Tomorrow morning, June 14, 2019, I set off on a journey that began in New York the early winter of 1947.
Questions from a lecture by my friend, Professor Mark Christensen haunt me as I pack my suitcase and map my route:
What is my state of mind before I leave? Am I on a quest? A journey?
As I travel will it also be an internal journey?
Will I learn something? What discoveries will I bring home?
Is the journey forced or by choice?
Do I expect to find something or not, or something unexpected?
What archetype might I symbolize in my journey?
What obstacles might I encounter—internal/external?
What will be my state of mind after my journey—if it ends?
How did it all begin? That early winter of 1947 a young man had recently returned from World War II, and as millions of soldiers have done over the centuries upon returning home from war, he must have been ecstatic to have survived. He and his friends celebrated life. He met a young woman who was alone, struggling psychologically, seeking comfort in the wake of a recent divorce. Nine months later I was born; I don’t think the young man ever knew. My mother never spoke of him. Sixty-two years later she went to her grave, secret intact.
Earliest photo of me–in buggy:
The winter of 2018, through the miracles of DNA and the persistence of a wonderful genealogist, I learned the identity of my late father and recently connected with siblings I never knew existed. I’ve been in correspondence and conversations with one of seven and in a few days will meet him and his family.
“If it will save one widow from going through what I have experienced,” Angie told me recently, “People need to know.” Angie is a tiny, reserved lady. She speaks Ojibwa as a second language. Her goal is to pass traditional values on to her children and grandchildren.
I first met Angie’s husband, Deland, in 1992 at a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) veteran’s group meeting. Trust came slowly. About a year after we met, Deland asked if I could help him butcher a deer. That evening in my farm butcher shop we visited as we worked. I learned that Deland had been raised in Ponemah, Minnesota, on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. I had been raised on a small farm just south of the reservation boundary.
Deland was a Marine Corps Veteran. He served in Vietnam December 1969-December 1970. Upon returning home he started a family and as with so many of us, he struggled with the ghosts of Vietnam. In 1998 Deland was awarded 100% permanent and total disability for PTSD. He successfully completed an inpatient PTSD treatment program at the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in Topeka, Kansas.
On August 27, 1999, Deland died from massive heart failure. He was forty seven years old. His Certificate of Death states that he died of natural causes. In honoring Deland’s wishes, he had a traditional burial in the Ojibwa Custom.
Shortly after Deland’s death Angie filed for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) through our local Veteran’s Service Office (VSO). For those readers unfamiliar with DIC, it is basically a widow’s pension from the Veterans Administration. The first VA denial Angie received states, “During the lifetime of your husband he did not submit a claim for ischemic heart disease—.” Ischemic heart disease is a presumptive service-connected disease linked to Agent Orange exposure and can be verified through autopsy. In honoring the Ojibwa custom, there had been no autopsy.
About six months after Deland died Angie came out to our farm with her two daughters and her grandchildren. They were homeless and hungry. So began a fourteen year odyssey. My wife, Patti, and I did what we could to help. To be homeless is a dreadful condition—more so for women because they are so vulnerable to exploitation.
For Angie and her family, a chronic cycle of transient housing developed: Living with friends until the welcome wore out; low income housing until rent or utility bills became too delinquent; staying at homeless shelters until time expired. The family disintegrated. Angie’s daughters ran afoul of the law and the children were placed in foster homes.
In the beginning, I helped Angie and her family because I felt terribly guilty that Deland was dead and I was alive. Over the years, as I watched the family struggle, the guilt evolved into a mission of helping because it was the right thing to do.
If I were to put a date on that realization I would place it on a bitter January morning about nine years ago. I brought a box of meat to the little efficiency apartment Angie was living in. When she opened the door I was shocked to see six men sitting at her kitchen table, hands wrapped around steaming mugs of coffee. I carried the box to the counter and whispered, “Ang, who are these guys?”
“They’re from the shelter across the street,” she told me. “They get locked out during the day and have nowhere to go.” Perhaps one could call it an epiphany; in that moment I realized, here is this lady, with so little, sharing with others.
Our local VSO and representatives from the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Deland’s power of attorney for VA claims, continued to work on Angie’s appeal. Sometime during those years Angie asked if I could help with her claim. She signed a Release of Information so I could access information about Deland’s case. I obtained a copy of his records. Our VSO explained that without an autopsy or some new information the VA would never approve the claim. The appeal-denial cycle continued up the VA appeals ladder. On March 20, 2013, I helped Angie fill out the “Appeal To Board Of Veterans’ Appeals.” It was the top rung on the VA appeals ladder.
I took the form home, spread Deland’s file on my desk, and again read through almost fourteen years of denials, knowing something was terribly wrong that our government should be denying this widow because of her husband’s religious values. As I combed through the documents I made an interesting discovery; I knew the coroner who had written “natural causes” on Deland’s death certificate. Over the years his wife and mine have attended bible study groups together.
I contacted the coroner, explained the situation, and asked if he might review the case. After reading Deland’s VA records and revisiting his own files from 1999 when Deland was brought into the local hospital the day of his fatal heart attack, the coroner wrote the following statement.
“The Veterans Administration review states that “the cause of death was suspected cardiac condition; however natural cause was indicated on the death certificate.” I would like to emphasis that when I do not have autopsy proof of cause of death I always sign the death certificate as “natural causes” unless other evidence indicates that the death was accidental, homicidal, or suicidal. Consequently the death certificate notation of “natural causes” does not mean that the patient did not have a cardiac condition.
On the contrary the history in this case suggests to me that most likely this man did in fact die of a cardiac condition, namely ischemic heart disease.”
On May 29, 2013, I hand-delivered the statement to our VSO officer. She faxed it to the DAV Regional Office in Fargo, North Dakota. The DAV requested that the information be expedited because of Angie’s situation.
On June 17, 2013, I was informed that Angie’s claim had been approved, retroactive to August 1999. With no address and no telephone she could not be contacted. I will not forget that day. Late in the afternoon her daughter called me, collect, and asked if I could help. She and Angie were hitchhiking and stuck at the edge of a small town. Nobody would stop to pick them up and Angie was sitting in the ditch, too tired to go any farther.
Today Angie owns a five bedroom home—mortgage free—and is reunited with her daughters. They are in the process of reintegrating the children from foster homes back into the family.
I stop by and visit Angie and her family once or twice a week. The last time I visited she asked me to tell her story. Over a year has gone by since she moved into her new home and I think she’s had time to reflect. Several times over the past year she has provided shelter to homeless friends. I still bring meat occasionally—it’s gotten to be a habit. She and I recently visited an attorney and created an irrevocable trust, twilighted when her last grandchild dies. Never will they be homeless.
Fifteen years ago when this journey began, I told Angie that what my wife and I shared with her was a gift. Today I feel that what Angie has shared with us is a greater gift than she can ever realize.
This past week we’ve been studying schizophrenia in the psychology class I’m taking at BSU. Schizophrenia often manifests itself in late teens and early twenties. This evening I was reading some of my grandfather’s letters and discovered this one, where he discusses Polly’s frame of mind. In 1943, when this letter is written, she was 21 years old. Two years later she would be diagnosed with schizophrenia. In this letter, my grandfather is an army officer, training recruits at Camp Maxey, Texas. The letter is addressed to my grandmother.
Sixty years ago my grandmother began attending a psychology class at New York City College, studying abnormal behavior. For over half a century she searched in vain for a cure, trying to understand why her daughters had been cursed with mental illness. She left behind thousands of pages of New York City Mental Health booklets, newspaper clippings, and letter drafts to doctors and politicians who she thought might help find a cure. She also left behind hundreds of pages of hand-written notes, reminders for when she visited with her daughters’ therapists.
Today, sixty years later, I am attending a class, studying abnormal behavior, trying to make sense of the heart-wrenching story my grandmother left behind. It’s interesting to note that the first Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders was not published until 1968. As I scratch the surface of psychological knowledge I juxtapose my grandmother’s notes, the terminology and theory she was taught, to today’s nosological classification of mental disorders.
Here are a few pages of her 1953 psychology class notes:
Each Sunday I plan to post information as I move forward in developing this memoir.