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Mike & The Cane Tree: An apple tree helps change a life

A homely apple tree helps change a man's life

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By Gale Fiege, Herald Writer
Published:
  • Michael Moe stands under the apple tree in his back yard.

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Michael Moe stands under the apple tree in his back yard.

  • Mike Moe's old apple tree in his back yard supplies the wood for many of the canes and walking sticks he makes.

    Mike Moe's old apple tree in his back yard supplies the wood for many of the canes and walking sticks he makes.

  • A snapshot of Mike Moe at a Pacific Lutheran University and Whitworth game in 1982.

    A snapshot of Mike Moe at a Pacific Lutheran University and Whitworth game in 1982.

The man struggling into the Mexican restaurant wasn't elderly.
His cane certainly looked new.
As Michael Moe watched him, he thought the man looked uncomfortable, as if the cane wasn't yet an extension of his hand.
Mike settled his family's bill and asked his wife and kids to go on out to the car.
It was Christmastime, and he happened to have with him a cane he just finished making.
A Christmas cane.
He'd carved Santa's red sleigh around the bottom, with eight tiny reindeer, plus Rudolph, pulling it round and round into a midnight blue sky at the top, dotted with stars and snowflakes. Santa, on the handle, was diving down a chimney.
Not bad for some applewood cut from the old tree in the back yard.
The man was waiting for a table.
Mike approached him, holding the cane out.
"May I give you this for Christmas? I can't explain why, but I need to give it to you."
At first the man was surprised. Then he accepted the cane with as much grace as anyone can muster when a stranger hands you something precious.
"Merry Christmas!"
Mike had done it again.
It wasn't the first time he'd given away a cane. It was sure to happen again.
Mike laughed at himself. He was so much like his father.

The Rev. John Moe loved talking with people, often to the chagrin of his son Mike.
The boy resented the time his Lutheran pastor father spent tending his flock.
Mike was typical of many preacher's kids -- good at heart but desperate to shed the goody-two-shoes image.
Mike didn't like the way people in the small South Dakota town knew all his business and watched his every step.
Mike grew. Big enough. At the University of Minnesota the preacher's son was a 208-pound, 6-2 walk-on for the Golden Gophers. As the football team's long snapper, he hiked the ball for punts, extra points and field goal attempts.
That was a great year, with the games, parties and traveling.
Maybe too great. Mike's grades came up short.
When he asked for an athletic scholarship for his sophomore year, the coach turned him down.
Hot headed, Mike left Minnesota for Pacific Lutheran University to play football under the venerable Frosty Westering.
He loved it.
After his junior year, Mike took a job at a summer Bible camp outside Custer, S.D.
It started out as a way to make some money. Before he was done, he realized he loved working with the kids, and he didn't miss football that much.
When the time came for him to get back to Tacoma for the football season, Mike called Frosty to say he wasn't returning to the team. He just needed to finish school.
In 1984 he graduated with degrees in sociology and criminology. He wanted to be a cop.
The dream of becoming Officer Mike Moe ended when he was told his color blindness would disqualify him.

Never mind the dreams, Mike had a student loan and a car payment.
A friend helped him get a job as a shipping clerk at the paint shop in Boeing's Auburn fabrication plant.
About the same time he went on a blind date with the sister of a PLU classmate.
Heather Adair Keith was tall and blond, a few years his senior, the daughter of a Lake Forest Park doctor and already well into her own career as an oncology nurse.
She usually dated city guys. Mike wasn't one of those.
She liked his sense of humor, the way he looked in jeans, his appreciation of her farming relatives and how he always managed to buy her flowers.
Most of all, Heather couldn't shake from her mind the picture of this man helping her aging grandmothers across the street.
They married.
It wasn't long before Mike, always a hard worker, was on the fast track to upper management in human resources. Boeing sent him to graduate school to earn a master's degree in drug and alcohol counseling.
At home, the Moes talked about the children they would have.
Life was good.
On the drive to work one day Mike realized his left leg was so numb he couldn't feel it to work the clutch. He had to look down to lift it onto the pedal.
At the doctor's office, he wondered if the numbness was an allergic reaction to a tetanus shot. No. It was multiple sclerosis.
While MS is classified as an auto-immune disease, to Heather, it's really a disease of the unknown.
Unknown cause. Unknown future. Unknown timeline.
Symptoms include a lack of muscle control or partial paralysis, caused by a plaque that short-circuits the nerves of the brain and spinal cord.
Walking a mile when you have multiple sclerosis, she explains, is like running a marathon. Climbing 14 stairs to the bedroom can seem like summitting Mount Everest.
Not long after he was diagnosed, Mike learned they were expecting their first child, daughter Haley.
"Here I was -- a big football player with an ego, man in the prime of his life and a new father -- dealing with MS."

As time went on, Mike began to work from home.
Then the progression of the disease finally took him down. He was forced into a medical retirement from Boeing.
Why had his athletic body betrayed him? It left him unable to provide for his wife and little girl.
"I feel like a boil on the backside of humanity," he told his wife.
She knew this was the "for better, for worse" part of their marriage.
With his Boeing retirement account, Mike got a loan to buy his family a house in Fir Grove, the Silver Lake neighborhood that decorates with miles of colorful lights each Christmas.
Their new house, and a remodel to make it wheelchair accessible, helped lift his spirits. He still needed to adjust to other changes.
For someone who had always been gregariously up for anything -- hiking the Cascades, playing pick-up basketball, jumping on his motorcycle -- he lost the ability to be spontaneous.
He mourned the part of his life that was gone.
The uncertainty of the disease forced him to hold off telling Haley about a trip they planned to Disneyland for Christmas that year. He couldn't promise her he would be able to actually make the trip. He didn't want to disappoint her.
It turned out he felt well enough, so they went.
At the airport, Haley's joy lifted him so much he got out of his wheelchair to help an elderly man into the restroom.
It was a glimmer of hope.
Tomorrow: A homely, useful tree.


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