Sunday, November 04, 2007

Stay strong, stay tough

Helen and Peter fell for each other in Africa and built their life in Minnesota. Since his death in the bridge collapse, she relies on that love each day.

By Pam Louwagie, Star Tribune

Last update: November 03, 2007 – 10:42 PM
They gathered in the foyer before sunrise, the widow and her children singing to the man missing from their lives.

The older two -- Justina and Andrew -- stood at the door, backpacks at their feet. The younger two -- Theresa and David -- stood on either side of their mom, still in pajamas. They sang lustily, eyes filled with tears.

It is tradition in Peter and Helen Hausmann's family to sing on birthday mornings. They've done it on every birthday since the kids were little.

So on this dark October morning they sang to their father, who died when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed.

Ready? Helen started and the kids joined in. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Daddy ...

Often, Peter had to encourage his children to belt it out. Louder, you hooligans! But this morning, they sang out without prompting.

Helen held back her sobs. She was staying strong for her four kids.

• • •
Even as a younger man, Peter Hausmann reached out to others. He'd see the sad stories of Third World children on TV commercials and couldn't help but send money. A farm kid from South Dakota, he landed a high-paying computer job in the Twin Cities that took him around the world. It was a life he'd worked hard to get, but it wasn't making him happy.

Finally, his brother Leo, who would become a Catholic priest, suggested that Peter do mission work. In 1987, Peter arrived at a boarding school in a remote Kenyan town to teach science.Helen Ongaki, a slight woman who wore her hair in braids, worked at the school, watching him from afar for about a year. He looked like a girl, she thought, with his scrawny build and flowing brown hair.

In the mud-soaked town during rainy season, with lousy roads and poverty all around, he was always smiling, kind and happier than anyone she knew.

One day, as children playfully quizzed Peter on their names, Helen spoke to him for the first time.

What about me? Do you know my name?

He did.

Do you know my name? he asked back.

You are Mr. Peter Joseph Hausmann.

He looked at her, wide-eyed. How do you know my middle name?

She grinned.

That's my secret.

Their courtship included hikes down a muddy road, him getting to know her family and winning their love. It was an improbable union and grew more so when Helen and Peter married and, after his visa expired, moved to South Dakota.

Peter got another computer job, and they moved to the Twin Cities. So much was new to Helen, but she was determined to adapt. Her first time on an escalator, she stepped on as if she'd done it her whole life, totally assured that Peter wouldn't lead her into danger.

And there was the 1991 Halloween blizzard. She tried opening the front door and couldn't because of the snowdrifts that had piled up. Watching Helen's expression, Peter doubled over with laughter.

She wondered what kind of frozen hell he'd brought her to.

When do we go home? she asked.

Any time you want to, he replied.

But they stayed. They had four children and built a family life in Rosemount, getting to know neighbors and becoming involved in the Church of St. Joseph, where Peter taught confirmation classes and the children went to grade school.

On most summer evenings, Peter built a bonfire in the back-yard fire pit, and sat near it until somebody joined him. They often had deep spiritual conversations. But he was never serious for long, keeping the mood light around the house, never using real names. Helen was "Mrs. Wiggins," or "Flossy" for her love of dental flossing.

For their 17th anniversary this year, Peter gave Helen a card listing the "Top 10 great things about being married as long as us."

Peter added six more. "We are there to help each other," he wrote. "We play ridiculous games together... We are furnaces for each other... We love each other a lot. Really a lot."

In late July, Peter and Justina talked around the fire about an accident in the news. A man had died and his family was left behind. Justina asked why bad things happen to good people.Justina remembers what he told her: I can guarantee you, in 100 percent of those cases, those people are always ready to go.

The phone rang just before 6 p.m. on Aug. 1. He was stuck in traffic, he told Helen, and was on his way to pick up their friend -- a priest from Kenya -- to bring him to dinner. The phone went dead and it went right to voice mail when Helen called back.

At first, she didn't worry.

But 10 minutes turned into 20 and when Theresa turned on the TV at 6:30 to watch "Wheel of Fortune," they saw news of the bridge collapse.

Right away, Helen knew.

She got a ride from a family friend into the city that night. They checked a hospital. They went to the Holiday Inn where families were gathering, gave them Peter's description and waited for word.

Peter's brothers and sister came from out of town, and every day they drove from Rosemount to the Holiday Inn near the bridge. The children stayed home, comforted by neighbors and church friends.

On the fourth day, divers found Peter's van. He wasn't in it, which gave the family some hope. Did he swim to safety? Maybe he had hit his head and was wandering the streets, unsure of who he was?

* * *
It wasn't like Peter, 47, to be away. He avoided overnight business trips. Sometimes he worked from home. On days when his son had a football game, he started his day early to be there. He cooked on weekends sometimes. He kept track of paying the bills. He fixed the rattling refrigerator.

When Andrew wanted to go out for football, Peter convinced a nervous Helen that it would be OK. When the girls wanted to wear nail polish, he persuaded her to give in.

Helen doesn't drive, so Peter shuttled the family everywhere, making sure the kids got to religion classes, doctor appointments and school activities.

On Saturday nights, after the little kids were in bed and the older ones could watch them, Peter and Helen did the grocery shopping together.

* * *
While Helen and Peter's siblings waited for news with other families, they spoke with the relatives of Sadiya Sahal and her 22-month-old daughter, Hana, who were also missing. Their family had immigrated from Somalia. They talked about beliefs and faiths, Christian and Muslim.

On the ninth day, Helen was at home when the phone call came. Peter's body had been found.It's done, she thought. No more torture.

Helen said she was told by authorities that Peter's body was half in and half out of another car, and it looked like he was trying to rescue a little child -- possibly Hana.

"That makes it OK," Justina said later, through tears. "Because, you know, he probably would have struggled with depression and all that if he had gone away not helping."

* * *
Helen doesn't sleep much. She sits in bed, her little children sleeping beside her, and opens a book of word-search puzzles Peter once bought her. She focuses intently on each word, each puzzle, trying to stop worry from creeping into her thoughts. Life is a struggle to keep grief at bay.

Sometimes, worry wins. That's when she feels like she's drowning, too.

In her eyes, Peter rescued her from Kenya and brought her to the United States for a better life for their children.

She wonders who will rescue her from this?

"I don't know who will be my hero anymore," she said. There's no one left to turn to."

"Not the way I turned to him."

During the day, Helen draws strength from her children.

Justina, an A student who wants to be a pediatrician, has band performances. Andrew, 14, has football games. The younger children rush through the front door in their school uniforms. David, with Peter's mannerisms and energy, jumps around constantly, asking to play outside. Theresa brings home giggly friends.

Helen tries to laugh when she can. "Your dad would say, 'Come on, you hooligans!'" she tells them, trying to herd the family to the dinner table.

But now, when Justina, 17, asks to drive someplace after dark, or when the other children try to bargain about playtime, Helen is left to decide alone.

Peter's advice echoes through her head.

Stay strong, stay tough, she hears him. Say 'no' even if you know it's going to break somebody's heart.

Helen's brother, sister and niece, who came in from Kenya for the funeral, are staying as long as they can to help. Peter's siblings make frequent trips to town. Friends take Helen to Andrew's games.

She spends two mornings a week battling with the bills Peter used to handle. On the phone, arguing about discrepancies on a late bill, she refrains from telling what has happened.

"I don't want that 'poor lady excuse,'" she said.

But later, when the children have gone to bed and the house is still, the gravity sets in.

"I am afraid of sinking," she says. "If I stand still, I'm afraid I might go into the thought mode. ... I'm the one holding up the whole family."

* * *
On Peter's birthday, Oct. 12, Helen sent Justina to get eggs while she finished some paperwork. Then she opened a box of chocolate cake mix and started measuring. She slid the pan into the oven, kids licking the beaters, and made sure Justina knew her job was to take it out.

A family friend drove Helen to Andrew's football game. A ninth-grader, he was playing on the Rosemount varsity for the first time. His opening kick sailed under the bright lights. Helen could imagine Peter there with her.

Way to go, young man, she could hear him saying. A-bear, you did good!

At halftime, Justina danced in step with the marching band. After the game, Peter's relatives arrived. Helen took out a single white candle and set it in the middle of the chocolate cake. She lit the wick. She called everyone into the dining room.

They ended the day the way they began: Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you...

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102
Pam Louwagie •