Saturday, April 13, 2002
By MARGARET ELLIS, Columbian staff writer
As his multiple sclerosis got worse, Dennis Skau liked to listen to the last movement of Gustav Mahler's second symphony.
It's a piece of music that sounds frustrated, his wife said.
Skau must have sometimes felt very frustrated.
He died from complications of multiple sclerosis April 2. He was 52.
He experienced the first tremors and numbness in his 20s, but doctors dismissed his concerns.
The disease began getting steadily worse in the 1980s, when he was finally diagnosed.
Skau had to quit working. He ran a free dental clinic out of Baloney Joes, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen near the Burnside Bridge in Portland. The shelter is now run by the Salvation Army.
But he liked cleaning house and chauffeuring the couple's two sons so his wife, Lynda, could relax when she came home from her job as a nurse.
Gradually, each chore was beyond his reach. First, he couldn't drive, then he couldn't walk.
"One by one they all dropped away," Lynda said. "He wasn't grouchy or angry or bitter. He only thought of me," she said.
The disease robbed Skau of his ability to play the piano and the trombone, and he had enjoyed arranging and composing music. The couple didn't go to concerts very often, even though they both loved classical music. CDs are so convenient, Lynda said, "and you know, when you're in a wheelchair you have to sit in the back row."
But Skau found ways around his disease when he could.
He got a computer program that played the music he composed. He learned to play the harmonica and impressed the congregation at Meadow Glade Seventh-day Adventist Church when he performed for them. "People were just amazed how beautiful the harmonica was," Lynda said.
Skau grew up in India, the son of missionary parents. He and his siblings got their education through a mishmash of formal education and home schooling. He spent his first year of college in France and came to America for the first time in his 20s.
"He was a person who had never seen TV or movies," his wife said. They saw a thriller one night at the movies, and Skau emerged shaking from the suspense. "It makes me realize how hard we are," she said.
He didn't know how to use a phone, and he didn't always remember the English words for things, but he caught on.
Skau graduated with a degree in French as well as music. Then he pursued a degree in dentistry in order to support his family.
As a condition of his loan, he was required to practice dentistry in an underserved area, and the young couple found themselves in Arizona on a Navajo reservation. Later, they moved to the Portland area and eventually bought their home near Ridgefield.
Skau wasn't able to work more than part time, and the job at Baloney Joes was a perfect fit, his wife said.
"The men down at Baloney Joes liked him. They called him Doc and they watched out for his car," she said. He kept pulling teeth at Baloney Joes until 1992.
Even when he quit work and was home alone much of the day, he always gave his wife time alone to relax after work.
"He was so sensitive to give me what I needed," she said. "He loved me very much."
Skau didn't want to die so young, but he dreaded being completely disabled, his wife said.
He had a strong faith in God, Lynda added, and she believes he wasn't afraid. "Ready, I guess was the word. I wasn't ready, but he was."