Oddchester: Finding peace in a life with an end date
Steve Zeldenrust is dying.
He knows it. We know it. And, maybe most importantly here, he knows we know it.
It’s a Thursday night in December 2018 at the Crooked Pint, and a few of us have gotten together for beers and, honestly, to see Steve for what could be the last time.
He’ll have 207 days to live.
Steve has known he’s dying, probably, since 2008. Ten years.
He has known what he’s in for. He’s a cancer doc, a well-respected hematologist at Mayo Clinic.
We met a decade ago while playing recreation league volleyball at the National Volleyball Center. We played on Monday nights for years. Steve was an athlete — played D3 football in college. And, man, could he jump. I was a setter. He made me look good.
Over the years, like a lot of us, Steve’s vertical leap kept getting lower. His stomach kept getting bigger.
And, like all good friends would, we mocked him about it on post-game nights at Whistle Binkies.
He was working out. Eating better. Drinking less. But he couldn’t lose that stomach.
When he went in for tests they found a basketball-sized tumor in his stomach. It was a rare form of cancer: Liposarcoma.
"You can either choose to mourn all the things that could have or should have been in your life," he said. "Or look at all the blessings in your life and rejoice."
Steve Zeldenrust chose the blessings.
Steve’s a religious guy. He quotes from the Bible. Grills me about my faith.
He just wants others —and me — to find the peace he’s found.
Oh, he struggled. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually.
"Sometimes, the cancer was all I could think about," he said. "Sometimes it was far from my mind, like a storm cloud out on the horizon."
Then, he said, he saw a vision from God.
"God showed me that he, not me, was in control of the situation," he explained. "That vision filled me with a peace I couldn’t find on my own."
He started to see every day as a blessing. He found himself smiling while doing things like drinking coffee with his wife, Deb, in the morning.
He watched both sons grow up and graduate. Attended both of their weddings. Saw grandson Theodore arrive. Then grandson Micah.
Steve bought a Harley-Davidson, even got Deb to ride with him.
"I’ve got cancer," he said. "How could she say no to a guy with cancer?"
We would ride together, Steve and I. Meet at the old-timey gas station on Highway 63 between Rochester and Zumbro Falls. Ride along the Mississippi. Stop for coffee in Wabasha. He never once complained about his health.
Eventually, the rides got fewer and farther between. He put his Harley up for sale.
In spring of 2018, the tumor had regrown to a point where he and Deb met with his surgeon yet again. This time, though, surgery wouldn’t help. Chemo wouldn’t work. Radiation was useless. There was nothing more they could do.
"Even though we’d been preparing ourselves for 10 years, that news was still hard to hear," he said. "But the fear and uncertainty were gone."
So here we are, in the Crooked Pint in the middle of December. Watching Steve’s Chicago Black Hawks on the TV. Listening to him brag about his kids. Rehashing old volleyball stories.
Here’s the closest we come to talking about his cancer: We’ve got one giant cheese curd left. And no one wants the last one.
Finally, Steve says, "I’ll take it. I’m the only one who doesn’t have to worry about my stomach getting any bigger."
We all laugh until we’re almost crying. That’s it. That’s our deep discussion on death.
I’ll see Steve a few more times after that. The last time, in mid-June, we get together at his house to watch an NHL playoff game.
He’s house-bound, by then, and relying on in-home hospice.
Steve, though, is still counting his blessings.
He spends days building and painting miniature figurines from Warhammer, a board game he and his sons like to play.
He’s still laughing. Making jokes about me finishing off the beers that he’ll never get to drink. Still asking me about my faith, just wanting me — anyone who will listen, really — to find that peace that he’s found.
A few weeks later, I get a text from Deb. Steve is gone.
But Steve’s "counting your blessings" thing, I hope that lesson sticks with me forever.