An Extremely Lengthy Tribute For Our Friend
“Ever since I learned the meaning of the word, ‘Precious’ in second grade, I always wanted to be that to someone.” — Misty Stenslie
It sounds cliche: “How can you love someone you’ve never met?” I find it difficult for people to really grow close, when you’ve never met face-to-face. But Misty was one of those remarkable ones. A person in whom I shared the experience of being a “thrown-away child”. In the beginning we agreed, we knew each other without knowing each other. We met sometime in the Fall of ’09 I believe, thanks to the Internet, a mutual interest in art-work, and through a Boys Town Alumnus who was also involved in the Foster Care system. We often talked about how fortunate I was that a place like Boys Town existed. For me it was a “place” where I was no longer being passed around as she had been. “You’re lucky…” she’d say. “You got to stay in Nebraska. I lived in eight different states!!” Early on, Misty and I discussed the fact that even given the age difference between us, we had endured mutual experiences of extreme solitude and feelings of overwhelming vulnerability as we grew up. “Feeling alone, in a crowded room…” we called it. Misty and I were able to laugh together as we shared a variety of “becoming self-reliant” stories. The one I MOST enjoyed was her story about the Thanksgiving dinner she tried to prepare when she was 19 or so years old. How she befriended a stranger on the Butterball toll-free hotline to walk her through cooking a turkey. Misty dedicated her life to inspire, care for, educate and empower the lives of alumni and allies of foster care.
This young woman who so many people called “friend” impacted thousands upon thousands with her optimism, her love, her joyful outlook, her helpful determination. Misty worked to make this world better with her graceful dedication to her causes. We agreed that our art-work, though extremely different in composition, style and subject matter, was an explosion of happiness we were seeking in our lives. Joy that we longed for. Our art was a private way of sharing a salvo of hopefulness to the world. Our escape from depression and inner pain. Another avenue to share with the world, the desire for contentment and sanity in our lives. I can’t take credit for her little “sideline” of “snacks for art” or the greeting card exchange, BUT sometime early in our friendship Misty said to me, “ One of these days I’m going to buy some of your art as a gift to myself…”. “I’ll do you one better…” I told her, “I’ll send you one of mine, if you send me one of yours.” And THAT is what we did.
You’d have never known that Misty was enduring this chronic illness for which there is no cure. Due to the disease, Misty suffered from chronic fatigue, joint pain, muscle pain, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.. She knew that her life would be shorter than most and discussed it freely. In more recent times she kindly reminded me of the Alzheimers, telling me to “write that down and send it for me. I’m getting more and more forgetful” as we discussed a variety of topics. From afar, I witnessed her decline. On a picture she’d created in February or March, she captioned: “This is what I made today and another day a while ago. I forgot. I was so was happy to find this page with some painting already done. Everyday my closet seems to be filled with new things. Dementia fun.” Misty died due to complications from long-term lyme disease, co-infections and ultra-early on set Alzheimer disease. Misty was diagnosed at age 37 and has passed at 43. She often told people, “It should be called “YOUNGER onset”, not “early onset!”
It seemed our conversations always reverted back to art work. She said she enjoyed that most of my work was accompanied with a short story as to what inspired the piece. “I like reading your memories” she’d say. “Do you have any pictures of us together?” “No, we haven’t been that lucky” I replied. “I have Alzheimers you know, and I like that you share your memories. Memories are important to me.” Another time she wrote: “I can’t get myself to make decisions. I feel like my mind is empty and things I knew before now, have melted away…” At the end of our talks she would sometimes observe: “If there is an “other-side” we can continue on with our ideas when you get there…” “Awww, you’re not going anywhere” I’d reply… I am sickened that I never got to say good-bye and the tears are flowing freely.
“Misty was a fierce leader, creating a movement to unite the adult survivors of foster care with a brilliant plan to bring them all together to advocate for the youth still in Foster Care.” But her energy didn’t end there. Her art (what she called her doodles) will also, forever amaze. Not only did the foster-care world loose a hero, but the art world will also suffer her passing. Whenever my work seemed to lean towards depression or darkness she would remind me to instead communicate a spirit of hope. “Lighten it up..” she say… And I reminded myself that these words were coming from someone who also told me, “After I’m gone, watch for pretty birds and loose change! THAT will be me stopping in to say hello.” Mistys art-work portrayed energy, excitement, brilliance, colorful, whimsical and playful views of her world. “Doodles” that she freely shared with anyone who expressed an interest.
Very recently, before her death, Nathan Reed Monell pronounced a “Misty Weekend” celebrating her life. Misty wrote… “I am now overwhelmed with incredible messages and posts from loved ones all over the country (and a few from other countries). As many of you know, I am very ill with an intractable bacterial infection and young early onset Alzheimers. My time on earth is very short and I’m basically being able to share and receive all the messages that are missed by the dying. This is surreal, a little weird and incredibly moving to me. My memory fails me but my feelings about all of you are perfectly sealed in my heart…”, What a tremendously huge heart she had!
Misty had an “end plan” which she acted upon. The obituary stated ”After a painful six year battle with tick-borne diseases and early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, Misty Stenslie Claassen died peacefully at her home on Saturday, April 30, 2016. ” However, and some of you may be shocked, Misty ALSO wrote her own obituary which I will include at the end of this writing…. As someone stated: “It was not suicide but rather a choice to die with dignity”. Though it is painful to us all, that she is gone, please remember that her pain is ended. The piece I commemorated to her memory is titled: “Pain Free Evermore” Any and all proceeds from the piece will go to the Foster Care Alumni of America” organization as she requested.
My friends’ artwork won’t be her legacy. Her legacy will live in the thousands of lives she touched. The love and understanding she shared. The manner in which she celebrated life, and the bravery, the dignity in which she faced death. Misty, you were an inspiration to all who were fortunate to have been touched by you…. Until we meet again…
Mistys’ Self-Written Obituary
What a surreal and fortunate experience to be able to write my own obituary and message to my loved ones. Even better, because I knew my time was short. I got to hear directly so many messages of love, support, and memories! We had one heck of a virtual funeral party on Facebook.
After a painful, nearly six year battle with intractable tick borne infection and young onset Alzheimer’s disease, I chose to die in my home this morning with a self-administered prescription drug overdose. I wanted to leave this world before the march of Alzheimer’s took away all of my joy. It was not “suicide” but rather a choice to die with some dignity.
I realize this may be a hard decision for some people to understand, that you may even find it immoral. My process has been so very similar to what happened with my beloved 17 year old dog… when her suffering became so great that the quality of her life was falling fast with no hope of improvement, it was the most loving choice I could make to give her a swift and painless death, surrounded by comfort and love. I am giving myself the same gift. I do not fear what comes next. I am so looking forward to being free of the pain, confusion, terror, and other symptoms of my disease.
At this point, I don’t get to choose whether I will die soon, but I was determined to choose as good a death as possible. There have already been times I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize the person looking back at me. There have been times that my sweet husband has woke me from a nap and I didn’t know who this man in my bedroom was and I felt terror. I am at the point where palliative care workers through Hospice come to my home to bathe and groom me. I wear adult diapers. I get lost and afraid if either my sweet husband Jay, or my best friend, Connie are out of my line of sight, even in my own home. The trajectory of Alzheimer’s means I will soon require a person to feed me and know that I would be likely to aspirate food into my lugs. I am likely to die of starvation or dehydration because I forget how to eat and drink and no longer have the motor ability to do anything it. I am likely to hurt myself or someone else because I don’t have the ability to make reasonable decisions. Staying on earth now means I am guaranteed to die after burning through all of the social, family, and financial resources, leaving my very much loved husband both heartbroken and poor. I would become a shell of myself, perhaps falling into the common behavioral issues of constant sobbing, violence toward others, and eventual emptiness. I am not willing to let that be the end of what has been a beautiful life.
As many of you know, I had an extremely difficult childhood. I was the victim of severe neglect and abuse in my family of origin, resulting in emotional and physical challenges throughout my life. I spent much of my childhood in foster care, kinship care, shelters, and group homes. I spent most of my teen life as a runaway, doing whatever it took to survive, then as a ward of the juvenile justice system in detention, hospitals, and state reform school. Along the way, my excellent taste in people allowed me to recruit friends, staff members, and other mentors to tether me to my very uncertain and frightening world, finding the beauty that I had been missing.
At 16, I entered my final foster home with the Stenslies, whose last name I eventually legally claimed. They taught me that I could be my own boss and advocate. They opened my eyes to the idea of college and an entirely different kind of adulthood than I had ever envisioned before them. Their three adult children claimed me and have continued to be very important to me over the years. They helped me figure out how to have genuine relationships and as a result, I found excellent friends in high school (both at the state reform school and finally at Mandan High School) who continue to be important to me.
I have truly excellent taste in people. It’s probably my favorite thing about myself and is the thing that has made my life happy, interesting, and so worth living.
I was blessed with 12 years of marriage to my very beloved husband, Jay; where we fit in at least 50 years of happiness. Every kiss still makes me feel weak at the knees. I still feel excitement when I see his name pop up on the caller ID. He has dedicated himself to caring for me with gentleness, compassion, and grace. He is a recognized master gift giver. He has made all the little moments special. He is smart, wickedly funny, and strong in every way. We are the perfect balance for each other. I am the peanut butter to his jelly. Jay makes me feel cherished, and most of all, precious.
I was also blessed with many beautiful and special friendships. Connie Connor, who is my best friend of my whole life. We are so very different, but somehow compliment each other so well. Through Con, I got to be a part of the whole Connor/Wheeler clan, kids to love and watch grow up and show up for. Because of Jay, Connie, and other near loved ones, I had the honor of sharing love so broadly. Through Sue, Marnie, Fej, and Eric (friends of 20+ years,) I learned the true meaning of family, commitment, and unconditional love.
My life was so positively impacted by the entire Claassen family, the Franko family, the Stenslie family, my groups of friends in the Fargo-Moorhead and Seattle areas, and my work families from Foster Care of America, PATH-ND, and the Casey Family programs. I want to send a special recognition to the countless alumni of foster care whom I always thought of as extended family members. I was a proud foster parent and had a lifetime commitment to my foster children (now adults) Tomikia, Chris, and Sean. I am surrounded by love and I leave this world in peace.
In lieu of flowers, my request is that you do something to make the world better. Some of the causes I cared the most about were people in and from foster care, animal welfare, sexual/reproductive health, and equal rights for all people. Donations in my name can be sent to the Foster Care Alumni of America. Thank you. I love you all.
Safe travels my friend…. You will be missed.