The Bear and a Very Merry Christmas

His given name was Robert John Schranck, but everyone called my old newspaper buddy “The Bear.” He was big, bearded and burly. To me, over the 45 years of our friendship, he was more like a teddy bear.

He always chose to see the good side of me, and a couple of years ago I invited him to spend Christmas Eve at the Visitation Monastery of North Minneapolis. The Bear’s kids either lived out of town or were away. That left him alone at his assisted living unit in Maplewood, and I usually spent the holiday eve with the nuns.

When I was at WCCO-TV, I did a story about the contemplative order at Mendota Heights and I followed two of the sisters, who joined three others from St. Louis, to start their urban monastery in a high-crime area of the city. They have been there 21 years, saying their prayers, opening their doors and helping their neighbors – an island of peace in a sometimes angry sea.

The Bear didn’t know much about the nuns except for my stories, and he certainly hadn’t been a regular church attendee. On that Christmas Eve, he was in need of a few prayers and petitions because he suffered from congestive heart failure and diabetes.

When we got over to the monastery/house at 17th and Girard, he couldn’t negotiate the ice and snow on the front steps with his cane. Not to worry. The sisters’ neighbor had shoveled a path from the alley, along a handicap ramp and to the back door.

The sweet irony is the guy who did the shoveling was a drug addict and an occasional dealer. But he loved the sisters and I always suspected that he’d put out the word on the street: Mess with those nuns and you’re going to have to deal with me (a savvy street hustler from the projects in Chicago).

The Bear made it up the ramp and, once in the kitchen, sat in a chair where a sister helped him take off his boots. He was embarrassed because he wasn’t wearing socks and his feet were battered and bruised from the diabetic neuropathy. I think it was Sister Suzanne who said she’d seen worse feet, and she massaged them with a warm, wet towel. Then she put a pair of oversize wool socks on his feet and we went to the dinner table.

I brought the pies and The Bear brought the wine. For most of the dinner, The Bear regaled the sisters with stories from his days fighting the Korean War, covering the police beat and reporting on the Minnesota Gophers. He was in his favorite spot:  the center of attention.

Dinner was roast beef, mashed potatoes with garlic, asparagus tips, his wine and my pies: pumpkin and French silk, a favorite of the sisters. The Bear ate heartily, but it was the conversation and company that nourished him most. He found the sisters compelling, with their penchant to tell a story, share a laugh and welcome a stranger – especially a prodigal son like him.

He told them the only thing missing was caroling. With that, the sisters, whose voices are quite lovely, suggested singing a few. The Bear and I, in our best barroom baritone, joined them on “Adeste Fideles,” “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night,” which brought tears to his eyes.

It turns out that was really The Bear’s last Christmas. By the next one, he’d had a heart attack and stroke; last year he was battling a systemic infection that took his life in January 2010.

That night, on our way back to Maplewood from the monastery, we were mostly quiet. As I walked with him down the hall to his room, he thanked me. “You know,” he said, “I can’t remember the last time I sang a Christmas carol. That felt good.”

Yes, it did. Merry Christmas.