I first met Russell more than 30 years ago when I was living at Gary’s place on the mountain. Russell often spent weekends with Gary, emerging in the morning like any groggy teenager, except he was confined to his wheelchair. He would sit quietly in the dining room until Gary would catch his attention with an animated, “Hey there”. Russell would crack his ear-to-ear smile and respond with a few syllables which I interpreted to mean, “I’m awake.” Russell couldn’t walk; he was unable to feed himself; he didn’t have language. But this didn’t stop him from being a world-class communicator with an ever-expanding circle of friends. Like his father, Russell never met a stranger. As soon as a person walked into the room, his entire face would break into an enormous smile and a new friendship began. After I moved away, Gary reported to me that every time Russell spotted a red truck, he thought it was my red Courier pickup, and he would smile and make a happy sound. That story made me happy, too. But as much as he liked people and enjoyed being part of a crowd, he and Gary had a relationship that was—for lack of better words—intensely personal. Gary knew how to tease him so that he would laugh, sometimes uproariously. When he got too wound-up or carried away, Gary would give him ‘the serious look” and Russell would settle down immediately. Russell couldn’t communicate fatigue, discomfort or pain with words, but Gary could read his face and responded with tenderness and devotion. Their bond of love and trust ran deep. Russell’s body was not built for longevity, but he was determined to stick around on this planet for as long as possible. Whether he wanted to stay because he was having such a good time, or whether he understood that there were still lessons to impart and joy to bestow, we will never know. But we wish he could have stayed with us longer.
Uncle Russell had a truly special ability to make an impact on every person’s life that he met. Every time Uncle Russell was in a room, he insured that everyone there was smiling and happy. His contagious smile and ‘go lucky’ attitude were blessings that he had the special ability to share with everyone around him. I have always been amazed with his ability to make friends and bring everyone together. Even after passing away, he is continuing to show that ability by bringing us all together today. No matter that hand he was dealt or the problems he was going through, Uncle Russell always found a way to smile and I hope that mind set can be contagious in my life. Uncle Russell was a fun and loving man who will be dearly missed but it is comforting to know that he is off smiling.
(Delivered by Mitchell at Russell’s Appreciation)
Goodafternoon everyone. For those of you who don’t know I’m Mitchell Hoffman,Russell’s nephew. First off I would like to thank you all for being here. To see how many people Russell’s life affected is truly special and I know hewould be glad to have us all together.
Being raised with a disable uncle was one of life’s greatest gifts. It single-handily taught me more about life then anything else. From the time I was a child disabled people weren’t scary or gross, they were people. People who had been given, well quite frankly, a shitty hand. And thats where I learned the most from Russell. Someone who could have such major, debilitative issues could somehow manage to smile through it all. And not only did he smile but he could get the whole rest of the room to smile.
I think about the time I would drive from my school, to his school, to pick him up and head to Spokane to meet Grandpa Gary (dad) for a lunch of three generations. We would smile and laugh the whole way into town and it would continue all through lunch and all the way back to school.
Or the time we loaded him in the back of the pick up in his wheelchair and drove him down to the beach. Kyle and I are in the bed of the truck with death grips on his chair as we go over bumps hoping he doesn’t go flying out and Russell is laughing hysterically with a grin from ear to ear.
There was also the time Kyle and I sat through one of Russell’s meetings on his progress and goals. They explained that Russell was excelling in all categories except he was having a hard time tolerating shaving. Mind you Kyle and I are probably 8 and 6 and we both start laughing out loud. I think it’s fairly apparent no Berg tolerates shaving.
What all this taught me the most is that I am bless for what I have and to smile. Because smiles are contagious. Maybe the person next to you is having a bad day and just seeing someone smile will help them smile and maybe that smile will help another person smile. I know Russell’s smile made me smile a lot.
Thank you all and God bless.
Russell W. Berg
By Tandy Hoffman, Russell’s sister
Russell was born 2 ½ years after I was. He is my only sibling. He taught me to see people for who they are, not their physical or cognitive ability. Russell was one of the best communicators I know. He had few words and almost no physical ability, but everyone knew when he was happy. This was most of the time. He was a magnet for people even though many were afraid of the wheelchair and the non-conventional looks. He had many abilities that very few other people possess. He was a charmer and drew in folks where ever he went. Russell could make anyone smile and yet very rarely did strangers know what he was saying.
As children, he and I grew up doing all the things other kids did. At the time I did not realize how hard my parents worked to allow us a traditional childhood. We went hiking and Russell was transported in a lawn chair with poles under the arms to allow people to carry him through the woods. He acted like a king on his chariot! Waving at all the other hikers we met and cheering on the folks carrying him.
We camped in our camper van all over the Pacific Northwest and back and forth from California to Washington. Russell and I would be placed in the “bubble” on the top of the van to sleep. Russell would laugh and roll around slobbering all over me! He thought it was funny. I truly didn’t mind and we all would have a good laugh about it.
Our grandmother, Margaret Dubois, Mom’s mom, was especially close with Russell. They had a connection that very few have. She was special in many ways, but she and Russell could communicate with no sounds. It was like she intuitively knew what he needed or wanted. She babysat us a lot as kids and we both looked forward to spending time with her. It was a hard day when we had to tell Russell she was gone. I believe he understood, he was visibly sad about it.
Jean Mathews, our mother, had an even deeper connection with Russell. She was his advocate and cheerleader from the day he was born. As she become more and more ill, I saw Russell mature and ask less of her. The day we knew she had entered the last phase of her life, we were at her condo in Spokane. Russell had come to visit. He was subdued and less smiley that usual. As he left to go back to school on the buss, I think he understood things would be different from then on.
Christmas will never be the same. Russell was a huge fan of Santa. Because of Russell, Santa came in person, every year. When he would hear Santa’s bells he would scream with delight. I cannot imagine how dull the holidays will be without Russell and Santa.
A memory that Russell and I share, is a walk he and I took. We were living on the north side of Spokane in a house on White House street. I was 9 and he was almost 7. As we walked around the block, his wheelchair’s front wheel got caught on a rock. I toppled his chair forward, dropping him onto his face with the wheelchair strapped to his back. I was too small to pull him and the chair back up. I could hear him crying and I really started to freak out. The adrenaline must have kicked in, I was able to pull him and the chair upright. He was blood from head to toe. I’ve never been so scared in my life. I put his chair on the back wheels and ran all the way home with him. He and I were both bawling like babies. We got home, and my parents met us on the front lawn. Russell had lost a tooth in the incident but was fine. I think he was more worried about me than himself. Thank goodness he was ok and not seriously hurt.
Having been raised around a person with different-abilities than most has given me a unique viewpoint. I often found myself in medical situations with Russell. One occasion we were both young, under 6 for sure. Mom, Dad, Russell and I were at a doctor’s appointment for Russell. He needed an IV. Russell was hard to find veins on. They tried to get the IV started and were wiggling the needle around to find the vein. This was too much for Mom and she passed out. She was holding Russell’s arm, so as she became ill, Dad took over holding his arm. I looked over to see Dad turning green and held Russell’s arm as my parents both passed out. I was able to hold his arm still while the nurse got the IV inserted. It was at that point I realized I may want to work in the medical field someday.
To try to explain the impact Russell had on the people around him is over whelming. He taught us all how to love unconditionally, to see people for who they are at their core, not by ability or thought process. Russell was scary to most people at first glance but was a friend by the end of the interaction. I wish more people had this ability.
I was often asked what his cognitive age was. This is a question I have struggled to answer my whole life. He had the memory of an elephant. He remembered people he had not seen in years, even maybe decades. He loved anything loud, raucous and fast. He did have a serious side and was very modest. He did not like to wear shorts. He preferred not to show his legs. He was opinionated about his clothing. He liked “man” clothes not cutesy children’s stuff. He did not complain often at all. If he was not feeling well, he would be honest and tell you. With one exception, he did not lie about being in pain or uncomfortable.
When my boys were pretty young, 7 and 9 or so, we met at Dad’s house to go to Riverfront Park in Spokane, Russ and the boys were in our van, Dad and Russell were going in Dad’s convertible. At the last-minute Russell asked me to drive the convertible so Dad jumped in the van with the boys. Russell and I were on the highway with the top down and the wind blowing. Russell’s wheelchair was folded behind the seats. The handles of his chair were in just the right place to obstruct my view from the rear-view mirror. There were no side mirrors, so I did not know how to move into the right-hand lane to take the exit off the highway. I slowed way down and pulled into the right lane. As I did, I heard the siren and saw the lights from the police officer. As we pulled over, I noticed the sun was beating down. I was concerned Russell would get sunburned. I asked him if he was hot. As that point I realized the police officer was next to the car. He asked for my license and registration My purse was in the van and the glove box of the convertible was empty, literally. There was nothing in it at all. Russ pulled over on the highway also as he saw me get stopped. Dad ran back to the convertible to explain that it was his car. The police officer was having none of it and told Dad to get back in the van. I explained that he had my purse/license. The officer stated the car tabs were expired. Dad said they were not and asked to see the paperwork from the glove box. When he heard it was empty, he remembered he had emptied it out while cleaning the car. At that point I remembered Russell and the sun. I asked Dad to bring my purse and some sunscreen. The policer went back to his car to see if the tabs had been purchased. I was applying the sunscreen to Russell’s face when the cop returned to the car. I did not hear him and was startled to see him watching me sunscreen Russell’s face. He instructed me to continue to apply the lotion. I asked Russell if he was adequately covered. He said he was. The policeman said no to apply more, so Russell chimed in and acted like he was sad and needed more sunscreen. I am 100% sure he was trying to get me out of the ticket and was faking needing more sunscreen. It worked, and the police officer said to keep my license in the car with me and get the tabs once we got back to Dad’s house. He then instructed me to take my brother to the park and have a good time. No ticket was issued. This was not the only time Russell saved my bacon.
My parents are the true hero’s here. They were given a child they did not know how to parent, but they did all they could to give us both a magical childhood. We were surrounded by family, love and lifelong friends. Russell was NEVER a deficit to the family. We both felt loved and cherished. He required a lot of extra care, but I never felt slighted or ignored. On the contrary, I was the golden child, the only girl, the one everyone doted on. How in the world can that be when Russell required so much? Again, they were amazing heroes. I know I could not have done what they did.
To say he will be missed is an understatement. He has been my side-kick as long as I can remember. He always lit up when we got to see each other. It’s hard to believe we will never see his smile and happy-go-lucky personality again. He taught everyone he met to live each day with a smile. Russell showed us how to make each person feel special even if you have no voice or physical ability. His legacy is huge. I only hope I can live up to his example.
Since Russell has died, I have been told many times, “Russell was lucky to have you as his sister.” While I appreciate the compliment, it was me that was lucky to have him.
As Mom’s health failed, our Dad gained more of Russell’s care. He became the sole medical decision-maker and over-seer of Russell’s care. He and Russell had a relationship that is hard to describe. No one could tease Russell like Dad, yet their love ran deep and the respect they had for each other was admirable. Russell called Dad, “Gary.” He and I had many conversations about Dad. I think Dad was hard for Russell to say Dad but when “Gary” walked into the room Russell lit up like a Christmas tree. They had a bromance that evolved throughout Russell’s life. Dad cared for Russell for 50 years and never complained and always stopped his world whenever Russell was in need. That became more often the last few years. I tried to help but Russell was his child. It’s a very different perspective than a sibling. Russell was always on Dad’s side and he enjoyed being a “teammate” with Dad. Usually in the funny silly times they would “gang up” on me and I’d be overruled. They were times when Russell would choose Dad as a sign of alliance and the men would rule.
I am so very fortunate to have had the privilege of witnessing this relationship and model my parenting after it. My boys are blessed to have grown up with Russell as an uncle and dad as their “Grampa Gary.” For them to see a man lovingly care for an adult child, has molded all of us for the better.
Russell’s impact is life changing and ongoing. To see how someone with such limited abilities profoundly effect those around you, makes it clear that everyone makes a difference. Russell had shown us how important it is to recognize this and choose to make our interactions with others positive and upbeat. I only hope I can do this a fraction as well as Russell did.
Thoughts and Memories of Russell Berg
November 2, 2018
By Brother-in-law; Russ Hoffman
Russell, the happiest person I have ever known. No matter what he was going through he always had the best attitude, the most infectious smile and a bigger than life personality. The best communicating non-verbal person in the world. The world would be a better place if everybody had a piece of Russell within them.
As I think back on some of my favorite memories, I can’t help but think we are entering Russell’s favorite time of year, Christmas, or better known to Russell as “Red-man” season. I didn’t know it at the time, but some 30 years ago, before we had kids, I was “honored” to be able to wear the “Red-man” suit and bring some (a lot) of joy to Russell at the “green home” owned by Grandma Katie. Russell would hear the bells rang by the “Red-man” and come to life, as I entered the room to Russell’s jubilation and handing him not 1 gift, but maybe 12 gifts, all very welcomed and wanted by Russell. Then around the room handing each of the 35-50 people a gift, it was, and rightfully so, all about Russell. Over the years I have seen some of my friends and one of Mitchell’s friends be able to bring this same “Red-man” joy to Russell, something I will always cherish.
Russell loved anything fast or loud. One Sunday after a weekend visit, Russell’s Uncle Rick and I returned Russell to his home/school in Medical Lake, most likely because we did not have the “exact” $.35 change for the SASTA bus fare. If you don’t know Uncle Rick, everything he owns is either fast or loud, most items being both. As Uncle Rick pulled into the parking lot at Lakeland Village he could not resist finding two light poles to turn in to a race track. As we circled the light poles lap after lap, engine revving, tires squealing, horn honking, windshield wipers going. The side of Russell’s head pinned up against the passenger window, laughing and squealing in joy, just wanting one more lap.
Russell also loved to ride in my blue truck, over the years we would stop and pick Russell up on our way to either Spokane or Sandpoint. As we fly down I-90 at 75 MPH (faster if Russell had it his way), passing cars, honking, swerving and of course Russell’s favorite, driving on the rumble strips. Both my boys in the back seat egging him on, as if he needed it. Laughing at people as we passed them. Russell’s favorite was girls in one car and all the boys in the blue truck.
So it’s no wonder that when Russell had the chance to train and drive his own electric wheelchair, he was very excited and presumed responsible for the task. Until we showed up to watch him drive his electric wheelchair down the hallway. As Russell got going, he got this devilish look in his eyes as he spotted a cart of metal foodservice trays, a shit eating grin over took his face as he turned hard right, directly into the cart, as metal trays went flying the only thing you could hear was Russell laughing his ass off and me snickering. I say good for Russell, have the most fun possible, even if it’s short lived.
To the staff at Lakeland Village, not only did you make myself and my family always welcome for visits, both announced and unannounced, you took the most amazing care of Russell. The best compliment I can give you is that after weekend or holiday visits to “Mom’s house”, “Gary’s house”, the “green home” or even the “yellow cabin”, Russell was always ready to return back to his “home/school” where he was equally loved. You people are truly special, heroes!!!
November 12, 2018
I did not know Russell, but his father Gary’s stories and memories of him inspire gratitude. Not many of us get to leave such a profound legacy.
November 07, 2018
One look at Russell’s smile immediately puts a smile on our faces. Russell may not have had many choices in his life, but he lived life bigger than than most can ever imagine. Russell’s will, drive and unending joy with life is a deeply important lesson for us all.
~ Nancy and Chuck Knuff,
November 06, 2018 To the whole Berg Family, and all the people Russell touched, we extend our prayers and love. We did not meet Russell, but we feel we knew him through the stories we heard from Gary and Kathy. Heaven truly received an angel and I am sure Russell is dancing and laughing in Heaven.
Liz and Tony Rullo,
We are sorry for your loss.
Thomas & Margaret Knuff,
November 05, 2018
If only we could emulate Russell Berg. I had the distinct privilege of meeting Russell and with his bright eyes and contagious smile you immediately became in awe of him. What a beautiful gift this man was to all who were able to come into his presence. And to Russell’s amazing family, thank you for your willingness to share Russell with us through all these years. The gathering on Saturday touched us all. Much Love to all of the Berg Family… father, Gary, Step mother Kathy. Tan, Russ, Kyle, Mitchell and the community of ‘family’ that gave Russell an amazing quality of life.Russell loved joyfully and in turn will forever be loved deeply by his entire family and community.
November 02, 2018
This is written by Kathy Berg, Russell’s stepmom
There will be no Santa Claus
Over the last 50 years Santa came for Russell. Other children have come and gone and shared in the delight of Santa but no more.
The first time I experienced Russell and the red man it was magical. To see how Russell lite up and become so excited and expressive was nothing less than Christmas magic.
Russell has brought so much joy, acceptance,appreciation and love to so many people. His smile, his eyes and his demeanor said it all.
His first lesson for me was Be in the moment.
Russell had nothing but he had it all. With all of his intellectual and physical disabilities and seizures, he did not expect anything from anyone. He did not regret anything. He felt joy in the moment. Not what should have happened yesterday, what should happen now or tomorrow,he lived in the moment. And that was the lesson I needed to learn.
Russell taught me and many others to live your life to the fullest no matter what obstacles are placed in front of you. I believe Russell had an amazing life. Not too many people could have created so much love. The people that were fortunate to enter his realm felt it, shared it and expressed it.
His smile would make you smile and change your day. The love and caring he created with all of the amazing people at Lakeland Village where he lived is the most heart warming thing I have ever experienced.
Russell taught me to appreciate. Living with Russell/Gary has taught me to appreciate the little things. The fact that I can walk, talk, eat, the things we take for granted we need to appreciate. As I am writing this sitting on the beach in Oregon the waves are doing a beautiful dance. That’s Russell.
Russell was very spiritual. The morning of Russells passing Gary was on the phone with his daughter Tandy and I was staring out the window. A huge eagle flew up and landed gracefully on the tree in our front window, he stayed there for most of the conversation his dad had with his sister. That was Russell.
Doing what all grown-ups do, when we were dealing with Russells passing, we ran away! Sitting at the ocean watching the sunset, we saw a green flash. The green flash is a phenomena we have only experienced once or twice in the Caribbean it is when at the moment the sun sets into the ocean you will see a flash of green. That was Russell.
As my friend Dana reminded me that I told her 20+ years ago that seeing Gary with Russell was what made my decision that I wanted to spend my life with Gary Berg. Thank you Gary for Russell he’s the best gift you have given me.
October 30, 2018
Who was Russell Berg
From Russell’s Father, Gary Berg
I am writing primarily to you who didn’t know Russell. Having not met him you might doubt this. I would. But you who did know him know that this is true and, if anything is understated.
He had a combination of abilities and limitations that seem impossible to have coexisted in a single person. He was extremely handicapped physically and intellectually but had an amazing ability to communicate and engage with the people around him; and to convey good will and joy.
His physical problems were extreme: microcephaly; cerebral palsy; epilepsy; scoliosis; osteoporosis; chronic reflux and aspiration; extreme contractions of his arms and hands; lung and breathing restrictions, frequent pneumonia. He has had spinal surgery with Harrington rods implanted; a blocked bowel that had to be surgically re-sectioned; surgery to remove excess gum tissue resulting from some of his medications. He has had 2 gastrointestinal tubes most of his life; had no food by mouth; had a broken leg. He took dozens of prescription meds daily, some of which caused him to be groggy and lethargic. He spent literally hundreds of nights in the hospitals of Spokane and Seattle.
But, he had a very high quality life! With all this going against him he maintained an optimistic spirit that very few of us can match. He was perpetually happy and his smile would light up the room and everyone in it. He had an amazing ability to communicate with his eyes, a slight wiggle of his fingers, and a vocabulary of less than 10 words. His perception of what was going on around him was startling.
You might suspect from this that Russell was incapable of the whole range of emotions; that he was mindlessly happy-go-lucky. This was not the case; he was discriminating and only chose to be upbeat. But I have seen pretty much every emotion and mood that we all experience. He liked everyone he came into contact with – almost. There have been a few people in his life that he just didn’t care for and expressed it by ignoring them; refusing eye contact.
And he could be impatient and even demanding: for awhile some years back he had a job at school shredding paper. He would slide the paper across his wheelchair tray into the hopper of the shredder. He took this work seriously. An attendant would put the paper on the tray for him, and if she didn’t have the next sheet there by the time he was ready, he would get upset and yell’ at her.
When I had to tell him that his Mother had died his reaction was exactly what you would expect; he went from happy and silly to shocked, withdrawn and sad.
He loved roughhouse play and noisy chaos, the wilder the better. And he liked squirt gun fights – as long as someone else was getting wet. But when he got squirted it made him mad.
But 90% of the time (99% when he felt good and free of pain) he was jolly and upbeat.
His influence on other people is more than anyone I’ve ever met. He showed by example how little is needed for a quality, fulfilled life. With nothing but a wonderful attitude, trust and love he lived as successfully as possible. His joy was infectious and he left people totally impressed and changed for the better.
A favorite Rotarian has a signature close for her meetings: Go out and be a gift to the world’. If ever there was a person who was exactly that, it was Russell Berg.
October 30, 2018
We will miss seeing Russell’s smile which was contagious. We extend our sympathy to Russell’s family and care givers.
Bonnie Sullivan , Lakeland Village Associates
Russell Berg died October 14, 2018 at Lakeland Village, Washington. He was 50 years old. Russell truly was ‘a gift to the world’.
He had a combination of abilities and limitations that seem impossible to have coexisted in a single person. He was extremely handicapped physically and intellectually but, with nothing but a wonderful attitude, trust and love he lived a very successful life. He loved people, and his big smile would light up the room, his influence on the people he knew was extraordinary.
An informal drop-in memorial celebration will be held Saturday, November 3 from 1 to 4PM at the Northern Quest Casino, Studio ‘E’, at Airway Heights.