Some psychologists want to drop the last initial in PTSD. They claim that to call PTSD a "disorder" makes the condition appear unusual. It isn't. They claim that if you've been to war, you have post-traumatic stress because war is trauma.
I can't help thinking such distinctions wouldn't have mattered to the woman in the casket yesterday. She had a husband who took Nazi fire at the Battle of the Bulge and came home with a purple heart from wounds that were visible--and some that were not. "He just wasn't the same when he came back from the war," one of his relatives said to me some time ago. Then the guy shook his head with a kind of inevitability.
Her husband died already 32 years ago, but he could have gone to his Maker at least twice before that, once in a cold winter battle in Europe, then again by a truck accident that did almost everything but kill him. She suffered through that also. It was cancer that took him finally. He was always a heavy smoker. She was there too.
She died last Thursday, her 96 years it's own kind of Life magazine. She'd seen a whole lot more than most of us ever will, a whole life of trauma, if you count the trials.
She had a baby boy in 1945, when she received word that her GI husband had been wounded in Belgium. She had to have understood that all three of their lives wouldn't be exactly as she imagined. I don't know if she ever talked much about getting the news--where she was or how it came. What her family knows is that she got that telegram with a little boy, six months old, in her arms.
The obit says she was born in Estelline, South Dakota in 1920. She went to country school through eight grades, then "worked out," which is to say moved into farm homes whenever and wherever women needed help, generally after having babies. Thirteen, she may have been, maybe fourteen, doing every last thing farm wives did back then, and they did every last thing.
The Dutch Reformed of Estelline in the 1920s were not affluent. Most had moved west and north to homestead cheap land, hoping to make a life on a landscape that wasn't particularly tamed. She was a child when the stockmarket crashed. I'm sure she remembered the Dust Bowl, when whole skies full of Oklahoma and Kansas dust drifted into every corner of a farm house.
Chances are, when she got married, she wasn't thinking about her sweetheart going off to war. It was eight months before Pearl Harbor, and it would be two years before he was drafted. They were in Iowa then, right up close to the South Dakota border, hilly Sioux County country, not prime land, but greatly livable. Knowing her, I can't imagine she wasn't happy.
Then came the war. And then the man she loved returned, not exactly the man she'd married. Back then no one knew the initials PTSD, and she probably wasn't the only woman who nursed all kinds of wounds. Back then, they just didn't talk much about it.
She and her husband had another five boys, six in all. Six boys trying to make a go of it on a hardscrabble farm.
In 1965, that oldest son of hers was killed, a passenger in an accident the newspaper described this way:
Early morning fog covered Highway 18 as the local men attempted to pass a gasoline transport. As he pulled around the truck he was driving east a milk truck. . . was approaching from the east. The Rock Valley man attempted to slow down and pull back into the right hand lane but in doing so he collided with the rear of the transport which tossed the pick up broadside in the path of the oncoming truck.She was likely at home on their farm when she and her husband got that news.
Fifty years later, she buried yet another son, my brother-in-law, after he'd been killed instantly in a construction zone on a Wisconsin interstate. He and my sister were on their way to Minnesota to visit their kids and grandchildren. He was killed instantly.
She was a resident in the old folks home. That time, her remaining four sons delivered the news.
By a country mile, her allotment in sadness and death exceeded what most of us will ever suffer. But yesterday, at her funeral, when the pastor spoke and her family reminisced, the sweet face that appeared right there in church was smiling because she always did. One after another, her grandkids claimed her giggle was perfectly infectious. And it was. I swear when they spoke, her smile lit up the sanctuary.
One of her sons told the audience that with six rough-and-tumble boys growing up on a hard scrabble farm, there were weeks and months, even years, when there was no end of trouble. Once, he said, when he was in it, when he was right there in the heart of horror, his mom offered him that smile and said just three words: "Count your blessings."
That testimony plays in a league all its own.
Funerals do good work when they concentrate attention. This one did.
Once upon a time, in a moment that doesn't need to be detailed, she looked at her boy, one of six, and this woman who'd suffered so much sadness, so much trauma, gave him a line to live by, a line that to me, up until yesterday, when he repeated it, seemed little more than an empty cliche.
"Count your blessings," she told him, smiling.
Never in my life have those three words carried so much love.