Sheila Van Epps always knew she’d marry her longtime love, Joe Eder.
When crushing news threatened her “someday” dream, Van Epps watched in awe as friends, and many strangers, stepped in to help.
“It was a life-changing experience, touching and rare,” said Lloyd Zimmerman, a former Hennepin County judge who was volunteering at Peace House near downtown Minneapolis, where a serendipitous series of events allowed Van Epps to receive the greatest gift of her life.
Sixteen years ago, a mutual friend gave Eder’s phone number to Van Epps. She held off for three months before calling him.
“I’ve been waiting for your phone call,” Eder said.
On their first date, they drove around city lakes. At Christmastime, they gazed at lights together. When Eder took off for Florida to visit his best friend, he called Van Epps and they talked for four hours straight.
That was it. She and “this cute little round guy” never separated again.
Eder worked as a union stagehand. Van Epps, who has faced her share of health and housing challenges, founds jobs as a cook, eventually being hired at Peace House, a drop-in center.
The ambience at Peace House is welcoming to all, the food robust and free — sloppy Joes sometimes, with cheesy potatoes, plus a few healthy touches such as green beans and fruit salad.
While working there, 58-year-old Van Epps met Ward Brennan, an 82-year old Minneapolis native who retired from the insurance business. Brennan knows something about soul mates.
He began volunteering at Peace House after his wife, Frances, died in 2001.
“I was so despondent after she died,” Brennan said. “I just didn’t know where I was going. But it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself here.
“This place saved me.”
The Peace House Community was founded in 1985 by Sister Rose Tillemans as a place for the ostracized — many facing mental health challenges or chemical dependency — to feel welcomed and affirmed.
Brennan, who volunteers two to three times a week, remembers when he met Van Epps many years ago.
“She was a very good cook,” he said. She’d cook whatever was available, he said, typically chicken and ground beef. “Very few lobsters,” he joked.
She and other cooks feed up to 60 people a day, usually without glowing feedback.
“You have to be pretty tough to work here,” he said. “People don’t always say, ‘What a delicious meal!’ ”
Over the years, Brennan got to know Eder, too. Eder didn’t hang out at Peace House, but Brennan got a sense of the man whom Van Epps loved: a father of three, grandfather of five, a man whose across-the-street neighbor never had to shovel her driveway because Eder always got out his plow.
For years, Eder had complained about his knees and hips, but he was afraid to go to the doctor because he figured he’d have to have surgery.
This year, Van Epps started worrying about her little round guy. He was losing weight, looking buff, even.
“I joked, ‘Who are you seeing?’ ” she said.
About a month ago, Brennan dropped by the couple’s home in Robbinsdale. He was shocked at how sickly Eder looked.
Eder finally saw a doctor. He was told not to plan for hip or knee surgery: He had end-stage pancreatic cancer.
He endured three rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, and still managed to shoot pool on a few Monday nights. But over Memorial Day weekend, Van Epps faced the truth. “It’s the end now,” she realized. Though tiny herself, she lifted Eder back into their bed when his legs gave out.
The following Friday, May 29, Brennan was volunteering at Peace House when a panicked Van Epps called at 1 p.m. from North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale. Eder was there now. He might not make it through the night.
Brennan approached Zimmerman, also volunteering that day, with a “troubling” situation.
Van Epps and Eder lived in the home they bought together five years ago, but they weren’t married. Van Epps’ name was not on the title, and she worried she’d lose the house when Eder died.
Earlier in the week, Van Epps and Eder had received a marriage license, signed and properly notarized. But the marriage license provided that the earliest date a marriage could take place was Sunday, May 31.
Eder clearly didn’t have that long.
The couple had a minister who would drive from the Milaca area to Minneapolis to marry them.
Zimmerman told Brennan that Van Epps needed to obtain a waiver that would allow them to be married before Sunday. The waiver was not valid unless signed by judge, a form issued by a court service center.
Van Epps couldn’t drive, so getting to a government center on a late Friday afternoon was a problem. So was quickly finding a judge.
Zimmerman called his former judicial clerk, who contacted Hennepin County Judge Fred Karasov. Karasov told Edge he’d be delighted to handle the request for a waiver.
Brennan raced out of Peace House to North Memorial and “drove like mad” to pick up Van Epps, who was waiting outside. They drove to Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis, where Karasov signed the waiver.
The wedding license then needed to be amended. But the downtown licensing bureau closed at 4 p.m.
Turns out, Brookdale courthouse in Brooklyn Center was open until 6 p.m. Brennan and Van Epps rushed there next, but faced a long line.
Van Epps was growing despondent.
“I was more worried about getting back to Joe, but we had to do this,” she said.
“I told the [courthouse] lady I was desperate,” Brennan added.
“At a quarter to 6, we were still sitting there,” he said. “At five minutes to 6, I swear, they issued us the revised license.”
He and Van Epps rushed back to North Memorial and the final pieces fell together.
The minister arrived, and, at 9:45 p.m., Eder uttered his final words: “I do.”
Over the weekend, he was able to squeeze Van Epps’ hand. She wiped away his tears. Then he fell into a coma.
On Monday, a grateful Sheila Van Epps Eder called Brennan at Peace House.
Her husband, she said, had just died.