Letter: Poems offers perspective of sister’s silent illness

We knew more about my sister Jean’s crochet and other handwork than we did about her poetry. In fact, we thought her one lyrical poem was a single depiction of her gracious and appreciative spirit; writing for her did not appear to be a common practice.

Jean did not go beyond high school, although she took a class at Carleton College in Northfield taught by Professor Paul Wellstone, long before he became a senator. At that time, he was growing as an

Happy Independence Day.

activist, organizing community efforts for marginalized persons. He and his wife, Sheila, started a movement to make healthcare accessible to all persons with mental illness.

And Jean could personally identify.

After her class, Jean and other supporters became involved in the Wellstone lobby, which started with Citizens Organized Acting Together (COACT). The mission then, in 1987, was to establish universal healthcare that also included care for mental illness.

As a U.S. senator, Wellstone worked hard to fulfill this mission, which was actualized in 2008, several years after he, Sheila and their daughter, Marcia, were killed in a 2002 plane crash.

The Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 created the justice needed for requiring that most health insurers cover mental health and addiction treatment in the same way they cover physical illnesses.

A few days after Jean’s beautiful memorial service in Faribault, Minn., her daughter Ruth sent Uncle Jim and me a significant number of poems discovered in a private space.

Jean apparently kept them secret to protect her children from her deeply distressed moments. Expecting similar sentiments to her one known poem, I opened the mail and found unforeseen, astonishing and exquisitely articulated feelings. I sobbed in seeing this side of Jean’s pain not before visible.

Coincidentally, the next day, the St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church Sunday Forum featured a speaker from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) who provided current information on its outreach programs. I knew that, despite my concern of not making it through a reading, I wanted to share with our community the profound thoughts Jean had voiced.

At the end of the forum, I stepped up to the podium totally at peace and eager to speak from Jean’s heart and let our friends know of the bravery it takes to journey through this debilitating disease. The response from the audience and the NAMI spokesperson was appreciation and interest in sharing her poems more broadly. Therefore, I share in the following poem the silent perspective of our Jean, who asked little of her life but a sense of peace and rest.


Feel the sun, even when

The evening shadows fall I

Can feel its warmth upon

My face and soul.


Once it was not so.


The mountain seemed eternally high

Impossible to reach the top beyond.

With its light, bright among

The shadowy rocks.

So close, so far away.


I fell a thousand times before,

The first shadow disappeared and,

I knew I would fall now more

Free at last.


Among the rocks I battled

With the demons, and had to

Reach among the thorns to find

Where the roses grow.


Each step I took was filled

With pain, and yet I knew

To reach the top was

To find a world where I belonged.


Where the sun outshines the shadows.

And laughter drowns out the tears.

Trust and love overtake the fears.

And, I am free at last.


Dr. Mary Etta Litsheim, Ph.D. University Grove

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