I Will Not Grow Weary


I Will Not Grow Weary

They woke us from surprisingly sound sleep around 1 a.m. early Sunday morning.

Four girls, three of my cousins and myself, had fallen asleep in our grandparents’ bed, soothed by the scent of Grandma Jean’s perfume and Grandpa Russ’s natural musk, faded as it was. He hadn’t slept in that bed for a year and hadn’t held a conversation with anyone for longer.

Russ started showing signs of his dementia in 2008 when he asked my dad what the guy in the baseball cap was doing out in the driveway. No such person existed. For Russ, this was the beginning of an alternate reality that would slowly separate his mind from the essence of who he had been for a lifetime.

It took about five years for the disease to claim his mind, then body, and he passed away on the morning of September 1, 2013. His passing was a blessing despite the mass of emotional wreckage it left in its wake. More than sadness we felt gratefulness for the freeing of Russ’s mind from his cerebral prison, from the net of abnormal protein deposits closing in around his brain.

The doctors would call it Lewy body dementia, but putting a name to the class of symptoms never led to a medicine that could reverse the damage that had already been done by the point he was diagnosed. Damage to his brain, damage to the infrastructure of our entire Rolinger family that had been planted and grown from the nurturing Russ had provided. Russ created a microculture, a finely-tuned machine of a family built to run on the energy of the Holy Spirit that he so often prayed to bring into his own life and into the lives of others. It was Russ’s prayers that brought his family around the table for his favorite holiday every year, and every year as we hustled to prepare the Thanksgiving feast Russ would sneak away to type and print nine little slips of paper. Nine grandchildren were then gathered around the adult table to read aloud their portion of the prayer Russ had written earlier in the day.

What we have left of Russ are the prayers he carried daily, physically and in his heart. He kept a small prayer book inside his shirt pocket along with a photo of each grandchild, a collection he was proud to show any friend or stranger he made conversation with in the grocery store. Everyone was a friend in Russ’s eyes; as the long-time owner of the well-known and well-run family namesake restaurant in Waterloo, Iowa, he knew most everyone he ran into around town.

His belongings from the nursing home had been hastily gathered and brought home that Sunday he died. In the pocket of the last dress shirt he wore, a single page from his front-pocket prayer book remained. One tattered page, smooth from the rubbing of anxious hands, scratched with penned scrawlings and notations of each year he marked off the recitation of the prayer: "'94, '95, '96..." up to 2008, when the disease settled in. The first passage I see on the page goes as follows:

"Father, bless me, and through me let all who draw near me also be blessed."

As we sat around a table of our relatives, sharing stories in the midst of the great sadness of losing Russ, we reflected on the prayers he left behind on this single page from his book.

Tim Hurley, mayor of Waterloo, IA from 2004-2010 and brother-in-law to Russ:

I first met Russ over Thanksgiving Break of 1963 when I came home from Missouri-Rolla. Marilyn had written to me about him, but that didn’t fully prepare me for the guy. Up until then, I was the youngest suitor in the Stephenson clan. Denny and Camille were married by then, so I had a special place in the family.

Until Russ came along, that is. When I got to 434 Wheeler Dr., here was this loud, deep voice out in the dining area singing as best he could The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” as he danced with gusto with Marilyn! The end of my special place had drawn nigh. Happy, exuberant, smiling, laughing, encouraging everyone to join in the merriment…that was my first glimpse of Russ Rolinger.

“C’mon, Tim! You’ll like it!”

We hadn’t even formally met, and he was including me, encouraging me, challenging me. He quickly became a favorite of Marilyn’s and of mine. Dennis and I both slipped down a slot when Russ joined the family, and neither one of us ever rued the day.

Nothing changed over the next 50 years. I have realized lately that I learned so much from Russ, that I did try to emulate some of his best characteristics: humility, greeting strangers with a smile, being inclusive, fatherhood, friendship, fairness, love of family and not sweating the small stuff.

We all went through a “Good Friday” period when Russ died, but he taught us something in the way he lived that we should remember: every Good Friday has its Easter Sunday, that eternal life trumps mortal death every time…if we allow it to.

Russ did.

There wasn’t anything we could do at that point. Two of my aunts stood in the doorway of the bedroom and the room was suddenly a quiet sea of blank stares unsure of what was to do next. They left for the nursing home where our grandma had been sleeping every night after the nurses said Russ showed signs of being within days of dying. We went back to sleep. There wasn’t anything left to discuss.

Russ was gone. To us, Russ in his fullest form had been gone for several years, but we’d at least had the vessel of his presence as partial reassurance of having him around. Having Russ around, up until 2008, was to have his booming voice carry across the living room, loudly annoucing over the noise of a Packer game that he had finished carving the ham. Having Russ around meant we would have to earn our ice cream with a 20-mile bike ride, but it also meant getting another bowl of ice cream after dinner, usually topped with orange soda to make it his signature "Orange Blossom Special." Having Russ around meant everyone had a job to do and everyone was appreciated for anything they did to contribute. 

In the days following the funeral, I traveled back and forth between Madison and Waterloo to make sure I attended my first day of classes although my mind was elsewhere. The wake was on the Wednesday after he died, the funeral that Thursday. Standing with my immediate family, my mom's siblings and their children, and my grandma Jean, we greeted hundreds of guests that came to say goodbye to Russ. Many of them knew us grandchildren, even though we'd never met them, because at some point Russ had shown them the nine pictures in his front shirt pocket. 

A prayer service was held in his name and a few family members stood to tell stories about Russ. Every story told about Russ was like hearing a parable from the Bible. Every story ended with how he had changed someone's life, given someone that wronged him a second chance, given every ounce of enthusiasm and energy he could give. Having lived a life of service to the community, from running the restaurant to volunteering as a hospital chaplain in retirement, anyone that encountered Russ served as a living testament to his good will for all.

“In this world, even the sweetest place must be considered foreign and temporary-a mere stopping off place.”

Susan Rolinger, youngest daughter to Russ:

Growing up, us four kids spent time with our dad between the lunch and supper hour. The restaurant kept him very busy and was an integral part of our lives. Every summer, Dad would close the restaurant for ten days and take us on a vacation. Most often those trips were to a national park or historical landmark. We traveled by station wagon or van, Dad’s “jazz hands” shaking excitedly out the window drawing the attention of us kids to the natural wonders along the highways.

We always stopped at good restaurants along the way, often leaving the place with a stolen menu. My dad would end up wandering into the kitchen to take a look at how things were done.

In August of 1989 we took a trip to the Boundary Waters. This was an odd destination choice for our family. None of us did much fishing, in fact none of us fished at all. Cabin-style lodging that required a certain degree of outdoorsmanship was not our preferred accommodation.

We ate dinner one night in the main lodge. After debriefing the mosquito attacks suffered during our afternoon hike, my dad’s conversational tone became more serious. He chose this moment to break the news. When we returned home he wouldn’t be opening the restaurant again. It was not closed for vacation; it was closed for good.

My dad was retiring from the only life I’d known him to have. I can imagine that when my father read this prayer, he knew in his mind and soul that - as wonderful as life was, as complete as life was - the restaurant was a temporary place. He worked hard to provide his customers with high quality food and a pleasant atmosphere. Rolinger’s restaurant was one of the sweetest places for Waterloo and Cedar Falls families to dine, for teens to experience their first real job waiting on tables, and for me to grow up watching and working with my father. But Dad knew it was a mere stopping off place. He worked diligently to prepare himself for our true homeland in heaven. Dad is there, the eternal host of our Lord’s heavenly feast. 

My aunt Susan, Grandpa Russ and my mom, Cami.

The hardest moments are when I realize I can't call Russ to report a new record for my mile time during a run, to tell him I got a job up north for the summer, to tell him I'm still playing my violin even after dropping the music performance major.

I've had one dream about Russ since he passed away. It felt real and I awoke feeling like I had been with him in person. In the dream, he said, "Keep playing your violin." Then I woke up. He had always been one of my biggest supporters in playing the violin, from when I started at age 5 through every recital until my senior recital. With no musical background of his own, he always encouraged me and my sister to practice our violins and loved when we played a fiddle duet version of "Orange Blossom Special."

On the day Russ was buried, my sister and I brought our violins to play at the cemetary as the priest recited the final blessings on his coffin. As he was lowered into the grave, we played an American folk hymn we had never been able to play for him but know he would have loved. Even when he didn't speak in the final stages of dementia, he would light up at the sound of our violins. As we played on that sunny Thursday morning, I closed my eyes and made the music my prayer for him. 

“Every suffering is a task that God’s eternal love sets before human beings. I must remember this in the midst of my worries and my sufferings. Then I will not grow weary of carrying my cross or of doing good.”

Cami Smalley, daughter to Russ:

Dad was recently diagnosed and we were in the process of trying to understand what dementia might look like and the progress that the disease might take. We reached out to the Area Agency on Aging in Waterloo, both to give my mom a little bit of insight and information and to walk to my Dad through what they might expect.

My sister Susan and I were involved in setting up that meeting and then attended that meeting with them. At this point, Dad was quieter than he ever was. One of the markedly noticeable things about Dad was the quietness that overcame him with the disease, because in his youth and in health he was very boisterous person, very loud very animated. My mom told him to be quiet more than we ever had to ask him to speak up. That was one of the first things we noticed about him, that he was much more quiet.

We were sitting in a conference room and they gave us a folder with all kinds of informationand we were talking about what to expect along the road. Mom and susan and I were very comfortable talking about this and being engaged with these two staff people that were visiting with us and at one point one of the staff people turned to my dad and said, “Russ, what is it that you want?” and without really any hesitation he said, “I just want to contribute.”

Anybody that doesn’t know my dad might not know exactly what he meant by that but we knew in an instant because even throughout the disease, he would get himself busy in the kitchen, cleaning and drying dishes, moving things around your house, just to be busy. His motto in his life and in his work was “clean and fill.”

So Dad cleaned and filled as long as he could. He lived his life like that. You clean yourself of what’s not right in you, you reconcile. You fill yourself up with spirit, with love, with the joy of your family and hard work. 

Me and my grandpa Russ