Iowa mom who lost son in Afghanistan copes by making masks to fight coronavirus spread

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

April 24, 2020

The grief creeps up on Susie Ristau in the quiet moments.

And the quiet moments in her Cascade home come more often during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ristau was leading homeschooling for her four grandchildren in the mornings. By afternoon, she would feel anxious and depressed.

Her memories would drift to 2012, the day two U.S. Army officers came to tell her that her son, Michael Ristau, had been killed while serving in Afghanistan.

“It’s the kind of grief you never get over,” Ristau said. “It’s just your new normal.”

About a week into the pandemic, Ristau decided she was sick of sadness. She decided to use her grief as motivation.

She heard health officials’ edict that homemade masks might help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Ristau went on YouTube and found an easy pattern. She made her husband drag her sewing machine into the living room, so she could work while watching the grandkids do their school work.

She has lost track of how many masks she’s made. Ristau sews for nearly 12 hours a day.

Her masks have gone to the assisted living community in Cascade. She gave some to people in Dubuque and sent masks to California, Ohio and North Carolina.

As a Gold Star mom, the masks she sent to a National Guard unit in Pennsylvania especially pleased her.

“Keep my hands busy, keeps my mind from going where I don’t want it to go,” Ristau said.

Michael Ristau grew up in Rockford, Illinois. He struggled in school and found little interest in his classes.

Then he discovered the Lincoln’s Challenge Academy, a residential program offered by the Illinois National Guard in Rantoul, Illinois.

The five-month program puts students through rigorous coursework and physical training. Students accepted into the program need only bring toiletries and running shoes.

Participation and graduation from the academy don’t come with a requirement of enlistment in the military, but that’s what Michael had in mind when he brought the plan to his mother and father, Randy Ristau.

Randy Ristau served in the Army for several years. He counseled his son: The country was at war; choosing military life meant he would probably go to war.

Michael understood. His mother did not.

“Of course, I was proud of him and I wanted him to serve his country, but no mother wants to send their son to war,” Susie Ristau said.

Michael graduated from Lincoln’s Challenge program and enlisted in the Army at Rockford. He took basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington.

The rest of the family moved to Cascade so Susie, an Iowa native, could be closer to relatives.

Michael thrived in Army life, his mother said, though he did betray some long-held family values.

“When he was around home, all he talked about was the Chicago Bears, because that was what he grew up with,” Susie Ristau said. “But we all said he was a closet Seattle Seahawks fan.”

Michael denied betraying his allegiance to the Windy City’s NFL team, but a social media post showing Michael in a Seahawks sweatshirt outed him to the rest of the family for good.

Michael visited his family in Cascade in November 2011.

By then, his younger sister had become a Seahawks fan, especially of quarterback Russell Wilson. Michael promised he would take her to a Seahawks game when he got back from Afghanistan.

The last time Susie spoke to her son, she was cross with him.

“Something bad always happens on Friday the 13th,” she recalls him saying. 

Susie got angry and upset with her son for teasing her about such a thing while he was in harm’s way. Randy spoke to his son and told him to call his mother back.

There are some things you don’t joke about, Randy told his son.

Michael apologized. Susie was still flustered.

Michael called his younger brother, Chris Powers, and arranged to send his bull riding equipment to Powers. He had purchased new gear before his deployment and intended to teach his brother how to ride when he returned.

On July 13, 2012, sometime around 2 p.m., Susie Ristau heard hard knocking on her door. She looked out a window and saw a green pickup truck parked in their driveway.

Just out of the shower, she dressed quickly and tied her hair in a towel.  

“There are two men from the Army here in their dress uniforms,” she remembers telling her husband. “You know what that means.”

He did. Randy, a union sprinkler fitter for Summit Fire Protection, raced home from Cedar Rapids.

Susie Ristau opened the door and saw the two Army officers. She got sick to her stomach and cried.

“He’s gone, isn’t he?” she recalls saying.

The officers, one a chaplain, helped her into the house and into a chair.

They had few details. Michael died when the vehicle he was in struck a roadside bomb. He was the only one killed.

Randy and Susie told their youngest, Halie.

“She was just 8 years old and her hero was gone,” Susie said.

The couple drove to Dubuque to tell their surviving son, Chris. The news hit hard and Chris, who was 21, had to spend some time at his parents’ house before he was settled.

Years passed and the new normal settled in. Halie watched Seahawks games on TV. She felt a painful pang that she would never be able to see a game with her brother.

Susie suggested Halie write a letter to Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll, telling him about her brother and his promise to take her to a game.

Weeks passed and the Ristaus heard nothing. Susie checked her Facebook inbox and found a previously unseen message from a Seahawks official.

They invited the whole family out to Seattle for a home game. The game was on Sept. 11, 2016, and the Seahawks marked the anniversary with a massive flag on the field.

The Ristaus sat behind the goal line in seats decorated in Army colors.

Last year, Halie finally met Russell Wilson at the NFL Pro Bowl, standing up for her brother in activities organized by Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, to honor the families of fallen veterans.

Almost 8 years have passed since Michael died in service to his country. The Ristaus cope however they can. Halie is 16 now, with a busy teenager’s schedule. Chris is 29 with four children of his own.

The pace of life, in a way, distracted from the sadness. The passage of time blunted the pain.

But then came coronavirus. Life sort of stopped. And for Susie, at least, the sadness started to stockpile.

“I had too much time on my mind,” she said. “I started to miss Michael more. I was in that depression stage. I needed to do something to keep Michael’s memory alive.” 

So she started to sew masks. Susie takes at-will donations for supplies but doesn’t solicit money. She burned up a sewing matching and replaced it on her own.

She has struggled with her own health problems. She survived breast cancer. She lives with fibromyalgia and some other chronic conditions.

Still, she sews. And while sewing, she thinks of Michael and knows exactly what he’d think.

“He’d think I was crazy and he would make fun of me,” Susie said. “Then he’d find a way to pitch in and help.”

Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.

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