His spirit is willing but his body is weak.
Diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in August, Maryville resident Gus Rischer was told he had up to six months to live.
“I’m getting near the end of my road,” the soft-spoken 83-year-old said.
While his body has been failing him the last few months, his mind tells a different tale… still razor sharp as he shares his story… about his family, coming to Maryville, his stained-glass hobby and his decision to choose hospice care.
Originally from St. Louis, Rischer attended Pepperdine University and California State University, Los Angeles, for undergraduate and graduate degrees before returning to Missouri. In 1968, he began his tenure at Northwest Missouri State University where he was a psychology professor and chairman of the department for eight years before retiring in 1991.
He and his late wife, Katie, have three sons, Brad, Jon and Greg, and three grandchildren.
Rischer has been down the brutal and unforgiving cancer road before with his wife. So it was an easy decision to not have any of what he called “false kinds” of treatment like chemotherapy or radiation after his diagnosis.
“I watched my wife die with that,” he said. “It was a miserable process with her and I didn’t particularly look forward to experiencing it.”
He looked at what options were available and chose hospice care through SSM Hospice of Northwest Missouri in Maryville.
“I decided to take it as it comes and live in my own home until I can’t do it anymore,” he said.
In the last several months, the care given through hospice staff members has helped Rischer and his family deal with the reality of the prognosis.
It has also enabled him the time at home to go through his remaining stained-glass treasures, hundreds of pieces he’s crafted over the last 13 years, and give them to his children and grandchildren.
Frogs and teddy bears. Window hangings for the holidays. A slew of picture frames. And his personal favorites — two complete sets of ducks.
“I really enjoyed making the ducks,” he said. “I had spent hours and hours making them for myself.”
One set has now gone to his son, Brad, and the other will go to his son, Jon.
Walking around his home, showing off that set of stained-glass ducks which Jon hasn’t received yet, Rischer’s step is noticeably slower. And his voice a little more weathered. But brief moments of joy flash across his face as he describes in detail his love of the hobby.
It began when a friend of his was visiting Maryville.
“He was making figurines to hang in windows,” Rischer said. “So I asked him if he could teach me. Before he left, he had taught me how to cut glass, how to weld it and how to put it in a frame.”
Rischer completed his very first project, a stained glass window for his bathroom, on his friend’s next visit to town. Since that time, he said he’s made three to four hundred items, at least, which he’s given away.
“It was fun to learn and to watch myself progress and get better,” he said. “And then to see other people enjoy it.”
But because of the pain from pancreatic cancer over the last few months, his abilities have declined.
The hospice care staff has been wonderful in many ways, Rischer said, especially in helping him manage the pain.
“They’re a special kind of people,” he said.
One aspect he has especially enjoyed has been the time spent visiting with a pastor.
“I’m not a very religious person but the pastor who comes to visit, I enjoy his visits,” he said. “He’s a very intelligent man and we just talk, not necessarily anything religious. Maybe about something in the news. We enjoy each other’s viewpoints on daily happenings.”
Looking out Rischer’s front room window, the view unfolds the rolling hills and fields that are so characteristic of the Midwest landscape. The setting sun just above the horizon streams light into his stained-glass window.
The process of the artistry that went into that first project — and all of them since then — begins with picking out 12×12- or 12×14-inch pieces of glass.
After gluing a pattern of what he wants to make onto the glass, it is cut with a special glass cutter and the edges are smoothed with a grinder.
The pattern is then removed and copper foil is wrapped around all of the pieces which are put together like a puzzle, he said, one against the other so the soldering can begin.
When each of the pieces has been soldered on both sides of the glass, the project is finished by being cleaned and waxed.
“It’s an interesting, lengthy, multi-skilled process,” he said.
Rischer’s hospice care could also be described as a multi-skilled process. In addition to the pastor who visits an hour each week, he also has a social worker, physical therapist and a nurse who comes to his home every three days or whenever he needs more attention.
“Hospice is a wonderful organization,” he said. “And the one we have in Maryville is an award-winning organization.”
While Rischer saw his stained-glass artwork as simply a hobby, after many hours of practice, he’s been able to produce many beautiful and wonderful pieces.
To be truly enjoyed, stained glass depends on refracted light. Only after light passes through the glass can the beauty and wonder be seen.
Refraction is defined as a change in direction because of a change in the medium. It can also be defined as altering something by viewing it differently.
With stained glass, it is the turning or bending of the light when it passes through the colored pieces at different angles.
With Rischer, it has been the opportunity to see life in a different light through his hospice care, especially through the care given to him by his nurse.
“You have to be a special kind of nurse to be a hospice nurse and we’ve got some dandies,” he said. “Most nurses treat people so they can get well. Hospice nurses are treating me so I can get ready to pass on. And that takes a special kind of intelligence and skill and psychological makeup to deal with it.”