Grand Rapids A gift to remember her by Dying wife gives husband fishing rod as memento

By Tom Rademacher

The Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) -- In a lifetime marked by miracles, Ellen Van Oss would walk hand-in-hand with her husband, Jack, forever. Together, they would see their children grow, graduate, be married, have grandkids. They would work and play and travel, with Ellen finally reaching that magical destination of Alaska.

Instead, she gave him a going-away gift, a symbol not only of her love but a touchstone for him to remember her by.

Ellen, 32, has fought three years against the cancer with which she was diagnosed at age 29.

And now, with virtually every medical therapy put to rest and the realist in her surfacing in ways both graceful and brave, she commissioned a man with health issues of his own to create for her Jack a parting memento.

It is an 8-foot-long fly fishing rod hand-crafted of split bamboo, inscribed with the Biblical reference Deuteronomy 31:6, where God guarantees he "will never leave you nor forsake you."

"This is what I wanted for him," Ellen said recently while re-creating the story of her gift to Jack. "When I'm gone . I want him to know that God is with him. His comfort."

Nearby, the maker of the fishing rod -- Ken Rongey, a respected anesthesiologist here who was forced to retire after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease -- fought back tears. "To be able to contribute is my honor."

No one would blame Ellen Van Oss for being angry at the hand she was dealt. But her faith tells her to accept God's plan and do what you can to leave a mark. For each of their children -- Seth, 6, and Emmarie, 4, she purchased jewelry. Emmarie will remember mom with a locket bearing a photo of the both of them. Seth will cherish a pocket watch, which, when opened, reveals a similar photo.

And for her husband of just nine years, a custom-crafted fly rod, and yes, she acknowledges that she has already imagined him working it along the banks of the Upper Manistee or the revered Au Sable, a widower too young. "I wanted something for each one of them to touch, to see, to remember," she says.

Jack and Ellen met in 2000, while both were working at Spectrum Health's Butterworth campus in radiology, where Jack, 42, remains today. Their first date was spent shopping, because he didn't have a clue about how to update his wardrobe. They'd grown up not that far from one another, with Jack graduating from Zeeland High in 1987 and Ellen from West Michigan Christian a decade later.

Their fairy tale took a grisly turn in 2008 when Ellen was diagnosed with breast cancer. She fought valiantly, enduring a physical and emotional rollercoaster that included nearly a dozen different regimens of chemotherapy. Recently, she discovered what no cancer patient wants to hear -- that it has since spread to her lungs and brain and elsewhere and there is no way to permanently arrest it.

Her idea to get Jack a fly rod blossomed upon learning that their kids' pediatrician, Dr. Ron Hofman, had commissioned fellow physician Ken Rongey to build his two sons fly rods to commemorate their respective graduations from college.

Unbeknownst to her husband, Ellen arranged through Hofman to have Rongey build one for Jack. It would be the 37th rod he'd built since being diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2005. Nearly all were fashioned for family and friends.

Rongey typically needs months to craft just one, with a minimum of 70 hours invested, partly because the bamboo is finicky to the point of requiring several "do-overs." Amazingly, Jack's rod came together in just six weeks, with zero glitches along the way.

Recently, Ellen arranged an evening with her husband that eventually led them to Rongey's East Grand Rapids home, which he shares with his wife, Elaine. There, the doctor -- a complete stranger to Jack -- unveiled the custom rod, along with a case he assembled from exotic Brazilian lacewood.

The rod is painstakingly made from six longitudinal sections of specially imported bamboo, and the reel seat boasts California redwood from a tree that dates back to Colonial times. While Rongey is reticent about assessing its monetary value, it's no secret that master rod builders command upward of $3,000 for a similar product.

But what's more profound than money, points out Hofman, who was there for the presentation, is "this setting of two people broken by diseases ... who worked so hard to make the lives of others better."

As he watched the rod being unveiled, "I felt I was on holy ground," said Hofman.

Jack was speechless, and finally, wept.

"I cry a lot," he said. "I handed in my man card long ago."

Published: Tue, Feb 28, 2012