person pass her door. People’s faces did not look familiar to her. She sat in a wheelchair, and had minimal control of her extremities. She didn’t even seem to notice me when I came to see her for a pre-admissions consultation visit. Dorothy had lived at the state Psychiatric Center since she was in her early 20’s. She was 14 when she immigrated; she was married within a few weeks to a man her parents had arranged for her meet when she arrived in the United States by boat, alone. They told her she would be his wife, and an American. She didn’t speak English. She had her first baby within a year of her arrival; she was 14. She had 8 other children, one after the other. By age 22, she was having difficulty with life and no one knew what was wrong. She had mood swings and didn’t want to care for her children. She tried to injure herself, and started having headaches that were so bad they would turn to seizures. The doctors labelled her as histrionic, back in the day when that was considered a diagnosis. Her sister came over from her home country to care for her children; their father left and eventually remarried but provided some money for the children’s support. At age 23, Dorothy was taken away from her children permanently and placed into a psychiatric institution.
There, she had been strapped to a bed and given repeated treatments with Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT) when it was a new and experimental approach. It didn’t help her. She was given drugs and confined to small, padded spaces but she still was a threat to herself. In 1947, they performed a frontal lobotomy; part of the frontal region of her brain was surgically removed in an effort to control her mental health. She was left without memory, partially paralyzed, and emotionally flat. She remained a resident of the psychiatric center for 50 years.
In the early 1990’s, as psychiatric centers were being down-sized, the skilled nursing facility where I worked developed a partnership to transfer former psychiatric residents into residential health care. Many of these individuals had not lived outside an institutional environment for many years. Most did not have living family. As the Director of Social Services for the nursing facility, I would work with our Admissions office to insure safe transfer of residents who met admission criteria, and I would deal with the angry outbursts of staff who did not feel capable of caring for people with long-term psychiatric diagnoses.
When Dorothy came to live in our skilled nursing facility, the staff members were skeptical given her history. However, she was severely weak, immobile, and completely mute. She made occasional gestures. Her history evoked a kind of sympathy even among staff for whom (I once remarked), “you would complain if we admitted Jesus Christ to the unit because you’d have to deal with the nail marks in his hands.” OK, maybe it wasn’t that bad. But mental health stigma prevails everywhere, even among those who need complete custodial care. Not everyone was happy with the integration. But, Dorothy was living with us now, and once the initial admission shock wore off, the staff grew fond of her.
One Monday at morning rounds, a nurse casually spoke about Dorothy’s daughter. I stopped still. I didn’t know Dorothy had a daughter. No one at the psychiatric center had mentioned any family. The nurse revealed that a woman had been coming for the past several weeks, every Sunday afternoon, bringing a book or the paper and reading to Dorothy. Dorothy still never said anything, but was relaxed and seemed to be enjoying the visits. The woman came and left quietly, and hadn’t left any contact information.
The next Sunday, I made it a point to come into the office and stay on the floor to meet Dorothy’s visitor. Staff pointed her out to me and I stopped in, introduced myself, and told her I would like to talk with her for just a few minutes before she left. About an hour later, she finished her visit and we walked to my office.
Barbara was a well-dressed woman in her late 40’s. She was Dorothy’s youngest daughter. She had never met her mother, although she grew up with her aunt’s stories of when she and her sister were younger, back in the “old country.” She wasn’t ever told directly of her mother’s mental health condition; she was told that she was very sick and had to be taken to the hospital and she had never come home. Some older siblings remembered that she wouldn’t get out of bed and sometimes had mood swings. When Barbara was old enough, she put herself through college. She majored in psychology. She went on to graduate school, and she eventually became a clinical psychologist; her practice was in a nearby city about an hour away from her home town. The family stories never sat right with her, although her siblings told her to let it go, and move on. The family believed they would be better off just thinking of their mother as dead. Barbara did some digging around and learned that her mother had, indeed, been institutionalized. When pressed, her aunt acknowledged that her mother was probably still living, but begged her not to get involved. Barbara looked up her records, and finally found her under her birth name (not her married name). She reunited with her mother just a short time ago.
Barbara visited on Sunday afternoons, bringing the paper or a book she was reading and sharing that slice of time with her mother, the mother she never knew. They really couldn’t have a relationship in a bidirectional communication sense, the way that you or I might think of as a visit. But, Barbara found a segment of time that she could share with the woman she once thought was dead, and now learned was living. “This hour is a gift ” Barbara told me that afternoon. “I am able to see my childhood differently. I am able to understand that she didn’t leave us; she was taken from us. I am able to tell her, in my visits, that I became who I am because there was always a question that I could not answer about her, about myself. I ended up learning about the entire realm of human cognition and emotional regulation, about the history of psychiatric treatment. All this has helped me know her. And now, I am allowing her to know me.”
I know I was at a loss for words then, and still at a loss for words now. This daughter could have walked away. But, at some unconscious level, she had been waiting and growing and working and learning in unknowing preparation for their reunion. When that reunion came, it was not sad or even bittersweet. It was a homecoming, a gift.
And so here I am now. Twenty years later, this brief interaction just one of hundreds of clients and families with whom I have worked over the years. And yet, I sat in church yesterday and heard the Gospel reading, the parable of the prodigal son. And all I could think about was this small point of light, the daughter sitting and reading to the mother that she thought was lost forever. But, she had returned. And in that reunion was joy.
Luke 15:1-3, 12-32
So Jesus told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”