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I spend a lot of my time thinking and teaching about the power of stories. The way, at their best, that they can move us to greater empathy, greater recognition of our neighbor and our neighbor’s needs, and greater ability to act–whether that is in changing our minds or in serving in more concrete ways. Indeed, I think the most compelling reason for students to study literature today is because stories have become the fundamental way our culture processes information. In fact, for better and for worse, the going currency these days is not facts, but narrative. Narrative has assumed an importance that makes it vital that we understand just how stories work but also which ones are life-affirming and which are not. Stories both encourage and constrain us, depending on our own ability to critically interpret and respond to these narratives. In other words, story shapes life. And as Frederick Buechner has famously observed:

It is well to remember what the ancient creeds of the Christian faith declare credence in….For better or worse, it is a story. If the God you believe in as an idea doesn’t start showing up in what happens to you in your own life, you have as much cause for concern as if the God you don’t believe in as an idea does start showing up. It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in those stories, then they are scarcely worth telling.

So, though I had other things in mind to write about today, when I came across this powerful story–in the form of a very beautifully written obituary–I felt I needed to share it. I have rarely read anything that combines such raw honesty with such unapologetic respect and love. It feels like a model for the way we think about not only addiction, but our own failings, whatever they might be. As the psalmist reminds us, “Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story”–for within them we see glimpses of the Author behind them all.

Obituary: Madelyn Linsenmeir, 1988-2018

Our beloved Madelyn Ellen Linsenmeir died on Sunday, October 7. While her death was unexpected, Madelyn suffered from drug addiction, and for years we feared her addiction would claim her life. We are grateful that when she died, she was safe and she was with her family.

Maddie was born on March 31, 1988, in Burlington, Vt., where she grew up and lived on and off throughout her adult life; she also spent time in Sarasota, Fla.; Keene, N.H.; and Boulder, Colo.

Madelyn was a born performer and had a singing voice so beautiful it would stop people on the street. Whether she was onstage in a musical or around the kitchen table with her family, when she shared her voice, she shared her light. She was a member of FolKids of Vermont, a dance and musical troupe that toured the world. Maddie visited Russia and Thailand with the group and, as part of their exchange program, hosted kids from other countries at home in Vermont. She loved to ski and snowboard, and she swam on the YMCA swim team, winning medals at the New England regionals.

When she was 16, she moved with her parents from Vermont to Florida to attend a performing arts high school. Soon after she tried OxyContin for the first time at a high school party, and so began a relationship with opiates that would dominate the rest of her life.

It is impossible to capture a person in an obituary, and especially someone whose adult life was largely defined by drug addiction. To some, Maddie was just a junkie — when they saw her addiction, they stopped seeing her. And what a loss for them. Because Maddie was hilarious, and warm, and fearless, and resilient. She could and would talk to anyone, and when you were in her company you wanted to stay. In a system that seems to have hardened itself against addicts and is failing them every day, she befriended and delighted cops, social workers, public defenders and doctors, who advocated for and believed in her ’til the end. She was adored as a daughter, sister, niece, cousin, friend and mother, and being loved by Madelyn was a constantly astonishing gift.

Maddie loved her family and the world. But more than anyone else, she loved her son, Ayden, who was born in 2014. She transformed her life to mother him. Every afternoon in all kinds of weather, she would put him in a backpack and take him for a walk. She sang rather than spoke to him, filling his life with song. Like his mom, Ayden loves to swim; together they would spend hours in the lake or pool. And she so loved to snuggle him up, surrounding him with her love.

After having Ayden, Maddie tried harder and more relentlessly to stay sober than we have ever seen anyone try at anything. But she relapsed and ultimately lost custody of her son, a loss that was unbearable.

During the past two years especially, her disease brought her to places of incredible darkness, and this darkness compounded on itself, as each unspeakable thing that happened to her and each horrible thing she did in the name of her disease exponentially increased her pain and shame. For 12 days this summer, she was home, and for most of that time she was sober. For those 12 wonderful days, full of swimming and Disney movies and family dinners, we believed as we always did that she would overcome her disease and make the life for herself we knew she deserved. We believed this until the moment she took her last breath. But her addiction stalked her and stole her once again. Though we would have paid any ransom to have her back, any price in the world, this disease would not let her go until she was gone.

Maddie is survived by her son, Ayden; her parents, Maureen Linsenmeir and Mark Linsenmeir; her sister Kate O’Neill and Kate’s partner, Marshall Fong; her sister Maura O’Neill and Maura’s partner, Tim Painting; her aunts Beth Dow and Susan Dow and Beth’s partner, Charlie Allison; her beloved cousin Sloan Collins; and many other aunts, uncles and cousins, including the Conants, Cahills and Camisas. She is predeceased by her grandparents, Madelyn and Roland Keenan, Mary Ellen and Herman Dow, and Reginald Linsenmeir.

Please join us for a memorial service honoring Maddie’s life on Sunday, October 21, at 2 p.m., at the First Unitarian Universalist Society sanctuary at 152 Pearl Street in Burlington. In lieu of flowers, please consider donating to the Turning Point Center, a place where Maddie spent time and felt supported. Donations can be made via its website, turningpointcentervt.org.

If you yourself are struggling from addiction, know that every breath is a fresh start. Know that hundreds of thousands of families who have lost someone to this disease are praying and rooting for you. Know that we believe with all our hearts that you can and will make it. It is never too late.

If you are reading this with judgment, educate yourself about this disease, because that is what it is. It is not a choice or a weakness. And chances are very good that someone you know is struggling with it, and that person needs and deserves your empathy and support.

If you work in one of the many institutions through which addicts often pass — rehabs, hospitals, jails, courts — and treat them with the compassion and respect they deserve, thank you. If instead you see a junkie or thief or liar in front of you rather than a human being in need of help, consider a new profession.

We take comfort in knowing that Maddie is surrounded by light, free from the struggle that haunted her. We would have given anything for her to experience that freedom in this lifetime. Our grief over losing her is infinite. And now so is she.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

3 Comments

  • EMILY JANE STYLE says:

    wow, what an iridescent sharing, this. thank you! onward with stories.

  • Ann says:

    Wow indeed! What a beautiful obituary- raw, honest, inspiring. I agree wholeheartedly- stories are the key to connecting with each other in a way to leads to transformation of relationships and society. I love the honesty… a real affirmation of their daughter who suffered and a gift to all who knew and loved her and even those of us who didn’t. I think we all share this instinct in situations like these to hide. Not to allow the pain to be brought the surface and acknowledged. Perhaps we fear shame in talking about things like addiction, mental illness & suicide just to name a few. It takes a great deal of courage to speak the truth that everyone already knows but we are afraid to speak out loud. And I say this as one who has done my share of hiding in the past. Another one of those things we don’t speak out loud- infertility. My son exists because another parishioner in our church asked if she could be a surrogate for us. Hiding wasn’t really an option as our son grew in her womb. And both of our families decided to opening share our stories with our church family- not knowing how it be accepted. It was the most beautiful experience of my life. So many woman came and shared their own stories of infertility with me. I never knew. All those women healing my wound with those words I wanted to hear more than anything else… me too!

  • Lisa H Tice says:

    Would that we could all be so honest about the spark of God within us and the tendency to hide that spark from the world. A beautiful tribute to a woman who struggled in life and the love of God and family to keep her from her pain. Thank you for sharing this and for helping us to see an example of how to deal with the pain of disease.

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