Lloyd Zimmerman strode up the walk to the modest north Minneapolis house Monday, clutching a dozen pink roses.
"I feel like I'm going to see a long-lost friend," he said. "I've been thinking about her for seven years."
Responding to the plea of a hospice social worker in 2004, the Hennepin County judge officiated by telephone at the deathbed wedding ceremony of the woman he was about to meet and her partner of 38 years, who died a short time later.
Zimmerman's essay about that wedding and what it meant to him, "Making a Judgment on Love," was published in the New York Times' popular Modern Love column on Sunday, prompting him to seek out the bride he never met, but whose story so moved him.
On Monday, 65-year-old Donna Rudebusch pushed open her front door. Zimmerman wrapped her in a hug.
"I am so happy to meet you," he said.
"Thank you," she responded. "I forgot all about it. I didn't think anybody remembered."
Zimmerman's column details the July day hospice social worker Cheryl Waldman called him near the end of an exhausting day. Frantic, she begged him to perform a last-minute wedding of Rudebusch, 57, and Thomas Robert David, 77. It was his dying wish that the two be married. He was conscious, but near death. Zimmerman was the 16th judge she had called.
Hesitant at first, the judge thought of his own father, who had died alone, and obliged. He wrote an emergency order granting their request and officiated by phone from his office. From a bed in their living room, David, known as "Bob," nearly too weak to speak, took the vows in whispers and with a squeeze of his longtime partner's hand. He died not long afterward, a married man.
His best order
"I have written thousands of orders in my many years as a judge," Zimmerman wrote in the column. "This was my best."
On Monday, Zimmerman sat with Rudebusch in her home. She introduced him to the cats she rescued, Sonny Boy, Coldwater and Little Girl. He told her about his own family and his rescue dogs, Otto and Olive.
She showed him photos of David, and of herself in her wedding dress. She explained how they met, when she was 19 and he was 39, and he'd hired her to care for his children.
"We just smiled at one another, and that was it," she said.
They had two more children together. In the decade before his death, David, a barber, pushed Rudebusch to get married. She always brushed it off, saying she had no interest. When a series of strokes deteriorated his health, she refused, afraid that if they were married she could lose her house because of his mounting medical bills. When she learned that wouldn't happen, they applied for a marriage license. They meant to get it done, she said, but more pressing issues got in the way.
Finally, with the judge's help they became man and wife.
Zimmerman's act resonated with hospice workers around the country. "You helped one man die a peaceful death, you kept one widow off the street," Kris McCarthy, who at the time worked as a charge nurse for North Memorial Hospice Home Care, wrote in an e-mail. "You renewed the faith of one entire hospice team in humanity." Rudebusch hadn't heard about the Modern Love column until Monday, not long before the judge came to her home. He told her how for years, he was moved by that day, and was inspired to write it down.
"You do a lot of things in your life," he said. "And this took half an hour, but I knew it was a life-changing experience because it was his dying wish. And it can never happen again."
All these years, he said, he wondered what happened to her. For her part, Rudebusch shrugged it off. She and Bob were simple people, she said, and what they did wasn't out of the ordinary.
The judge gently countered that a 40-year relationship, and their wedding, were in fact quite extraordinary.
She paused, and smiled.
"It made him very happy," she said. "He died happy."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921