Friday, September 8, 2023

9/8/23—Living My Own True Crime Drama

There is a little old lady in Florida. She is probably 90 years old. Petite and feeble. And I have been waiting for her to die for 35 years. I wouldn't mind if she goes painfully...torturously. But the truth is, I would be OK if she died in her sleep. I just want her gone. 

Let me explain. 

When my mother died back in 1984, my father was devastated. He was like the walking dead. A zombie, lifeless behind his eyes. My mother was truly his soulmate. She battled cancer and, to the end, they were affectionate and, frankly, sometimes sickening with all their public displays of affection. They had plenty of flaws and novel ideas for scarring their children for life, but I was also fortunate enough to be raised seeing both their strong partnership and their soulmate love. 

After about a year of deep mourning that, at times, had his kids worried, he started coming back to life. He had met a woman. A few months later we met her, too. She seemed nice enough, but there was a vague something about her that troubled us all. Maybe it was just that we couldn't see our father with someone else. And he thought she was just like our mom, but we couldn't see it. So maybe it was all of that. 

The night we met her, while she was with us at a barbecue, her house got robbed. How horrible. Another notable thing at the time was that she was converting to Catholicism in her 50s. And despite having had three previous husbands and two children, she decided to remain a "virgin" until her next marriage. And then we found out it was actually four previous husbands, not three. Then my dad proposed to her. 

All of this set off red flags. So, one by one, five of my dad's six children approached him, the disciplinarian general, and questioned his wisdom. It was the only time in my life I had the courage to confront him. But he said we were all overreacting and he probably believed it was a case of adult children not wanting their dad to marry another woman. It happens. 

Life went on fairly normally after that. They married. They moved in together. And, as April approached, they were set to file their first joint tax return. 

On April 9, 1988, I had just gotten home from Popeyes. I will forever remember my order that day—nuggets and red beans and rice. As I settled in to eat, the phone rang. And in five words, everything that had been odd or off about my stepmother coalesced and I suddenly understood what was wrong with her. The words were "your father has been shot". At once, I knew he was dead and she did it. 

I know what you are thinking, "I watch CSI. There must be all kinds of evidence left behind." Or, "If she and he were the only people in the room, there are only two possibilities." With my father's long military history and being a veteran of three wars, there was actually only one possibility. He was meticulous with guns and everyone that served with him and hunted with him testified to that fact. I grew up in a household with two guns. I never saw them. They were cleaned regularly with the door closed. And we all knew if we touched his guns and lived, he'd kill us. 

Anyway, within an hour or so my brother and I were in a car headed to West Virginia where the murder happened. When we arrived there, I walked into the house and stood on the spot that, hours before, had been soaked in my father's blood, and I didn't even know it. The place had been fully cleaned. The furniture had been burned. And there was no police tape up. She told them it was an accident. He had been "playing" with the gun and it went off. They believed her.

An interesting twist happened the next day. My brother, accompanied by her two biological sons, went to WVA to tell the police that they thought she murdered him. I'll repeat that. Her two sons went to the police to say they thought their mother was a murderer. They said, "We are tired of losing fathers." My dad was her 5th husband. Only one husband made it out alive (their supposed biological father, though they looked nothing alike and were probably 13 years apart in age.) All the others died while she was married to them. #4 oddly left all his money to her, despite having two daughters who were left orphaned and abandoned when he died. I don't remember their ages, but let's say 12-16. 

When police determined the angle that the bullet came from above and behind my father...and the fact he had no gun residue on his hands, her original story changed. Now the story was that he had been playing with the gun and she got up to wrestle it out of his hands and the gun went off. Those were the two official stories, but her story changed with the wind depending on who she was telling. It was hard to keep up.  

The medical examiner determined my father was shot from an angle that eliminated the possibility of the gun being in his hands. That medical examiner had recently been through a messy divorce, though, and he owed his attorney money. His attorney was my stepmother's attorney. He revised the medical report to make it inconclusive as to whether or not my dad's hand could have been on the gun. 

Meanwhile, this story is the talk of Washington, DC. The trial made it to the front page of The Washington Post every day, above the fold. It was on the news nightly. The story was also nationally broadcast a couple of times on A Current Affair, a tabloid show hosted by Maury Povich. People are hanging on for any new detail from the trial. And there are two guys from the Air Force OSI (the group the Six Million Dollar Man worked for...haha) poking around in trash cans and listening at doors. 

One was an investigator/spy and the other was a criminal profiler. They told us she was a narcissist and a sociopath and a black widow. But they kept their information to themselves for the most part. Their official line was that they were there to help the WVA State Troopers with their investigation. But they were collecting evidence in ways that would be inadmissible in court. Their job, ultimately, was to protect the federal government from having to pay her my father's pension for the rest of her life. Requests for their work product under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) results in heavily redacted documents that reveal nothing. I just got a report from them...135 pages, but more than 100 are blank/redacted. We won't get more until she is deceased, and maybe not even then. But that's not why I want her dead necessarily. 

See, she was acquitted of murder. She got to walk free. She was just an old lady who couldn't possibly do harm according to a rural West Virginia jury. It didn't matter that there were two people in a room and one is dead and they physically couldn't have shot themself. She got off. And she has been living quite nicely off my father's pension ever since. Murdering my father was her retirement plan. 

If it all seems fairly straightforward for a True Crime story, it wasn't. There was a car chase as she left her home during a search with evidence in tow. She disappeared for a few days while out on bail and her son put in a missing person's report. (The good Catholic was later found to have been in a hotel with a man having sex, according to the spent condoms in the trash.) There were stories about how she was a double agent and one of her sons was kidnapped as a baby. So maybe she was also with my dad for the access he afforded her to Pentagon types. Perhaps she even hoped to meet her next husband. Who knows? It was hard to know what was true and what was part of her carefully crafted delusion. And here's another interesting point: my dad met her in the personal ads of The Washingtonian. 

The drama went on and on, which is why people were addicted to the story. And remember how I said her house was robbed while she attended a barbecue at our house? They found all the stuff she said was stolen behind a false wall in her house while they were investigating my father's murder. And then, as I said, on the eve of tax season when my father was going to learn that she had no income and was siphoning off of his, he ends up dead. 

So, she murdered our father. She was found not guilty. And for 35 years she has drawn what may be near six figures a year of your tax dollars. I want her dead. I want it to be over. I do not believe in closure. I think you have to make your own peace. But my family has gotten none of the ordinary kind of closure you'd get in a situation like this. So many things have been left unanswered. And, frankly, we have to live with the reality that these things will never be answered. And justice will never be served. That ship left port over three decades ago. 

She was found guilty of the stolen crap in her home, however. But since she had no priors, she got a suspended sentence. She is now a convicted felon, however. And we sued her for wrongful death. So whatever insurance was left over after her lawyers and our lawyers were paid, we received. 

There are tons more anecdotes and oddities with this story. I don't remember them all. She wrote poetry and did self published books back in the day when that was what you had to do if you weren't a good writer. There's all the intrigue she wrapped herself around in, like the spy stuff. And lest you think it was a government hit, while my father definitely knew secrets, he had been out of the Air Force for a decade by the time this happened. And they had 36 years of his service as a veteran of three wars to know he wasn't going to expose anything. They'd have killed him much sooner if they were afraid he'd tell any secrets anyway. Another anecdote is that, before my mother died, she told my brother to "watch out for the next woman your father marries." She knew his vulnerabilities and had some sort of precognition. And then remember the guy my stepmother had sex with when she was a missing person? He is buried two rows up and maybe 5 or 6 graves over from my dad in Arlington National Cemetery. He was likely an accomplice. No shit. His grave overlooks my dad's. 

Sample page from
FOIA document
So, for 35 years, I and my siblings have been living with this and waiting for her to die. It was a kick in the gut when my brother John, who fiercely wanted her dead, died before he got the satisfaction. Hopefully he is haunting her...and not being nice about it. But she just keeps living. Off my father's money. I think 35 years is very wait for wait for the government to tell us what their spies found. To wait for something—anything—vaguely resembling justice. But the Air Force feels we have no right to this information. Seriously, even my own interview with investigators was heavily redacted to protect her rights. I get she was not convicted and that's how the law works. But seeing so many blanked out pages does make me wonder if we will ever get any more information at all. 

So that's my True Crime story. There may be another post in the offing as I tell you how it impacted me and my life and why I won't be writing a book about it. I mean, seriously, I wouldn't believe it if I didn't live it. And no, we haven't heard from her since she was found guilty of the insurance fraud and went on to start her free life as well-compensated widow. Most everyone—the investigators and witnesses—are long dead now. Only she lives on. 

I know all of this is just fascinating to people, so if you have any curiosity, feel free to ask. Chances are good you can't ask a question that would offend me more than what I've already endured. 

Sunday, September 3, 2023

9/3/23—Feeling Human Again. Finally.

It has been nearly five years since I have made a new post here. And this post is in no way an indication that I am going to start blogging regularly again. But I have something I want to blog about. I need to get this out. And it is about my health. 

Because I know reading about other people's health journeys can be unfun, I'll go ahead and skip to the end. For the first time in over a decade, I feel like a human again. That's all you need to know. But I need to write about the trauma in between to organize it in my mind and to understand. Writing helps me think things through. 

Five years ago after a long illness and many misdiagnoses, I had open heart surgery to replace a heart valve. Basically, every time I moved, my mitral valve would not pump blood correctly. This made it hard for doctors to spot because when I was still, my valve seemed to work well enough. It wasn't until they looked at it when I was moving that they saw the issue and immediately scheduled me for surgery. The doctor said she was "horrified" by what she saw. Suddenly my complaints over the previous seven years bore out. Over time, I had been diagnosed with everything from obesity to asthma to hypochondria. While they knew I had a bad heart valve, they always thought my problem was caused by something else. 

Rheumatic valve disease is caused by rheumatic fever...or strep throat that has gone untreated too long. So the illness actually started when I was maybe 8. I never knew I had rheumatic fever, though I do remember a really bad strep incident. If it had been diagnosed, I'd have been on antibiotics all my life and doctors would know to keep an eye on my mitral valve. From what I can tell, antibiotics or not, when you get in your 50s your mitral valve will finally be damaged enough to impact your health. Can you believe that? This disease was in me for 40 years while it slowly damaged my heart valve! Mine went so long undiagnosed that a repair was impossible. So I have a valve made of pig tissue now

I always feel a need to say this. I am overweight. It is not healthy. But my heart has no issues that come from the horrible nutrition I've practiced all my life. All the doctors blaming my issues on being overweight were wrong. My heart was initially damaged 50 years ago. The damage it has now comes from the years of misdiagnosis that made other parts of my heart compensate for so long. There are no clogged arteries. I have plenty of issues from being overweight. But this isn't one of them. Doctors are frequently biased against heavyset people and it impacts their ability to treat them. My weight is what got me called a hypochondriac. That doctor—a doctor I had been to for years—made recommendations ("you just need to exercise harder!") that could have killed me based on his bias. 

In the last year of my valve journey, I no longer felt part of humanity anymore. I couldn't leave my house without someone to help me. I couldn't go anywhere because I couldn't get from the parking lot to a store. I had chairs placed throughout my 1200 square foot home so I could sit and rest on the 30 foot trip to the kitchen, for example. I fully believed I'd die. In fact, I was hoping I'd die. It was such a dark, painful time and it lasted a long time...long enough to damage me both physically and emotionally. 

Everybody talks about how, after open heart surgery, you feel so good afterward. That wasn't the case with me. I hadn't been able to move for over a year prior to the surgery. We are talking less than 300 steps on an unusually active day. So there was no cardiovascular capability left. And trying to rebuild in the wake of my surgery was difficult for me. I was OK. I could move about the house. But I still wasn't quite well. As early as last October when my sister came to visit, I was still having issues with energy and breathing. We went up to Skyline Drive to see the foliage. I could enjoy the view but I couldn't really get out and walk around. I felt like that was the best it could get. And I accepted that, because it was better than before.  

I'm not sure entirely sure why it has taken so long. Part of it was physical. I was having a lot of afib. I don't even remember how many times I've had my heart shocked now. Six? Eight? And I'll be honest, I didn't work hard at the cardiovascular exercise because it made me worry about my heart and triggered memories of all the trauma I had pushing my cardiovascular capability prior to surgery. Literally, I could have died each and every time I exercised per doctor's orders. And it felt that way. Yet I felt doctors were unmoved by my complaints. 

Last October, I got new medications. And things got worse. Then they adjusted the medications. And since then I've felt better than I have since I was in my 40s. My bad days now are exponentially better than my best days over the past decade. If I had to guess at what made the difference, it was regulating my heart rhythm. Once I started taking rhythm and rate drugs, my life turned around. I don't know why they didn't give them to me before, but they didn't. So there were many physical and medical reasons my health hadn't bounced back the way other open heart patients might.

But there were also emotional reasons. There was a time in my life I power walked five miles a day. I loved walking...and walking fast. I was a beast. But when you have a health crisis every time you head out for a walk, walking becomes terrifying. There were many times I "got stuck" in the middle of my walk and had to nurse myself home. I've only recently felt confident I can go for a walk without having an episode. 

Beyond the emotional (and just general living) trauma, though, I had spent years preparing for my death. I stopped dreaming of things I'd like to do. I stopped living. As I said above, I WANTED to die. I just wanted it all to be over. It was a very dark time and it still brings me to tears thinking about it. I have no idea how I got through it. Or how I continue to, because sometimes it gets overwhelming. My heart is not my only challenge. It just looms the largest.  

The part that hurt the most for me was having the doctor tell me I was a hypochondriac when I was in such "pain". This made me afraid to complain about my symptoms to subsequent doctors. So I downplayed how I felt. And even then they were puzzled as to how I could be feeling the way I said I was feeling. But they saw it. They saw that I needed a wheelchair. They saw my gray skin. They saw the lifelessness in my eyes. They didn't know what was causing it until they looked at my heart while I was moving (a stress echocardiogram). 

So in all that time, my body atrophied. My home got incredibly cluttered. My finances took a nose dive. I was having traumatic and post traumatic stress. I was depressed. Everything people rely on to live eluded me, even after surgery. For much of the past five years, I had accepted that my life would be manageable, but hard. I had long since forgotten what it's like to just feel normal. 

So imagine my surprise when, after my last medication adjustment in October and my ablation in spring, I am like someone who has never been sick at all. Really the only indicators of my issue in the past year have been the mountain of medications I swallow each day and some limitations I can live with—I need to avoid the heat...even a really hot shower makes my heart go crazy; I need to rebuild my ability to walk (I can probably go a mile right now, but might need to catch my breath); and I have lingering nerve damage in one of my hands caused by the makes two of my fingers numb and less capable. This last one is a daily reminder for me. I never not feel it. The damage occurred from the position I was placed in during my surgery. It's not uncommon. When I woke from surgery, my entire hand was "paralyzed". Now it's just two fingers that work well enough, but always feel numb and a little arthritic.   

But coming back to life has its own challenges. All of a sudden, now that I'm going to live, I need a life...haha. What I mean by that is that I need to dream about my life, have ambitions, chase goals. And since a decade or more has passed since the last time I had goals other than to live, I'm not sure what I want now as a 60 year old woman. 

Also, I no longer have an excuse not to clean my house and clear out clutter. I have made great strides in the past year, but am still maybe only a little more than half done. I also decided to do my own yard work this year (not the mowing, though). So I look for days cool enough to do that. And I am behind on that, but have done a lot this year. All of this is teaching me a new rhythm. I have learned that if I wait until something bugs me enough, everything will eventually get done...haha. So I'm not forcing myself to "get back to normal". It is coming in its own time—timing that may seem slow to others, but divine for me. 

I'm also leaving my house more now because I can. All my grocery deliveries have turned into grocery pickup. I will probably never grocery shop again for myself, but it won't be because I physically can't anymore. And I do normal person stuff more and more. I am and always will be a hermit, but my surgery was followed quickly by Covid and I rarely ever left my house for years. Covid doesn't scare me as much now, but back then I wasn't well enough to be a likely survivor. 

What I guess this all boils down to is that my life force was gone for at least a decade and it has recently returned. It is surprising to me. It's a new feeling. And I'm not entirely sure of what to do with it. 

Last week I had a dental cleaning and when the hygienist was done, I let out a dramatic sigh. She laughed and asked me what that was about. I said, "I don't like being inconvenienced. I lead a pretty blessed life." That is all true, but I immediately wanted to correct myself because I wasn't owning the two cardioversions (shocks) I had gotten in the past year. The two hospitalizations. The ablation surgery. The two upper endoscopies and one colonoscopy. The CAT and PET scans. The cancer diagnosis (I'll be fine). The echocardiogram. The thyroid biopsy. And the stomach tumor biopsy, along with all the blood tests. All of that happened in just the past 12 months—the year I finally started feeling good. 

The truth is that I have a doctor appointment at least once a month on average. I am inconvenienced at least once a month in ways that go beyond a dental cleaning. In my head, I'm fortunate. And I truly am blessed. And I DON'T like being inconvenienced. But I feel like I do myself a disservice by pretending I haven't been through hell and back more than once in my life. A dental cleaning is nothing compared to, say, the inconvenience of being a lifelong side sleeper having to sleep on her back with her legs elevated for a month with a fresh 12" scar going down her chest. Or waiting 35 years for my father's murderer to die. So I have been thinking about how I view the whole deal in my mind. It's not nothing and I frequently act like it is. 

I think that many people who have known me through all of this will say I've taken it in stride. Or I've been brave. Or positive. I've taken numerous knocks but keep getting up. That's all true, I guess. But I have also been deeply traumatized. Deeply traumatized. I have been frozen and unable to move forward. I have been lost. And I have felt alone, no matter how many people were there. That is the truth. 

Each day I leave more and more of that shit behind me. There are good days and bad days. But right now, even my bad days are some of the best I've had in a decade. I'm no longer drowning in my own fluids for example...haha. But I am still brought to my knees by it sometimes. Recovery is as much a journey as illness is. I wish I could be one of those people who just bounces back quickly. But my brain isn't wired that way. And just as it has taken my spirit a long time to live again, it has taken my body a long time too. 

When I look back, all I see is darkness. It was a very hard time. And I have a lot of work ahead. One benefit is that I have emerged from this mentally healthy and happy. I have moments, but that is all they are. I have recently gone off my anxiety/mental health medication because I no longer need it and it interacts with other stuff...haha. And in some ways, I'm the happiest and most mentally healthy I've been in my memory. Possibly in life. And that colors everything. It means I'm no longer bothered by petty things. And it also means I no longer tolerate things I once did. 

Essentially I wrote all of this for me. To get it on paper. And to show that, for every brave woman, there is a little girl on the inside who is in shambles, just trying to feel her way out. And she has had to make herself far more vulnerable to others than she ever planned. And that, even after she's had a lifesaving intervention, she may not be well. For me, wellness took its time, but eventually came. For the first time since my 40s, I know there's nothing "off" about my health that the doctors need to find. 

I spent years saying, "but it's more than that" to doctors who were just trying to get to the next patient so they could go home and watch CSI. It sounds harsh, but that was the case. Nobody was working overtime to try to save me. Nobody seemed to care. And yet that is what I and countless others who have faced a life threatening illness have had to face. 

Because of my spiritual beliefs, I think I was saved for a reason. I still have a mission from the universe that I need to complete. The way things went, it's a miracle I'm alive. There were many hospitalizations and 911 calls...many nights I lay in bed, gasping for air, hoping I wouldn't wake. But here I am, feeling better mentally and physically since any time I can remember. To have both mental and physical wellbeing at the same time, it may be since my 30s. And further reflection makes me doubt I was fully mentally well back then..haha. And, hey, I could still die at any time. But so could we all. 

It has been hard for me to be a great friend to those who are sick. It triggers fears and PTSD. I wish I could be the person others have been for me. I'm not there yet. It's still raw. And I'm good in other ways. But if you are and you know someone struggling with their health, they need a friend who will listen. And someone to believe them. And even cry for them or advocate for them. Or really just to listen. Even though I have talked about this a lot, I still have things to share. 

Ultimately, we are all alone. You can have a posse of fans, but you will still go through it all alone. Such is the human condition. But never doubt that that person needs you. Maybe they don't know how to ask. Maybe they have a hard time accepting help. Maybe they have given up. But try anyway. Meet them for a cupcake and a Starbucks and ask them how they are REALLY doing. After that, all you need to do is listen.