A small group of Minnesota’s criminally insane are housed in a gray, nondescript building on the outskirts of the town of Epps in the northwestern part of the state. It’s flatland soybean and corn fields up there, and I’m getting to know the area pretty well. It makes sense. I’ve been coming here every month for the last thirty three months. It’s where my son Tim has been sentenced to spend the rest of his life. I’m told he’s never going to leave. Just imagining what he’s going through inside those walls causes the storm clouds to start to build in my brain. I close my eyes and do my mental exercises to get myself under control. If those clouds build and explode into lightning who knows what’ll happen? Someone could get hurt, that’s for sure. They have in the past, and it hasn’t been pretty. Thankfully, I’m successful. The anger settles and recedes. I feel myself calming down.
I’ve had a problem controlling my temper my entire life. It started when I was young. If I didn’t get my way, boy, I’ll tell you, there’d be hell to pay. I used to get into a lot of fights. A few times I even ended up in the hospital. And that all happened before I got out of grade school. Fortunately, over time, I was able to change. What happened? I wish I could say that I had a simple answer or a magic formula, but it really just came down to wanting to do more with my life than spend it being a pugilistic jerk who settled his arguments with his fists. My father left home when I was nine, my mom needed me to help her raise my two younger brothers, so one thing lead to another and I just figured out how to control my temper, my anger, my rage. I learned to not let those storm clouds get the better of me. Apparently, I failed to teach my son the same thing.
I pulled into the tiny parking lot and walked to the front entrance. The building is a former grade school that underwent extensive renovation twenty years ago. It’s actually called the Marshall County Prison. My son is housed with a few other inmates in one wing called the Behavioral Study Unit. A team of doctors are analyzing him to see if they can determine why he did what he did. So far they have no answers.
I shoulder my backpack and head for the front entrance. After going through two security checkpoints I’m taken to the nurses office where I met with Connie Greyeagle. She fills me in on the medications they are giving Tim. Nearly three years ago, my son suddenly snapped. He stole a rifle from a neighbor went on a rampage and killed seven people. He was twenty years old at the time. To make a long story short, the doctors think that there was something manifesting itself in his brain that caused him to do what he did. He’s now a risk to society. Medication is one way they are treating him for his violent behavior and mood swings. Connie and I talk awhile and then she ushers me to Anderson Gingsrude’s office, the psychiatrist in charge of my son.
“Hi, Anders,” I greet him and we shake hands, “How’s Tim doing?”
“As well as can be expected.”
The response he gives me is the same every time we meet, vague enough to give me hope without telling me anything concrete. That’s fine with me. At this stage of the game, hope goes a long way. It’s certainly better than nothing. I’ll take it.
Anders is a good guy. Fifty years ago he might have been a cigarette smoking overweight control freak who could have cared less about the patients under his supervision. But that behavior is not acceptable these days. He has the lean body of a marathoner (which he is), and a helpful manner. He fills me in on how Tim is doing, primarily about the team from the University of Minnesota who have developed a rigorous set of tests having to do with genetics and what part my genes could have played in influencing Tim’s violent outburst. Let me tell you, knowing I might have had a role to play biologically in Tim’s killing spree is sobering. It’s something I’m having to learn to deal with and probably will be for the rest of my life. It’s not easy, but I’m doing my best.
We talk for a while. Then he walks me to my son’s room, an eight by ten space made of twelve inch thick concrete, and tells me good-bye.
Once inside I pull up a chair and sit down. Tim’s taller than me by three inches and thinner by fifty pounds. They keep his head shaved due to the tests they run on him, but his eyebrows are still bushy brown and his eyes are the dark amber they’ve been since he was two years old.
“Hi, son,” I say. I watch him carefully for any signs that he recognizes me. There are none. He doesn’t look at me. Or answer me. Or even acknowledge me. Nothing. He sits passively in a recliner and stares into space. Dr. Gingsrude tells me it’s the drugs that do it; they make my once outgoing and effervescent son almost catatonic. “It’s better this way,” the doctor has told me, “He’s easier to manage.” His statement is not easy to accept, but my son is a cold blooded killer who took the lives of seven innocent people. I’m trying to appreciate that, compared to being a violent murderer, him being in a catatonic state is better. It is better, right? I don’t know. All I know is that he is my son and I still love him.
“Tim, I’ve got something for you,” I tell him and right then and there begin a one-sided conversation that will last for the next four hours, the amount of time I am allowed to spend with my boy. I take out a floral arrangement my wife Anne has put together. This time it’s a pretty bouquet of yellow geraniums. I set them in the plastic vase I’ve brought with me (glass is not allowed) and fill it with a bottle of water from my pack. I set the vase and flowers on the night stand next to his bed. Next I take out a tin of cookies Jenny my daughter and Tim’s younger sister made for him. This visit it’s chocolate chip, a favorite of his from a time long ago. I offer them to him, but, again, no response, so I set them aside. I take out an ipod and plug it into a small boom box I always bring. I turn it on. I like to play the music Tim used to listen to growing up. He doesn’t acknowledge he hears anything.
Finally I take out the book I’ve brought along and settle in to read to him. It’s book number three in a series by a Minnesota author set in the fictional town of Aurora, about a hundred miles east of where we are right now. All the time I’ve been with him so far, Tim hasn’t responded to one thing I’ve said or done. But that’s okay. He never does, and I’m used to it. I try not to let the sadness I feel get to me. There’ll be time later for that. Right now it good to be with my son. I settle back and begin reading outloud.
In no time at all, it seems, there’s a knock on the door. It’s an orderly telling me my visit is over. “I’ve got to go, Tim,” I tell him, “I’ll be back next month.” I stand up and kiss his forehead. I gather up my book and the other things I brought, put them in my backpack and quietly close his door. I walk down the hall to the nurses’ station where I leave the cookies and flowers with Connie. He’s not allowed to have anything in his room other than the bed, night stand and the two chairs.
“Good bye,” I say to Connie, “See you next month.”
“Good bye, Sam,” she says, “Thanks for coming. He’s the only one around here who gets a visitor.”
I shrug my shoulders. What can you say? I’ll never stop coming, he’s my son. I leave without saying anything.
There’s a truck stop on the interstate a mile outside Epps and that’s where I’m headed. I’m wiped out. I need some caffeine. Plus, I need some gas. I pull up to the pump and start to fill up my little Ford Fiesta. A car full kids pulls in on the other side and one of them gets out and starts filling the tank. A few minutes go by. I’m thinking about Tim and planning my next visit when a commotion startles me back to the present.
An attendant is running out of the station, yelling, “Hey you guys, stop. You didn’t pay for your gas.”
“Screw you, pal,” the kid who was pumping the gas yells back.
He’s starting to get in his car when I step across the island and grab him and jam him up against a concrete support structure. He pushes back, slugs me in the chest and my vision explodes into bright light. Violent storms clouds build exponentially in my brain, billowing and turning black as night.
I react quickly and grab the kid with both hands tightly by the front of his shirt, “Hey, there, pal,” I say, giving him a shake and looking straight into his eyes, “It looks like you owe this gentleman here some money. Give it to him,” I shake him, again. Hard. I can see his eyes roll back in his head. It is at this point, in the past, things could have gotten ugly. I could have gone berserk and maybe even beaten the kid to a pulp. Hurt him bad.
But not now. Now, I get control of myself, grit my teeth and give him a command, “Didn’t you hear me? I said, give him his money.” I am right in his face and emphasize, “Now.” I feel his hot breath on my face. It smells like fear. He must have sensed something in me. Something frightening. I know what he’s feeling. He’s feeling my rage, barely under control. Barely. I’m doing my best to keep it there.
So, he does the smart thing. He pays the attendant and even apologizes to the young man. And to me. “You did a good thing by paying,” I tell the kid after things have settled down, “Make sure you don’t forget next time.”
He blinks and gives me a nod. Then, without a word, he gets in the car and he and his friends slowly drive away.
Later, driving home, I think about my son and how he’s receiving treatment, now, for his violent behavior. I think of how the doctors are studying his genes and my genes to see if there’s any kind of correlation; to see if there’s something genetic that made him do what he did. They hope that that knowledge will help make treating him more successful, and possibly form a foundation for helping others in the future. My fingers are crossed that they will be. It never is far from my mind, knowing that I could have had a role to play in Tim turning out the way he did. The truth? I probably did. I know that. It makes perfect sense. That’s why I see my son as often as I can. I’m his dad, and I owe him that much. Besides, it’s the least I can do. We have a lot in common. Half of him is me, and, it’s not too far of a stretch for me to realize the awful truth. It could easily have been me sitting in there.