Saturday, March 10, 2007

Agonizing loss brings sense of wonder, gratitude

(Steve Emerson's obituary appears below. It was Phil Pfuehler and appeared in the River Falls Journal in February. I've known Steve and Ruth long before they knew each other. Steve work with my brother on the line at the window factory and Ruth was going to college in River Falls back in the 1970s when I was. Steve, aka, Spider was an excellent guitar player and singer and we used to be part of a group that would play together at his good friend Paul Brown's house. I knew Steve before our music encounters, but I never really talked to him. Are we got the music connection, I used to run into him a work and around New Richmond and have good chats about our mutual music interests. He was a good man and he will be greatly missed.)

by Phil Pfuehler
River Falls Journal
Published Thursday, March 01, 2007

Ruth Emerson’s husband Steve — still in the prime of life — finally died on Valentine’s Day after a debilitating struggle with a brain tumor. The official diagnosis of terminal cancer came eight months earlier on a Sunday — on Father’s Day.

Steve Emerson left behind three surviving adult children from a first marriage and two sons from his marriage in 1990 to Ruth.

Ruth swirled through an emotional and physical rollercoaster while handling Steve’s cancer the past year.

She hardly knows how to begin describing the ordeal. What she can say is that she feels transformed, and not necessarily for the worse.

“First, I’m so grateful for my faith,” she said. “If I didn’t have that, it would be entirely different. Some of this might sound familiar, but it’s true what they say about reprioritizing one’s life.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff. Remove clutter and uncomplicate your affairs. Get down to what’s important — like paying more attention to your family. Money isn’t everything.

“Keep God as your center. When you do, then what’s important becomes clear and is reflected by your actions. And I hope that this has taught me to be better at discerning what other people’s needs are.”

Ruth says that droves of friends, colleagues, relatives, neighbors and even strangers literally swept her along during the many months that Steve’s condition deteriorated.

“It’s that concept, ‘It takes a village,’” she said. “I was constantly so surrounded by people that it gave me the strength and focus and to be in charge even while in the throes of dealing with Steve’s illness that seemed to go on forever. I could spend a lifetime saying thank yous and it wouldn’t be enough.”

So many friends and coworkers flocked to United Hospital in St. Paul for Steve’s brain surgery last summer that the group got its own waiting room, complete with stove and refrigerator.

During the 4 ½-hour surgery — which only extracted 40% of the entangled tumor — Ruth said some 500 were praying for Steve’s survival and recovery.

“When Steve was back home, we had people bringing us meals, some we didn’t even know and even by someone who was 80 years old,” Ruth said. “Other people bought us gas cards and groceries, took care of our lawn, removed our snow, put up outdoor Christmas lights and wreathes, even drove Steve for radiation therapy treatments when I couldn’t.

“This whole thing just made people want to do something — anything! — to help. It was simply people’s goodness. I told myself I’d done nothing to deserve this.

“For me, all this had to do with Christ looking down on this community. Goodness is out there, and he was pleased with his sheep. This is how he intended things to be. The loving spirit was here.”

Ruth is from Austin, Minn.; Steve from New Richmond. She came to River Falls in the late 1970s to attend college.

Ruth didn’t finished school then, but she settled here and worked in production and inventory control for Kolpak Refrigeration — the largest factory in River Falls until it closed several years ago.

Ruth is now a teacher’s aide for special education students at the River Falls High School. Steve Emerson worked his whole life at Andersen Windows. He became a maintenance plumber.

Steve and Ruth were both divorced when introduced by a mutual friend. They loved playing in the summer softball leagues. Many of their games were at Hoffman Park.

“We’re conservative people in our spending habits and we live simply,” Ruth said. “We pay our bills and don’t have credit card debt.

“We were a couple who planned for our future, but it just turned out that our future was to be different than what we had planned.”

The tumor that eventually claimed Steve Emerson’s life is called glioblastoma — an aggressive brain cancer. Patients have a low-survival rate.

There were sporadic symptoms for months before an MRI led to the Father’s Day diagnosis.

One symptom caused Steve to block out sensory perceptions on his entire left side.

Driving to his older son’s swim club’s meet in Rochester, Minn., last winter, he missed a curve in the highway and went straight off on an obscure exit. Questioned about the oversight, he was baffled — for him, the highway veering to the left simply didn’t exist.

“For so many things at the beginning, he didn’t realize what was happening,” Ruth said. “Sometimes he would walk in a stooped manner but didn’t understand what we were asking about. He was lightheaded, dizzy and got some very serious headaches that went on and on. He would walk into things — on his left side — like walls. He became disoriented and stopped in the middle of what he was trying to do. He would forget to put down the garage door, forget to turn off the lights and leave the coffee pot on.”

At work once Steve “fainted” in the break room and asked to be given a ride home. Ruth later realized the fainting was actually a “full-blown seizure.”

Soon Steve couldn’t go to work anymore. Then he lost his license to drive.

Ruth said Steve long had a sense of his own mortality — his father died of lung cancer at 55.

“We walked a fine line between hope and realism,” she said. “He had a good grasp on reality but wanted to remain hopeful. No one wants to hear that you have a terminal illness.

“At the beginning, Steve didn’t want to look into the future. I had to bring it up, talk to him and find out what his wishes were, what he wanted to be remembered for, even things about his burial. Steve was more focused on the day-to-day stuff.”

Around this time Ruth discovered a novel way to express pent-up thoughts and keep the family’s many friends informed about Steve — a personalized Web site called “CaringBridge.”

Run by a nonprofit organization, the free online service allows users to create their own Web sites for journal entries, photos, updates and “guestbook” messages.

Ruth added hers to the more than 51,000 CaringBridge sites.

Ruth said the scores of online messages from well-wishers around the country proved to be “uplifting and encouraging” for herself, Steve and their children to read.

Ruth also got busy with her own journal entries.

“It was an outlet for me, a way to connect with people in a very far-reaching manner,” she said. “I usually wrote when everyone was in bed and the house quiet. I’m a talker, a get-it-out, get-it-over type of person. This was a way for me to let go and share the love. CaringBridge was a tool I ended up using to express my faith.”

Confronting the impending death of her husband tore at old wounds for Ruth. An incest victim, she is also a recovering alcoholic of 18 years.

“Despite all the support from people and my faith, toward the end of Steve’s life there was a ball of pain in me. It was pushing me to do something or I would combust,” she said. “It was comparable to what I went through in my recovery time from alcoholism.

“It was a feeling of helplessness. I felt briefly forsaken. It didn’t seem right for someone that young to die, for his kids not to have a father and for me to become a widow. Had I done all I could? You judge yourself but there are no answers.”

Ruth said her husband “never feared the end.”

“As a Christian, he believed in the eternal life,” she said. “What worried him was the in-between part, the getting there. I remember how we took a deep breath once, hugged each other and said, ‘Let’s make this getting-there, the middle part as good as we can make it.’”

That would finally mean ending experimental drugs and therapies, and discounting a second risky operation. Just before Christmas another MRI revealed that Steve’s brain tumor had regenerated to pre-surgical size.

“The medical field will never stop trying,” Ruth said. “That’s not necessarily bad because ‘halleluiah’ if they somehow find that one thing that will be the cure.”

Except for anti-seizure medication and steroids, Steve was put on an alternative vitamin nutrition regimen. Ruth had heard of success stories for the treatments and there were no harmful side effects.

But the new, non-medical treatment was costly — $2,400 for the first 30 days — and there was no insurance coverage.

Relatives and coworkers covered the first $1,200 with financial gifts around Christmas. The second $1,200 was paid for by an anonymous donor through Ezekiel Lutheran Church where the Emersons attend.

“It’s just one of the many miracles that have happened for us during this time,” Ruth said gratefully about the mystery donor.

On another occasion, Ruth had just paid $220 in co-payments for Steve’s medication. That evening dinner and a card were delivered by a caring neighbor. Enclosed in the card was $225.

“How do you explain those sorts of things that just seem to happen at the right time?” Ruth asked. “If it wasn’t for the tragedy, this was in many ways the greatest time of our lives.”

Ruth said Steve’s fatal condition also brought them much closer.

“Before we were often very busy going in different directions,” she said. “Now, we have become much more intimate, talking about things that under normal circumstances would have been put off for a later day.

“We went for lots of walks. We went slow, even holding hands. That’s something we never did. Steve was never one for public displays of attention. I’m the huggy, touchy, feely person, but he became more that way because he had to depend on me more.”

Ruth said that, more than anything, Steve felt deprived by his growing limitations.

“He couldn’t work, drive, play golf. He hated all that. It was worse than the actual disease,” she said. “The disability part was like being stripped of his manhood. It was a battle for him not to get angry and depressed at that part.”

Ruth admits she’s not always patient. Looking after Steve was a test. Again, she said her spiritual faith flourished even as her strength waned.

“Christ was able to love Steve for me when I wasn’t capable of doing so,” she explained.

The round-the-clock attention Ruth paid to Steve came at the expense sometimes of her sons — Lucas, a Rocky Branch 4th grader, and Eric, a high school sophomore.

“For a 15-year-old, the world still revolves around him, which is normal and good,” Ruth said. “Steve’s illness forced me to step back and stop micromanaging Eric’s life. I had to trust what he was doing more and question him less. Eric had to really grow up during this time and accept the situation. It was hard but good for him.”

Eric is an A honor roll student and a state tournament swimmer for the high school Wildcats.

“His friends, including those on the swim team and his coach, just embraced him,” Ruth said. “Again, they felt the need to do something. What helped was just being there for him — giving him rides, hanging out with him, maintaining a sense of normalcy.”

Ruth said it was much harder for Lucas to accept his father’s declining condition.

“He was scared, he got stomachaches and hated going to the hospital,” she said. “He wanted to run away and not see his dad that way. His attitude was, ‘Just let me know when Dad is better.’”

Ruth said Lucas thrived on the extra attention and support he received at school from his teacher Ann Elling and counselor Laurie Moyer, and from with his cousins, friends and traveling soccer teammates.

“They would invite him to their homes, which got him out of the environment of our house for a while,” she said.

Lucas gave Steve a Valentine’s card just before he died. It had a pop-out heart that read, “I love you” and “I want you to get better.”

Ruth reminds her sons and Steve’s other children that their father’s presence continues.

“I say, ‘He lives through all of you kids.’ There are his athletic abilities and the various physical traits and characteristics that they have. There are also the memories of him to keep alive,” she said. “I also tell them that he’s with Jesus and the other loved ones, like his father and a daughter who passed away last summer at age 35, and that someday we’ll all be reunited.”

Ruth said that out of the past chaotic year some things are now clear. The family’s loss and the community’s response have humbled and renewed her compassion.

“I hope that through this tragedy my children become better people,” she said. “We had to learn that it was all right to depend and rely on others, that you gain strength from that. My kids were given the best in the worst of times by hundreds of people. You can’t help but be changed by that experience.”

Ruth said the transformation is just as great for herself.

“I’ve seen so much selfless behavior, even from strangers, such unconditional love on our behalf, that I want to be that kind of person myself,” she said. “There are so many needs out there in our community of people hurting and suffering.

“Get out of our comfort zone, smile, be there to help: That’s what I hope I’ve learned.”

While Steve Emerson had life insurance and healthcare coverage, the Emerson family still incurred thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses and insurance deductible bills that depleted their savings.

Therefore, an Emerson family benefit remains scheduled from 2-11 p.m. Saturday at the River Falls Golf Club. The benefit includes silent auction, door-prize drawings, games, live music and dancing, carnival games, massages and more family fun

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Oldest Resident of Munchkinland Avers Every Detail of Fateful Day

In 1938, he heard of a demand for little people in Hollywood. He took a train west.

The New York Times

PENNEY FARMS - Like any coroner, he has seen some things. But one case stays with him nearly 70 years after the fact, like some old song he can't get out of his head.

He couldn't shake this case even if he wanted to, what with all the videotapes, the DVDs, the television broadcasts replaying the gruesome aftermath over and over, in vivid Technicolor. Those striped socks, curling back like a pair of deflating noisemakers.

The coroner's name is Meinhardt Raabe, and he lives in a retirement community tucked between here and there.

He can't see or hear too well, and his short legs need the assistance of a three-wheeled walker with hand brakes. But none of this means that at 91 he has forgotten much, because he hasn't - especially about that case.

Sitting on his small bed, his coroner's outfit stored in a closet, Raabe recalls a rich and varied life but makes clear that he accepts, even embraces, how his obituary will read: Munchkin City coroner, handled case of woman killed by house that fell from the sky.

It's hard to imagine now, but the freak accident was just one of many wacky events in a wacky, politically charged time, a time when monkeys could fly and trees could talk and life could change on a witch's whim.

With enchantment - or was it poppies? - infusing the air, a coroner's role was not so much to determine a cause of death as it was to determine whether death had indeed occurred. The victim's identity only complicated matters: As luck would have it, she was a witch, a bad one, from the east.

That is why curious residents in curious garb, led by a mayor whose shoes sprouted flowers, surrounded Raabe as he unfurled his scroll. With cameras rolling, he announced his findings:

"As coroner, I must aver, I thoroughly examined her. And she's not only merely dead, she's really, most sincerely dead."

If his words seem mannered, one should remember they were delivered in the singsong language indigenous to the region. And if his ruling caused some problems for the Kansas-based driver of the house and some grief for the victim's green-skinned sister, it was good news for Munchkinland, Oz - and Raabe, whose name rhymes with "hobby."

"I'm still getting mail," he says, pointing to stacked milk crates packed with letters yet to be answered. He just cannot get to them all.

As Raabe recalls in his autobiography, "Memories of a Munchkin" (Back Stage Books, 2005), he did not follow a coroner's typical career path.

The son of Wisconsin dairy farmers, he endured years of schoolyard teasing about what he calls his "abnormal lack of height" before wandering one day into the Midget Village attraction at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. Walking its streets, meeting its inhabitants eye to eye, he realized that smallness was no impediment to happiness. "It was a new world," he says.

For the next three years, Raabe worked summers with other little people at expositions around the country, often as a pitchman. He eventually graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a bachelor's degree in accounting, only to learn that no firm would hire him.

"You don't belong here," he remembers being told. "You belong in a carnival."

Raabe eventually got a job as Little Oscar for the Oscar Mayer meat company.

Then, in 1938, came word through the grapevine of a demand for little people in Hollywood. Sensing opportunity, he boarded a train due west.

In a place where people came and went so quickly, the casting director first chose the Mayor, the three Lullaby League dancers and the three members of the Lollipop Guild. Then he lined up Raabe and several other little men and asked them to say the fateful line: "As coroner, I must aver. "

"I read that line and I let go," he recalls. "And he said, 'OK, you're the coroner.'"

Raabe's pronouncement lasted only 13 seconds, and his lines were dubbed over. But he had made his mark.

After filming ended, he returned to Oscar Mayer and to real life. He learned to fly airplanes. He joined the Civil Air Patrol during World War II.

He earned a master's degree in business administration.

He married a cigarette girl who was about his height; her name was Marie, and her beauty stole his breath. Fifty years they had, until her death in a car accident a decade ago.

Now Raabe lives alone at the Penney Retirement Community, behind a door with a sign that says "No Place Like Home." Above his bed hangs a portrait of that girl from Kansas and her unusual pals; they've all passed on. So has the Wizard, who liked his drink, and the Good Witch, who was a bit of a prima donna, and the Wicked Witch of the West, who was the kindest of them all.

Every once in a while, though, Raabe's presence is requested at some Oz-related function; he is, after all, the oldest living resident of that faraway world. He dons his outfit, poses for photographs and catches up with some of the half-dozen or so Munchkin City residents still around: the last of the Lollipop Guild trio, one of the Sleepyheads, a soldier.

Despite that unfortunate house-on-woman matter, Raabe says his days in Oz were among the happiest of his life.

And for anyone who asks, he will say that as coroner, he must aver, which means to assert with confidence.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Golden Moment

Bruce Casey was thinking about all the things he and Nathalie have done together in their 50 years of marriage. There's not a whole lot they missed out on, he said: three children, four grandchildren, nice places to live, trips to Canada, the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, Niagara Falls once.

Pioneer Press
Thu, Feb. 15, 2007

He counted off his many blessings, one after another, on his toes. Fingers? He doesn't have those. Bruce has no arms.

Bruce is 85, Nathalie is 82, and they were both born small in a large world. They both had full-size parents and standard-issue siblings. And they've both had a lifetime to digest and shrug off all the insensitivities that are somehow reserved for those who are deemed different.

"I needed a pacemaker a few years back," Bruce recalls, "and a doctor described how it would work. He said, 'We put it in your chest and then run wires down your arms.'

"I said, 'But I have no arms.' The doctor just got up and left the room.

"He didn't even say 'goodbye.' "

I last wrote about the Caseys in 1991, and Bruce opened the interview by saying, "I'm handicapped! So what?"

Nathalie is a dwarf, Bruce is not. He was born on Dayton's Bluff in St. Paul without arms, a small body and one leg much longer than the other. It was not in Bruce from the very beginning to be overlooked in a full-size world; he played hockey as the practice goalie with heavy magazines up his pant legs. He even had a jersey from the Bluff Pirates.

"We played in the streets, and when a cop car came, I could move just as fast as any of them," he said.

When he was 21, it was time to vote in his first election. Bruce's father took him to City Hall to register, and a clerk there solicitously told Bruce, "Your father can sign it."

Bruce's dad said, "He'll sign it himself," and Bruce did, with his toes.

Bruce's achievements and his sheer determination caught the attention of legendary Minneapolis newspaper columnist Cedric Adams, who in 1936 wrote, "He's bright as a dollar … to throw (a baseball) he rests on his half leg, kicks off his other shoe and pitches with his long leg. You'd be surprised at the length of the toss. He's the kind of kid that'll take the gripe out of anybody."

Nathalie comes from Kasota, Minn., all 4 feet, 2 inches of her. ("I stand short and sit tall," she told reporters at their wedding.) She went to Gustavus Adolphus College for one year, learned watchmaking in St. Paul and has worked as a proofreader at West Publishing Co. Most recently she was a teacher's aide.

She caught Bruce's eye in the 1950s at a service club for the handicapped in St. Paul. She had just gotten a car (with hand controls), which bought her a lot of attention.

"Two guys heard me say I had my car, and both proposed to me the same night," she says with a laugh.

Bruce won.

"When you see a good deal, you got to jump on it," he says.

Bruce, a 1940 graduate of Mechanic Arts High School, tried once to get a job at a candy company but was turned down — not because he couldn't do the work but because the brass worried about what the customers might think if they found out one of the employees helped make the product with his feet.

He did get a job at the Goodwill Industries cutting stencils, operating office machinery, typing out paychecks and financial reports. In his spare time, he ran the switchboard.

With his toes.

Bruce also loved to play cribbage. One of his friends once told me Bruce would hop up on the table and take his turn at shuffling and dealing. People would gather around because that was a sight to see, and one time after a particularly good hand, a well-meaning spectator began moving Bruce's peg.

Bruce gave the guy a playful little tap alongside the head with his foot and said, "I'll do my own pegging, thank you."

Naturally, Bruce and Nathalie attracted attention, and a fund was once started to get them out of public housing and into a place of their own on the East Side. With the help of late St. Paul Dispatch columnist Gareth Hiebert and WCCO-TV's Dave Moore, the fund grew large enough for a down payment on a home they moved into in 1967.

By then, they had two children of their own, Timothy, who is an average-size person, and Sue, and a foster child, David. David and Sue (and Sue's husband) are dwarfs, as is Sue's son. Tim has three average-size children.

I know that some of her parents' determination was passed along to Sue because I once chaperoned a 30-mile elementary school bicycle trip around Bald Eagle and White Bear lakes in which Sue did the whole ride not on a 10-speed bike like the rest of us had, but on a little direct-drive toy of a bike not much bigger than a roller skate.

Nathalie and Bruce will celebrate their anniversary Friday. They won't have a big party until March, when Sue and her family come home from Salem, Mass. Now, they'll probably celebrate at their country club, which is the food court of Maplewood Mall.

Bruce and Nathalie go there several times a week from their Oakdale home so Nathalie can walk the mall and Bruce can pass the time with his buddies.

"It's fun to see the little kids and how they react to us," Bruce says. "One of them looked at Nath and told her mother, 'Look at the little grandmother!'

"I had one little girl come up to me one day, and her mother wanted her to come closer, and then I could see that she was very, very interested in me.

"She, too, had no arms."

What's another really good thing that's happened to you, I ask Bruce.

"Cordless phones. I love 'em."