His dying wish

Cancer stole farmer's dream, but friends, family carry on
2008-03-16T00:00:00Z His dying wishJENS MANUEL KROGSTAD, Courier Staff Writer Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier

PARKERSBURG - The stench of 2,000 pigs under one roof would overwhelm most.

It is a clear, blue May morning and Steve Schissel, 47, winds his way through the packed pens in a hog house. It sits on 80 acres of land planted with beans and corn.

His uniform for the dirty job: Gold work gloves, blue jeans and a navy blue farmers' co-op sweatshirt.

"I don't even notice the smell anymore," he says, admiring his animals.

"They're getting to be a pretty good size. How'd you like to have one of them in your freezer?"

It is a life that can require 18-hour days during planting and harvesting seasons. Over the slow summer and winter months, Steve heads to the hog house and cattle barn at 5 a.m., works all day at the Dike-New Hartford-Parkersburg Co-op and checks the animals again in the evening.

But Steve, a bachelor all his life, doesn't mind the work. It keeps him busy, his mind occupied. That's important - now more than ever.

Cycle of life

Despite an early, painful lesson, Steve learned to love the cycle of life each farming season brings.

From the time Steve, then in fourth grade, met his pet calf, Harvey, he was hooked. He spent summers on his uncle's farm. During the school year Steve visited Harvey on weekends. He bottle-fed him, and the two never left each other's sides.

But one day his grandmother delivered heartbreaking news: Harvey had fallen into a water tank and drowned.

Tears wet Steve's long, dark eyelashes. At a young age, he had grown to love his calf - and life on the farm.

For Steve, nothing beats the exhilaration of standing in an open field, free from the scrutiny of men.

Farming provides a quiet dignity and self-reliance he has found nowhere else; not in the John Deere foundry where he labored after graduating from high school or even at the farmers' co-op where he works now.

When Steve works on his farm after eight hours at his day job, he knows the only man he has to answer to is himself.

On this May morning, the only sound disturbing his ears is the whisper of a gentle breeze and his feet striding along the gravel drive.

"You're out in the open. If any decisions come up, you can make them. You don't have to go through four or five people."

"I think if I do a good job, you can make a decent living on farming. You don't need 10,000 acres," he says.

Steve runs his hands through his thinning, untidy hair and beard as he says this. The graying, light brown whiskers around his mouth have grown long, reaching past his chin.

It is not a fashion statement. Since doctors tried a new form of chemotherapy in February, a rash has broken out on his face making it too painful to shave.

This would be Steve's last honest day's work on the farm. It is the kind of work he takes immense pride in; the kind of work he loves.

That month he talked to his family about his final wish: To keep the farm he built operating in case he dies.

"It takes a toll on a guy, oh Jesus," he says.

Cancer ward

Steve and his mother, Ruth Schissel, sit in the waiting room at the oncology ward of University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. He sits cross-legged, his hand propping up his head as he wearily stares through a stack of magazines.

"It's been a bearcat," Steve says through his teeth, resting his eyes.

He gingerly touches his side and grimaces. The pain usually comes and goes, but it has been constant for days, and he hasn't used the bathroom in that time. Steve finally lies down after 20 minutes. Just then a nurse walks out and reads his name.

"Awww, son of a buck," he mutters, pulling himself up.

The low hum of the ventilation system drones on in the white, antiseptic doctor's office where Steve, again, sits and waits. When the nurse arrives, he tells her he doesn't want to be hit with chemotherapy today.

"I don't think I could take that," he said. "I'm just miserable."

"You're making me miserable just sitting there," the nurse says sympathetically.

Now shirtless, he reveals a crescent-shaped scar that arcs just above his belly button where doctors removed a pea-sized growth from the tip of his liver more than a year ago.

Doctors estimate Steve's cancer started with a polyp in his colon when he was 37. Steve went in for a colonoscopy at 44, but it was too late: The cancer was confined to his colon when discovered, but has since spread to his lymph nodes and liver.

As the nurse tries to figure out what's causing the pain - Steve assures her he is eating a little and drinking plenty of fluids - his mother says Steve is now on his third experimental treatment.

The last treatment hit his body hard: Five different chemotherapy drugs in four hours left him vomiting and with sores in his mouth. It now takes him about a week to get back on his feet following each regimen.

Ruth is a small, bespectacled woman with a round, kind face and a soft voice. She knows Steve is running out of options - he has been on chemo for two of the past three years - but she hasn't given up hope. She doesn't want to admit yet that she will lose her son to the same scourge that killed her husband at age 54.

"We gotta just keep hoping and praying that something is going to work," she says.

His life's dream

When Steve bought his acres of farm land in his early 30s, he fulfilled a lifelong dream. It was no small feat and a significant risk: Rising land prices and government subsidies that favor large, corporate farms have been pushing families out of the business for years.

"You don't make a lot of money on the small acres - you can't," says Merle Menken, Steve's best friend and trusted farmhand. "There are those hanging in that are trying to keep everything going. Now it's mostly older people hanging on."

Yet Steve jumped at the chance to stick his foot in the door. Like other young farmers who risk getting into the business, he has tried to expand and increase profits - he rents 155 acres and would like to some day triple the amount of land he owns - but he hasn't found the right combination of location and price.

It is June and the bright green corn has sprouted a few inches above the black soil. Menken does all the field work these days and helps with the livestock.

Every afternoon on his way to the farm, Menken walks past a Harley Davidson on the enclosed deck and a pool table in the living room to reach Steve's bedroom. The cancer has advanced to the point that Steve is in too much pain to move on most days, and Menken wants to make sure he has everything he needs.

The farm work is not a paid position. It is just something Menken, head of maintenance at the local school district, calls "a fun, friendship deal."

"He's real damn good. He's helped me out a lot," Steve says of his buddy.

Farming is how the pair first met. More than 25 years ago Menken came into a feed company where Steve worked with his dad to set up an account.

Menken talks about farming in much the same way as Steve:

"When I get out in the field, there's no pressure. Nobody's bothering me. I can just go at my own pace, and get it done and watch it grow."

"That's what I enjoy about it. You work the ground up, you plant it and then you get to watch it grow. At the end of the year you get the harvest, and you hope that you've done good."

The pair share a weathered, creased look forged from a lifetime of labor. They also share a bond formed by a love for well-tilled soil, one that is maintained by uncommon loyalty: Menken, 59, has been married to the same woman since he was 18; friends and family say Steve would give his last nickel to a friend in need.

Though deep, the friendship is often a quiet one. Steve rarely talks about his cancer, except to family.

"I had to find out from his family what was actually going on," Menken says. "He didn't want to tell me. He didn't want to bother me with it."

Family curse

Lying in an Iowa City hotel room after another visit to the University of Iowa hospital, Steve watches a NASCAR race while he waits for his family to return from a late lunch.

He says he is a big fan of Dale Jarrett. He has a stronger opinion about Jeff Gordon, the clean-cut superstar driver known for his good looks and Hollywood persona.

"I don't care for his bull …," he says.

His thoughts then shift to his father, Rod Schissel, who died when he was 54 from "the same dang thing I have."

"I realize what my dad went through. I realize the pain now that he went through," he says. "He would have been 70 in July."

When his mother, Ruth, returns, she's accompanied by Steve's sister, Della Kobliska; his brother, Lee Schissel; and Lee's wife, Laurie. Ruth walks to the microwave to warm some leftover pasta for Steve, then cuts it into bite-size pieces. She takes a seat on the bed across from him and watches him eat.

"Good isn't it? Laurie had that for dinner," she says.

After dinner Steve lies down, his teeth bared in pain. His body is so sensitive simply touching the mattress causes discomfort.

Ruth stands up, walks to the hotel window and stares outside. She says doctors found a tumor on the back of Steve's neck and in lymph nodes located in his chest. He's lost seven pounds in the past week. It is clear there isn't much more to do but to shrink the tumors through radiation.

"This is for pain relief now," she says.

On June 27, Steve again rides down to Iowa City, but this time lying on a mattress in a conversion van. When the doctor suggests another round of chemotherapy, Steve says he has fought long enough: He wants to enter home hospice care.

For nearly three months, Ruth sets her alarm twice a night to give Steve pain pills, which allow him to rest in relative comfort. It isn't easy.

"A lot of times I couldn't take it. I'd break down crying. He'd tell me, 'Mom, just get out,'" she would say months later. "It was a lot harder for me, I know, than him."

Thirst for adventure

The corn has grown chest height by the time RAGBRAI rolls around. Bicycles will soon pass Steve's farm, and he plans on watching the riders zoom by from his home.

Lying in a first-floor bedroom in his old farmhouse, Steve says his dream was to tear down the building and put up a huge shed with a tin roof and sides that would double as a house. It would be the ultimate bachelor pad, with a canopy kitchen, a bar area with stools and a pool room.

His mother often suggested he think about resale value, but Steve says that isn't a concern.

"You can fix that up nice. You can live cheap," he says.

Steve has never shied away from an adventure, especially if it involves his Harley. Seven years ago he rode with a friend to Alaska on his hog. He regularly takes his bike up to Sturgis, S.D., for the annual biker rally. Steve says he rests easy knowing he has lived life to the fullest.

Almost harvest time

It is nearly harvest time, the end of another farming season. On Sept. 22, Steve hasn't eaten all day and decides he wants to try some of his brother's omelets for dinner.

After a few bites he tells Laurie, his sister-in-law, that a beer would taste great.

"But should I have it with my morphine?" he says.

"What's it going to do, kill ya, Steve?" Laurie replies.

So he drinks half a glass of beer. It tastes good. Then, even though he hasn't been out of bed for days, he walks around the edge of his house, winding his way through his living room, dining room, kitchen and back to his bedroom.

That night, Steve starts feeling worse, and his mother nears a breaking point. Steve has experienced more pain than her husband, and it is difficult to watch him suffer. She hasn't slept much since early summer. Lifting his body when he needs to use to the bathroom, even at his bedside, requires more strength than her 69-year-old body can muster.

Steve resolves to move to a hospice home on Monday, for his mother's sake.

Sunday night, the nurse instructs Laurie to give Ruth a cocktail of sleeping pills, and she sleeps for seven straight hours for the first time in months.

Ruth wakes at 4 a.m. to a commotion. Laurie and a cousin have stayed up all night with Steve. The pain pills aren't working , and he's been uncomfortable and anxious for hours: No matter what position he takes, he's having trouble breathing.

"He was too weak to sit up, but he couldn't breathe lying down," Laurie would say later. "We'd go sit him up and he'd tell us, 'Let's rock and roll.' So he still had the humor going for him."

When the nurse arrives, she administers a liquid pain medicine that calms Steve. At the urging of the hospice nurse, they tell Steve it is OK to let go whenever he feels ready. That morning the family takes turns walking into his bedroom to talk to him.

After Della walks in to assure him that they will take care of each other, she sits down at a table outside his room where the family has congregated. Laurie takes one look in at Steve, and she knows it is his time.

At 10:15 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 24, 2007, Steve died after a three-year, nine-month battle with cancer. He was 47.

Friends to the end

On Friday, Steve's funeral in Dike is attended by several hundred people. After the service his best friend, Merle Menken, turns the ignition, and Steve's Harley lets out its signature, guttural roar. Menken leads a procession of motorcycles from the church to the cemetery.

It is not unusual for family farmers to help each other out, but an exceptional number of people come out to work on Steve's corn harvest.

Thirteen of Steve's friends arrive with five combines and countless tractors and wagons on a clear, crisp October morning. They finish a job before noon that would have normally taken two days.

"When somebody's down and out around here, you go and help 'em," says Bryan Redenius, a friend and neighbor.

His brother, Lee, has moved to Waverly to work as an accountant for AgVantage FS. In charge of the business side of Steve's farm, he balances the books and tracks the price of corn daily.

This winter it wasn't unusual for Lee to work past midnight as he learned the finer points of the business. He admires Steve's ability to run it smoothly.

"Financially, he's got things set fairly decent," he said. "The first hog house is pretty self-sufficient right now, and the other one will be paid off soon."

Life goes on

As spring approaches, Merle Menken readies himself for another farming season. His daily trips to check on livestock this winter accustomed him to not heading into the farm house to check on Steve. Still, this will be his first planting season in years without him.

"I'm sure this spring when I get the tractors out and the planter out and everything, boy, it'll be on my mind a lot about him," he says

Contact Jens Manuel Krogstad at (319) 291-1580 or jens.krogstad@wcfcourier.com.

Copyright 2015 Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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