Bruce Kramer: The last conversation

Bruce Kramer at his Hopkins home
Bruce Kramer at home Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, in the Hopkins condo he and his wife Ev Emerson moved to after his diagnosis.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2012

Listeners to Morning Edition have spent the better part of four years getting to know Bruce Kramer, a Twin Cities man who lived a remarkably rich and full life while his body was slowly being destroyed by ALS, an incurable and ultimately fatal motor neuron disease.

Kramer died March 23 at age 59. A memorial service will be held Saturday morning at Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina.

A few months ago, concerned that he might soon lose his voice, Kramer wanted to make sure we recorded his thoughts on a few important subjects.

"ALS at least gives you warning that it's coming and because you know it is coming you can prepare for it," he said. "You don't like it, but here it is. So actually I'm feeling quite grateful and I'm at a point where I'm very happy to accept what is coming."

Here is an adapted record of our final conversation on grief, loss and saying goodbye.

I know you're worn out physically, but do you feel worn out spiritually?

"You know, it's funny. I can't move, and you can see that. And yet inside I feel this spirit bouncing around and every once in a while it finds a way to come out. I actually feel like I'm joining something much greater than myself.

"I actually feel like I'm joining something much greater than myself."

"Of course I'm sad. I can't think of not being with my family, because that really takes me to a space that's hard to take. I find there is an intimacy in dying that if you allow it, if you will embrace it, it is very beautiful. It's not a happy space because of course we mourn loss and we perceive it as loss, but I really do feel I'm being prepared for something far greater than me."

"We humans tend to interpret the loss as the wrong side of the equation, as if loss could be controlled. As if we were never going to lose. And we have so much evidence in front of us that says this is a silly belief."

We still hang onto it, though.

"We do. Loss is the process that we need in order to replace something with something else ... something that actually is transformative or transcendent. Something that builds us beyond what we were before.

"We don't learn when everything is going well. ... Where we learn and where we grow is when we're challenged, and in the end, every human will lose everything. There will be enormous loss and in that loss is great opportunity. Opportunity to build the human that you want to become. And so I see this as a way of flipping the loss, of building in new things that make me a better person in the long run."

You said something interesting about transcendence and becoming the person you've always wanted to be. Are you at that stage?

"I don't believe I'll ever be there, but I feel like I'm getting closer.

"I want to be a person that inspires other people to love ... to help people to see the love that they carry in their hearts. And I want to be a person that helps people to see the compassion that all of us need and all of us deserve by the fact of being human. And, I think that as the progression continues with ALS, there are lots of choices as to how to deal with it. Love and compassion strike me as probably the best. So, I keep getting closer. I don't know if I'll hit that bull's-eye, but I keep getting closer."

When my father died, somebody close to me said loss can be healing. Talking with you today, I wonder if there is truth in that — that there can be healing in loss.

"There can be. But I think you have to be very conscious. ... It will happen because you consciously open yourself to it. And opening yourself to it means that the wounds of the loss have to be open at first. They can't just hang out to scar over. Scar tissue, as we know, is much less flexible than the skin that it replaces. I think that works emotionally as well. Remaining open, trying to limit the scarring — and, instead, looking for what can be the growth out of this — takes a little discipline."

I think many of our listeners would say that that's exactly what you've done since your diagnosis.

"I've tried to, not always with great success. And when I don't succeed — probably the greatest thing that I've learned is to forgive myself for that. The forgiveness is very important in this process.

"So, in the end, there will be sadness. There is sadness. I live in a very sad space. But it's a beautiful space. There will be grief. I live in a space where there is grieving. But there is great joy in grief, and there is great happiness in sadness.

"I have been given enormous gifts in this process that have allowed me to see things that I never thought I would ever see. So the grief — I don't think it's something to be perseverated on. I think, instead, it's the choice. And in the choice comes growth, or not."

It has been a remarkable series of conversations and a remarkable relationship with you and our listeners. What has this series meant to you?

"First, as I've told you, I wouldn't have done this with just anyone. I needed to work with someone who had the courage to maybe grow beyond the tenets of the profession. Don't think that I don't know what this has been like for you. I am so honored to have worked with you in that process.

"I also think the medium of radio is a really good way to do this, because we don't have to get so involved in the voyeurism of disease. The visual can be so frightening, and there's no reason to get frightened, but rather listen to the words and feel the emotion and sense the spirit.

"So those are kind of background pieces. As to the why ... the why is big. I just couldn't give up being a teacher. I've been a teacher all my life. And I didn't want to stop. And I thought this could be the most valuable teaching I could ever offer.

"So that's what we've done. And I'm so grateful to you — to the listeners, to MPR — for having the courage to stay with it.

"And for me, at this point, I have to recognize it is radio. You can hear how weak my voice is, and so ... it's not really goodbye. It's more au revoir. It's more auf Wiedersehen. It's more 'til we meet again."

Thank you, Bruce.

"Thank you."

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