Nothing could stop Dave Nelson from dining out with his wife, Jan, on their 55th wedding anniversary. Not windchill, icy roads, nor a liquid diet that is a wistful reminder of his battle against stage four bladder cancer.
It’s a cancer doctors say should have taken him months ago.
Dave fell in love with Jan at age 14, married her at 19, raised three kids with her and cherishes the noise of seven grandkids, ages 11 to 24, especially when they’re all together at their Wisconsin cabin, named “Lykkebo,” Norwegian for “happy home.”
On Jan. 10, Dave wanted to celebrate all of that, even if he had to do it over a bowl of broth.
The low-key couple couldn’t imagine what happened next.
As Jan sipped champagne and dined on a salad and filet mignon, Dave’s cup runneth over with flavorful clam chowder, beet salad, walleye and beef, all of it served up with a secret ingredient:
One amazing blender.
“Pretty much anything can be puréed if you have the right blender,” said Paul Neu, executive sous chef at McCormick and Schmick’s in Edina. Neu was delighted to help make the couple’s anniversary memorable.
“He never mentioned he was in stage four,” said Neu, who created the menu with sous-chef-in-training, Shannon Nelson (no relation). “He just said he couldn’t digest food, but wanted to have the taste of it.”
Jan and Dave, both 74, are not media-hungry people. “But this is so beyond what any restaurant is expected to do,” Jan said.
Dave nodded. “We wanted them to know how important this was to us,” he said.
He also wants everyone to know that cold, puréed beet salad, “was so good.” He’s been back twice to order it by the quart.
The couple met 59 years ago on a church outing to Luck, Wis. As luck would have it, Dave said, “the car broke down or something,” which meant more time getting to know Jan.
After they married, Jan stayed home to raise their kids, Paul, Deb and David, first in Iowa, then in Edina, and volunteered for many organizations, including serving as president of the Edina League of Women Voters. Dave began a 51-year career as a CPA. He was an avid tennis player. Together, they golfed, traveled the world and loved to eat out.
In 1987, they headed to Bayfield, Wis., to hunt for a family cabin. They found one on a popular lake and, only later, realized that it was located in little Luck, just minutes from the church retreat where they had met more than 30 years before.
“Is that nuts?” Jan said. “It’s just crazy.”
His cancer first was diagnosed in 2002. While bladder cancer often affects smokers, he never was one.
When treatments didn’t work, surgeons built him a “neo-bladder,” and he went into remission for nearly a decade.
In the summer of 2011, he sensed “discomfort” in his belly. The cancer was back. The couple downsized to a condo in Minnetonka a year ago.
Limited to juices and soups, and weakening after his sixth round of chemotherapy, Dave decided to stop treatment in October. “That’s it,” he told Jan. “I’m quitting the chemo. We’re very blessed. Let it take its course. I’ll live as long as I can.”
Doctors gave him three months. He’s gone six. “Still going,” he says.
“This guy has passed all of our boundaries,” Jan said. Still, she added, “we know we are living day to day. We’re doing everything we can do to make him feel good. We try to live.”
Dave gets up and dresses handsomely every morning, sometimes heading to the Braemar Golf Course to hit balls. He and Jan still go to Orchestra Hall and the Guthrie.
Instead of preparing dinners for friends, they gather for coffee in the late morning, or for a glass of wine in the afternoon. But even “wine doesn’t taste like wine” anymore, Dave said. “Your taste gets so weird when you get this.”
Jan jokes that, for a guy whose options are so limited, “he sure is fussy.”
Despite that, he wanted one special night, a night to gift his wife with an emerald ring to thank her for 55 years of marriage.
A few days before their anniversary, Dave called McCormick and Schmick’s and spoke to manager Mike Herstine. “I have this situation,” he said. “I can only take liquids.”
Herstine didn’t hesitate. “I’ll talk to the chef,” he said. “I was happy that I happened to answer the phone. Fifty-five years together is pretty special.”
Twenty minutes later, chef Neu called, which delighted Dave. “I’ve never had a restaurant call me!”
“I have a fantastic blender,” Neu said. “I can blend anything. I can blend a steak for you.”
“Oh, clam chowder will do,” Dave said.
Their son, Paul, sent flowers to the table. They ordered champagne. As Jan enjoyed her filet, a rare treat for her, Dave finished his clam chowder and looked up to see a server carrying over a tray with “three little dishes” for him. Cold, puréed beet salad, walleye soufflé and beef soufflé.
As they dined, Herstine and Chef Paul came out to meet them. “They’re a lovely couple,” Herstine said. “They were so appreciative and down to earth.”
Tiring and preparing to leave, Dave looked up to see one more surprise. Dessert was coming. Apple pie — puréed. “You’ve got to pack it up for me,” he said, delighted. “He ate it for two days,” Jan said.
Many days later, they still marvel at strangers who, for one night, helped Dave reclaim one of life’s simplest pleasures. “The fact that the people cared that much,” Dave said, “made it so extra special.”
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum