Agriculture February 01, 2024
Two of a Kind
How two neighbors united during a trying time.
Abi Reetz glanced down at her phone while riding in a tractor driven by Steve Brake on a bluebird day in September 2022.
"Suddenly, she looked at me, punched me in the shoulder and asked, 'What did you do?'" says the Wilmont, Minnesota, farmer.
Plenty. But then again, so did the high school student Abi.
Best driveway in town. Steve and his wife Mary moved from a nearby farm to Wilmont in 2017. That's where they met their next-door neighbor, Abi.
"One day, my two sisters and I wanted to chalk their driveway, and they let us," says Abi. "They had the best driveway in town."
Friendship quickly bloomed. "It was great to have them entertaining us, sitting on the deck, and watching TV," says Mary.
One day, Steve asked Abi if she wanted to ride in his tractor and learn how to run a ripper.
That would have to wait, though. Steve started suffering severe pain in his neck, shoulders and hands accompanied by double vision in October 2021.
"I kept getting worse each day," he says. "I couldn't get out of bed, couldn't eat. A [Catholic] priest gave me last rites."
A neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, finally diagnosed Steve with Miller Fisher Syndrome, a rare and debilitating nerve disease.
"I had to learn how to talk again through speech therapy," he says. This was accompanied by vision, physical, and occupational therapy.
Steve has mostly recovered, although the numbness in his hands and feet may never leave.
Abi didn't forget Steve during his illness. She and her sister Morgan shot videos of their local elevator manager giving Steve market updates, using a corn cob to act as a microphone.
As Steve recovered, Abi volunteered to read screens in the cab with him as he drove a tractor. Eventually, she drove the tractor with Steve in the buddy seat.
"I didn't take her seriously at first, that a kid next door could drive one of these big tractors," he says. "But one day, I asked her to drive because I was struggling with no stamina. I'm a guy who likes to teach, so I gave her instructions on how to drive. One day, her hand came up to my face while I was talking and she told me, 'I'm the driver here!'
"That's when I named her the tractor princess!" he adds.
Abi spent every weekday evening and weekend during field work season riding in and driving tractors with Steve. She'd exit the tractor to pick rocks when he couldn't due to lack of balance. Eventually, she drove a tractor pulling a grain cart at harvest.
"We talked a lot in the tractor," says Steve. "Every day, I'd ask her how her day at school went and if she had her homework done."
"That was always a 'nope!'" jests Abi.
Conversations often revolved around her future. Steve encouraged her to further her education, which she is doing this year at South Dakota State University.
Social connections through neighboring have numerous mental and physical health benefits, says Cap Bendixsen, director of the National Farm Medicine Center for the Marshfield Clinic in Marshfield, Wisconsin.
"Those who have stronger social bonds are 50% more likely to survive serious illnesses and other medical conditions," he says.
Beyond the comfort zone. Flash back to that tractor cab conversation in September 2022. Steve listened to Bishop Robert Barron, who heads the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota, speak at Abi's confirmation a few days earlier. Barron discussed Marvel Comics superheroes, complete with super strength and flowing capes.
"But he said that many times, superheroes are just normal human beings who go beyond their comfort zone," says Steve. "That night, I wrote a letter to Abi's school, telling them she was my superhero because of all the things she did for me."
The school posted Steve's letter on its Facebook page. Abi discovered on that September day that the Facebook post garnered several thousand likes and comments. The interest later spawned several media stories.
"I often think of what it would have been like without her helping me," says Steve.
"Without Abi, Steve wouldn't have been able to do field work, since I was handling everything else going on in our lives," adds Mary. "Whenever she wanted to ride with Steve, I said, please do!"
Bishop Barron is right. Superheroes don't just reside in comic books or movies. They may just live next door. ‡
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