One of Irene Linn’s favorite things to do was to go for a drive in her car. Whether it was a quick jaunt into town or an outing through the countryside, her little dog Hunter rode alongside her wherever she went.
But in 2008, when Linn was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia — a fast-moving, rare disorder related to Alzheimer’s disease — the drives came to an abrupt stop.
But on Mother’s Day, May 8, her oldest son, Eric, took her for a very special ride — this one in an old 1980 Chevy Scottsdale pickup truck that he and his four brothers and their families restored to like-new condition in her honor.
“Tragedy and disease have taken so much from us,” Eric said. “Who would have thought that after all the work our old farm truck did to support us it would be the glue that kept our family together?”
Their mother’s illness isn’t the first tragedy Eric and his brothers — Steven, Phil, Sam and Mike — have endured. In 1992, their father, Ron, was killed in a farm accident. Eric was 20 years old at the time; the youngest brother, Mike, was just 8.
As the oldest, Eric felt a responsibility to look out for his mother and brothers. He and his siblings spent a lot of time with their mom, helping out when they could, shoveling snow and mowing her lawn.
In 2008, he noticed that she began repeating herself and routinely lost her keys and other items around the house. He felt in his gut that something wasn’t right.
“When you finally decide that something is wrong, as the oldest of the five boys, I had to convince my brothers. They didn’t see it like I did,” Eric said. “And that’s part of dealing with the disease. We were a close-knit family but when this disease comes into our life, especially after losing our father, it’s a whole new challenge. Emotions run high.”
Eric, a member of St. Benedict Parish in Avon, said he laid awake a lot of nights, worrying about his mom, his family and the decisions they were making about her health care. One night, he got up and went to his shed where he kept an old beat-up farm truck his dad had owned.
Eric always thought that maybe someday he’d fix it up.
“The more I thought about it, the more I thought this could be a good project for me and my brothers and our families,” he said.
The brothers live within a few miles of each other. Eric invited them to come on weekends with their families to work on the truck, which they did for almost three years.
Irene has seven grandchildren, who were also part of the project, giving them the opportunity to ask questions and hear stories about their grandparents, Eric said.
“It was good therapy for us to work on something that was once our mom and dad’s,” he said. “We built a real keepsake for us to have forever. It also brought back a lot of good memories for us. We shared a lot of stories about the farm as we worked on it.”
A special ride
During the winter, the brothers sent invitations to family and friends for the truck’s unveiling in the spring.
“We knew we needed to get going on it. With Mom’s declining health, we wanted to make sure she could be here to see it completed,” Eric said.
And just like that, things began falling into place. Close family was invited as well as caregivers who had a part over the years in supporting and caring for Irene, who now lives at Mother of Mercy, Campus of Care, in Albany.
“Tragedy and Alzheimer’s has taken so much from our family, but we will not allow these life challenges to take away the family Mom and Dad worked so hard to build,” Eric said at the May 8 reveal.
“Through blood, sweat and tears, every nut and bolt was taken apart to rebuild this old friend to create a family legacy,” he said. “On this special Mother’s Day, we want to present this truck to the person who stayed strong through difficult times, raised us with love, a strong work ethic, humor and, most of all, compassion. To you, Mom, an old friend returns.”
Father Jeremy Theis, parochial vicar of the parishes of Our Lady of Angels and St. Paul in Sauk Centre and St. Alexius in West Union, was a classmate of Steven Linn, who invited him for the event. Father Theis gave the truck a blessing just before Eric invited Irene’s caregivers to pull the tarp from the truck.
Though Eric doesn’t believe his mom understood exactly what was happening, he knows she enjoyed her ceremonial ride around the farm with him. “It was a dream come true for me,” he said.
Eric had one more surprise — license plates that read, “DABOYZZ,” which Eric kept a secret, even from his brothers.
“It was always something my dad would say to my mom, ‘Where are da boys?’” he said. “We always remarked with each other how we felt that Dad was with us throughout this whole project. We strongly believe that he is still amongst us. That and our faith is what keep us going. Without it, I don’t think our family would’ve made it this far.”
Hope for others
Eric wants to bring attention to the disease and encourage others to support those dealing with it. He hopes one day there will be a cure.
“This disease gives us no hope. There’s no cure, no way to stop it. I hope our story will pull at people’s heartstrings to work for a cure,” he said. “I don’t want my mom to go to her grave and not have made a difference. She’d say, ‘Don’t you boys sit on your duff. Go out and make a difference.’”
Before residing at Mother of Mercy, Irene worked there for 20 years as a caregiver herself, often bringing her boys with her. She also worked at Liturgical Press in Collegeville.
“She’s given us a gift — she gave us life. We have learned so much compassion from her. As adults, we look at what has been instilled in us. It’s a gift that everybody gets to share and that’s what my mom would want us to do,” Eric said.
Irene’s sister-in-law, Marion Sand, also worked at Mother of Mercy for almost 34 years. Now retired, Sand now cares for Irene several times a week, visiting her, bathing her, walking with her and fixing her hair.
“I do it for her, I do it for the boys,” Sand said. “I spend time with her and do what I can for her. It’s been very tough on those boys. Right now this is the best place for her.”
Pope Francis has said the worst thing about growing old is not becoming weaker or infirm, but the “abandonment, the exclusion, the deprivation of love” in today’s “throwaway culture.”
Father Theis said it is important for everyone to care for all those who are suffering.
“In a throwaway culture, it is good to see that the family is not leaving [Irene] alone,” he said. “There is always someone helping take care of her, visiting her. As heart-wrenching as the situation is, it is an opportunity for these boys to grow in love, not only of their mother, but of themselves, and to grow in empathy for those whose parents or family members are in difficult situations — illness or otherwise.”
Eric said that, as with anything, there are good days and bad days. One thing he suggested people can do right now to support families dealing with illness is to give caregivers a break.
“Part of this is also finding a break for yourself. Sometimes you just have to take a timeout before something happens to you,” he said. “And, if you know somebody that could use a visit, reach out to those people. Don’t abandon them. Its difficult to see the physical changes in people, but just challenge yourself to do it, no matter how hard it is. It means so much to them. It can change their life.”