I'll never have another chance to beat Terry Strader at Scrabble, though even if I did, my chances would be about the same as winning the Powerball jackpot. She always won. But the prospect of beating her wasn't the reason I looked forward to those games at her dining room table in Davenport, Iowa. It was Terry's calm, reassuring voice that told me things were going to be all right, that Kathleen and I could get over the next hurdle.
Back in the fall of '72 I met a lovely young woman at the University of Iowa's Currier Hall cafeteria and I was smitten. Kathleen Crews and I were married in August of '73, in the Rose Garden of Vander Veer Park in Davenport. We were deeply in love, but that doesn't always fix everything. Things didn't always go smoothly.
But beginning in August, 1975, we had a support system. In the summer of that year we happened upon Terry Chouteau on the St. Ambrose College campus, who warmly invited us to her wedding to George Strader, a young man she had rescued from the school's pre-seminary program. And perhaps because of his near-brush with the celibate, priestly life, Terry and George were champions of the institution of marriage. And that included ours.
Their wedding Christ the King Chapel on the St. Ambrose campus was a wonderful affair, with children from the Bethany Home in Moline, where both Terry and George worked, playing roles in the ceremony.
And as the years went on, our visits to the Straders were magical. There was “The Flame,” a winter gathering at what was then Terry's grandmother's house on Newberry Street, where a dozen or so of us sat around the fireplace on the rear sleeping porch, talking and munching on snacks. The highlight of the night was her brother Tom Chouteau's telling of “Nate the Snake,” an interminably long tale with a groaner punchline, but at their gathering, it just added to the magic.
More often it was just a visit, first at their walk-up apartment on West Third, then at their little house on West Fourth, and later at the Newberry Street house that became their home. We'd feast on Harris Pizza and then settle down to a friendly game of Scrabble, which Terry would inevitably win. But it was her soft, even-toned voice that provided us the magic, the unstated message that our marriage was more important than the stresses that sometimes went with it. And when we decided to have children, they supported us in every way they could, including becoming godparents to all three of our children.
Terry and George had five children, and they were all born by Caesarean section. She once joked that the doctors should just install a zipper across her mid-section. Of course, they were way ahead of us in the grandchild department.
Kathleen and I were both looking forward to the time I could retire. We'd move to Davenport and see a lot more of the Straders. Maybe they'd even have a Flame, with the iconic retelling of Nate the Snake. But then, sometime in 2014, Kathleen got the news that Terry had been diagnosed with Stage Four ovarian cancer. It's one of those cancers that's rarely detected early and has a pitifully small survival rate. But her daughter, Jennifer Rakovsky, who had overcome her own battle with cancer, got her into New York's Sloan Kettering Medical Center. And we got our hopes up. Way up. Terry can do magic—surely the magic will rebound on her.
And for a while it seemed to be working. The rounds of chemotherapy had not only kept her alive, but she recovered to the point where she was looking healthy. Last August Terry and George they had a 40th wedding anniversary celebration at St. Mary's Parish House. The magic returned. Terry looked radiant as she and George were showered with love from friends and family. And it was a time for friends and family to reconnect with each other, as well. One magical moment came when Kathleen and her friend Dixie Baker Lewis linked arms and sang “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”
Shortly after the celebration, Terry and George went back to New York, where she was to receive some kind of experimental treatment. We didn't hear anything for quite some time. Then in November she came down with a high fever. After the fever finally broke we learned that she would be evaluated—she'd either go into rehabilitation therapy or hospice care. And a few days later we learned she was going into rehab. Once again, our hopes were up.
Flash forward to Saturday, January 9. I'm on the phone with Kathleen, who's in Davenport to move her mother from an independent living apartment to nursing home care. She's under quite a bit of stress. So I'm in front of the computer with Facebook open, and I see the line, “Terry is back home on Newberry Street!” That exclamation point must mean good news. I was excited enough to read the line to Kathleen. But longer Facebook posts have that “See More” link you have to click on, and when I did, I found the it was anything but good news. Terry and George had been transported from New York to Davenport by private ambulance, where she would receive hospice care. I wasn't ready for it. Neither was Kathleen. The only good news was that she would die in her beloved home surrounded by friends and family. The end came only a few hours after I read the message.
Terry's gone, at least in body, but we still have the magical spirit she passed on. She spent forty years teaching all of us her brand of magic. I pray that we've learned well.