Steve Becker can rest comfortably, find peace at last

May 04, 2006|By KEVIN COWHERD | KEVIN COWHERD,SUN COLUMNIST

Steve Becker's suffering is finally over.

They will pray over his broken body today at the Shrine of the Little Flower Catholic Church in East Baltimore, and there will be a funeral Mass tomorrow celebrated by his great friend, the Rev. George Restrepo, a Jesuit priest for 41 years.

Father George will commend Steve's soul to heaven and if there is a just and merciful God, Steve will finally be at peace, a peace that eluded him for so many years until he died of a heart attack at 57.

Regular readers of this space may remember Steve Becker, because his story appeared here three years ago when he lay in University Specialty Hospital downtown, his body betraying him again.

As I wrote then, take your worst day and multiply it by a hundred, or a thousand, and that's what Steve was dealing with each time he opened his eyes.

He suffered from massive complications due to rickets, a childhood disorder that causes softening and weakening of the bones.

He'd been bedridden for nearly seven years, paralyzed from the neck down except for limited use of his left arm and hand, the result of an earlier operation to remove calcifications in his neck around the spinal column.

Unlike a true quadriplegic, though, he felt pain everywhere from the arthritis that throbbed in every joint and bed sores the size of quarters. And his weakened body was wracked with seizures, pneumonia and constant waves of nausea from all the painkillers he took.

"I don't know how he does it," his wife, Barbara Becker, told me back then. Neither did his doctors, or the nurses, or the paramedics who loaded him into one ambulance after another and rushed him to different hospitals with each new medical crisis.

I went to see him on a hot July day with a longtime friend, Gil Hoffman, who was spearheading an effort to get Steve a special heated hospital bed to ease his pain.

We each slipped on rubber gloves and surgical masks to stand by Steve's bed. He had been up all night, his stomach roiling from the IV pain medicine.

He was down, and sick of being sick.

"I'm lying in bed," he said in a tired, raspy voice. "I can't get up to go in the hall. I can't get up to (sit) in a chair. The most I do is look out the window and look out the door and pray for everyone.

"... [But] I am not mad and angry at God. He's allowed this to happen for a reason." Even three years ago, it seemed hard for him to remember his former life, when he walked with a cane and drove his car despite his short, bowed legs, the legacy of rickets.

He was a guy from Parkville who'd worked for a beer, wine and liquor distributor until he was 40, quit when his health problems became more severe, stayed busy with his church, with being a husband and a father to his daughter, Jessica Becker, now 27, and stepson Domonic Carlson, 33.

He was sicker than ever and hoping his friends could come up with nearly $52,000 for an air-fluidized therapy bed that would give him some relief from the joint pain.

Oh, did his friends come through for him. And so did so many others who read about Steve here and reached for their checkbooks.

At a benefit concert for him at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Govans that summer, a standing-room-only crowd of 600 donated more than $20,000. And the contributions kept pouring in -- not just from Maryland, but from Texas, Ohio, Virginia, Delaware and all over.

He received over 700 postcards and letters full of prayers and encouragement - 213 in one day alone. Soon, over $77,000 was raised and Steve Becker got his heated hospital bed.

But life didn't get much easier over the next three years.

He lived at FutureCare Canton Harbor, a long-term care facility on South Elwood Street. But by the fall of 2004, his system was beginning to shut down entirely.

His kidneys started to fail. He had more seizures. He developed sepsis. He lost the little feeling he had in his left hand. The bed sores were now the circumference of grapefruits.

For the last four months, he lived on ice shavings and painkillers, and took food only through a feeding tube.

A devout Catholic, he prayed for hours, for himself and others.

"Even from his bed, not being able to do anything, Steve would ... offer up his suffering for others," said Loretta Hoffman, a family friend and Gil Hoffman's wife.

But Steve Becker could feel death approaching.

"He was scared," said Barbara Becker. "He was afraid of dying."

"At times Steve would say: `Why? Why?'" recalled Father George. "I'd say: `Switch it to another channel.'"

Then the priest would tell Steve he should learn how to say "Why? Why?" in other languages, and Steve learned how to say it in French, Spanish, German and Latin, too.

"It was a way to [distract] him and make him smile," said Father George. "I'd say: `You know God loves you.' And he'd look at me with understanding and say: `I know. I know.'"

"You're in the presence of a mystery," Father George says of death, "and since it's a mystery, you can't understand it."

In his final days, though, Steve Becker seemed to accept that his suffering was nearly at an end.

"On my last several visits . . . he didn't tell me: `I need my anxiety medication,'" said Barbara Becker. "He was very much at peace."

He died Sunday evening at FutureCare Canton Harbor.

Father George knows his friend is in a better place now.

If you knew Steve at all, you want to believe that.

Kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

To hear podcasts featuring Kevin Cowherd, go to baltimoresun.com/cowherd

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