The zealous: A woman is driven by her grandson's death

St. Petersburg Times/February 25, 2008

The ashes lie in a tiny green urn, on the coffee table of a St. Petersburg living room. The room is filled with figurines and chiming clocks, beside cards and a photograph of a smiling teenage boy.

Olga Lindberg, 66, got the ashes by agreeing not to attend the funeral of her grandson, Dennis Lindberg. Her daughter, Dennis' aunt and guardian, made the offer in what has been their last communication.

The mother-daughter relationship splintered after Nov. 8, when Dennis, 14, was diagnosed in a Seattle hospital with leukemia. His doctors had given Dennis a 70 percent chance at a full recovery, provided he accept repeated blood transfusions.

Though badly depleted from chemotherapy, Dennis refused because he was a devout Jehovah's Witness.

In a case that drew national attention, Dennis held firm. He died Nov. 28 at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, hours after a judge denied a legal attempt to force the transfusion.

His death split Olga's family and tested her faith, launching her on a mission to sway public opinion against the church. She knows that in her grief, she has become a zealot as passionate as any church member. But she presses on for Dennis, she says, but also to purge her nightmares and her guilt.

"I know it's not right what I'm doing," she says. "But it's the only way I can know that my little grandson did not die in vain."

The daughter of a German soldier, Olga emigrated to the United States 45 years ago with an American GI.

She bore a son and a daughter, Dennis and Dianna. They were a military family, moving around the country and Germany until husband Albert, now dead, retired in St. Petersburg. Dianna attended St. Petersburg Junior College before moving to Washington state.

Dennis and his girlfriend had a son, also named Dennis. He was curious about everything, especially his German ancestors. When he saw Olga, he called her Oma instead of Grandmother and said ich liebe dich to tell her he loved her.

Dennis' family moved a lot, and during her visits Olga grew concerned about the conditions in her son's home, the lack of food and the adults who always seemed to be hanging around.

In 2003, Olga's phone rang. It was her daughter, Dianna Mincin. She'd gotten a call from a family in Idaho. Dennis' parents were drug addicts; they had left him stranded with a babysitter for four days.

"You go down to Boise, Idaho, and you get this little boy," Olga told Dianna.

Dennis flourished in his aunt's home in Mount Vernon, just outside Seattle. He loved the theater, skateboarding and the color pink. He dressed extravagantly, sometimes in suits.

In middle school, Dennis was popular and respected, befriending lonely or shy students. Or so Olga is told. Much about what she learned of Dennis came from Morgan Curry, Dennis' girlfriend in sixth and seventh grades.

He had also become increasingly active in the Jehovah's Witnesses, a faith with 30,000 members in Washington state, including Dennis' aunt. He used his personal story as a fulcrum, evangelizing to young people about the evils of drugs just as he witnessed door to door on Saturdays. He told his family that he wanted to be an electrician and help build Kingdom Halls.

Dennis was baptized in February 2007, meaning he was now ordained to do God's word. That was about the time Dennis' father legally gave up his parental rights, signing over guardianship to Dianna, 45. By then, Dennis' parents said they had stayed clean for four years but still had too many health and money problems to care for their son.

In November, Dianna called Olga in St. Petersburg to say that Dennis had leukemia and had been admitted to Children's Hospital in Seattle.

When Olga offered to fly there, Dianna said everything was under control. She phoned Dianna daily, and learned that doctors wanted Dennis to have a blood transfusion in addition to chemotherapy.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe there is no substance more sacred than blood, which is not to be "eaten" taken into the body as in a transfusion.

"He doesn't want it," Dianna told Olga. She said she needed to respect Dennis' wishes. To Olga, respecting a 14-year-old boy's wish to die seemed outrageous.

Olga began leaving messages on Dianna's answering machine. "If you let that boy die, you die along with him," she told her.

Dennis knew from church teachings that the penalty for accepting blood was worse than death excommunication and eventual damnation.

"If someone knowingly and unrepentingly undergoes a blood transfusion," said J.R. Brown, the Jehovah's Witnesses' national spokesman, "we would regard that person as no longer a member of our church because, obviously, he does not believe what we believe."

In St. Petersburg, Olga searched for a plan of attack. She called her son, then her lawyer. Neither could help.

"I finally realized that the Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in blood transfusions," she says. "Then I started to worry."

Washington's Child Protective Services contended that Dennis was too young to refuse life-saving treatment, and filed a motion to compel the transfusion. The state flew in Dennis' parents, who wanted Dennis to accept the blood.

Dennis was transferred to a hospice wing. His room became a rallying point for up to 20 Jehovah's Witnesses and family members, who slept on the extra bed and on the floor or spilled into an adjacent lobby. They played a video game called Battleship with Dennis, watched DVDs and ordered pizza.

Attempts to stimulate Dennis' red blood cells with EPO, a hormone found in bone marrow, failed. Doctors gave the boy a 70 percent chance at recovery if he submitted to three years of chemotherapy and transfusions.

Olga was allowed to speak to Dennis by phone. She pleaded with him to let the doctors help him. She heard several adult voices in the background.

"Oma, it's okay," he told her. "I'm going to meet Jehovah. I'm going to have eternal life."

"You need blood now," she said, before the phone connection abruptly ended.

Whenever Olga tried to reach Dennis' room after that, a nurse told her he was sleeping.

As Dennis lay dying, the drama of his refusal played out in court. At the hearing, Teresa Vaughn, Dennis' sixth-grade teacher, heard Dianna compare Dennis' friends to Satan trying to tempt Jesus away from being crucified. Dianna says she doesn't remember saying that.

In a highly publicized ruling on Nov. 28, Superior Court Judge John Meyer denied the state's request to force a blood transfusion, calling the decision the most difficult of his career. The testimony of Dianna and others about Dennis' convictions impressed the judge, who added that he would make a different decision if the patient were his own child. Around 9 that evening, Dennis died.

Olga flew to Seattle. She went to a memorial service with 150 of Dennis' friends, former teachers and schoolmates. Even more people attended the funeral Dianna had organized. Family members on both sides had agreed to a deal offered by Dianna: If Olga and Dennis' parents would stay away from the funeral, she would share Dennis' ashes with them.

Dennis' death consumed Olga, and she never stopped to grieve. Only her favorite TV shows 24, Lost, her soaps provided an escape. She threw away the Jehovah's Witnesses Bible Dianna had given her.

One Friday, Olga drove a few blocks to the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses on 69th Street N in St. Petersburg. She burst in on a Bible study and addressed the group.

"You are all murderers," she remembers saying.

The Jehovah's Witnesses were shocked. She looked "boiling mad," remembers Frances Boyne, 76, who was there that day. The Jehovah's Witnesses were familiar with Dennis' case. They told her it had been Dennis' choice to refuse the blood.

Olga addressed a group of children, the eldest about 6. "You and you and you and you," she said, pointing to them and then to the adults in the sanctuary. "If you ever get sick, they are going to let you die."

On a Saturday morning in January, at an Albertson's store, Olga buys diet food, deodorant, smoothies. She sees an older woman by the produce and pulls her cart up near her.

"Do you have grandchildren?" she asks. "See this little boy?" She shows the woman the picture she always shows people, of Dennis playing the guitar on his hospital bed.

"The Jehovah's Witnesses killed that little boy," she says. She begins to tell the story. The woman remains still and birdlike poised for flight. She says she has heard about that kind of thing, and moves away.

Over by frozen foods, she tries again with a white-haired woman. Angelina Fisher, 80, says that Jehovah's Witnesses would not be able to get into her gated community in South Pasadena. She soon steers the conversation to calories and yogurt.

After one more conversation with a couple who seem sympathetic, Olga swings her cart into the next aisle. Then she stops, rests her foot and elbows on the cart, puts her face in her hands and cries.

Olga carries the photo in her purse. She approaches customers at the post office. At the mall. In grocery store lines. She shows them the picture of Dennis with the guitar. Before she is finished, she will padlock Dennis' death securely to the Jehovah's Witnesses.

"When they listen," she says, "I get a little bit of relief."

Dianna is grieving, too. She remembers how firm Dennis was in the hospital how she asked him each day if he was still comfortable with his decision. Every day he told her he had no regrets. He hoped to go to sleep and be awakened into a paradise on earth, a restored Garden of Eden where there is no leukemia. A few days before he died, Dennis asked his aunt what preparations he might make for her in the paradise, should he be resurrected first. She can't wait to see him there.

Dianna says she knows the relationship with her mother, whom she calls "an extremely emotional, fanatical woman," is likely over. "My mother has rejected me because of my faith," she said. "I have not rejected her."

As Dennis' death recedes in time, Olga has trouble sleeping. She prays nightly for forgiveness. She should have known a conflict like this could have developed out of her daughter's faith. Maybe she should have taken Dennis herself when he needed a family, instead of giving him over to Dianna. Somehow, she should have seen it coming.

Every so often, Olga is startled awake by a recurring dream. She sees Dennis sitting in a bed. He is alone, and calling to her for help.

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