In one month, my wife left a 17 year career in politics and my mom died. I've been on hiatus from writing and most public speaking for the last 18 months as I was managing my wife Rebecca Otto's campaign for governor of Minnesota. Rebecca is the three-term State Auditor and our numbers showed us she had an excellent shot and winning both a DFL primary and the general election in November 2018. But when she did not receive the DFL endorsement, Rebecca decided to step out of the race. She was, unfortunately, the only candidate with the experience, statewide popularity, and policy chops to make a new Camelot in Minnesota.
That June 5 decision freed me up to get back to real life, though, which for me means writing and speaking and traveling, as a movie writer, novelist, nonfiction writer, science advocate, and activist for democracy. Woo-hoo!
But on June 13, my mom, Lilly Otto, went into the hospital, and I have been fully occupied since then until this moment. On the morning of June 14th we found the problem: a left occipital-parietal brain tumor and brain bleed. She elected not to pursue treatment, and was admitted to hospice on June 17 (Fathers Day, the Hanukah of Mothers Day).
Hospice was at a beautiful place called The Pillars in Oakdale, Minnesota. The first days there mom seemed to gain energy and was telling everyone "I'm going to disappoint you; I'm not dying yet." But she also called me at 3:18 am to tell me how scared she was. We started stay over with her, on the sofa in her room, suite 7, at alternating nights and days. Day by day, she began drifting into a waking dream state, until the last week, when she would surprise us only once in a while by opening her eyes and becoming fully lucid. Yet as she retreated, the little things in life she had always loved - a sip of wine, a taste of chocolate nougat, would bring her back. And then there were the times she came back to really connect, like when I told her I loved her, and how proud of her I was, and I thanked her for being my mom, my head on a pillow near her, looking at her. She came back to me for a moment, opened her eyes, and stared into mine. She was past speech, but her expression, and the tears that came to her said everything. It was the last conscious connection she had.
At 7:07 pm on 7/7, my beautiful, vivacious, complicated, big-hearted, difficult and filterless German immigrant world traveler teacher artist peace activist mother passed away. Her last word to me two days prior was "yes." Her last music was her favorite - the Sanctus from Bach's Mass in B Minor.
I can't believe the courage she showed. As difficult as she was, we will miss her terribly. Her authenticity left a mark of people, and she could command a room without trying. After she died my sisters Simone and Sonia and I held a last toast with her to a life with a hard beginning, but lived magnificently. We drank her favorite wine - Riesling - and I put some in her mouth. Prost!
After the van took her body away, we walked to our cars and turned back for a last look. In the same spot stood a doe. At first I thought it was a lawn ornament, but then it moved. It watched us, then turned around and walked calmly up the hill away from the building, where it laid down and watched us until we drove out, then got up and walked away into the woods.
Lilly Otto, of the Twin Cities, MN; Albuquerque, NM; Yogyakarta, Indonesia; Guatemala City, Guatemala; El Puyo, Pastaza, Equador; and Berlin, Germany, died peacefully on July 7 in hospice from a brain tumor. Lilly is survived by three children: Shawn, Simone, and Sonia, and joins her deceased daughter, Suliko and husband, John Robinson.
Born Lilly Starke in Hitler’s Germany, Lilly was 14 when the war ended, and spent her life opposing war, racism, and social injustice. She loved the world’s many cultures and wanted to see and live among them all. As an immigrant, she championed immigrants and refugees from war, dictatorships, and natural disasters. As the mother of a mentally handicapped daughter, she became a champion for and teacher of special education around the world.
As a teenager, Lilly experienced the new Germany, East and West, from her childhood home in Berlin. At age 21, she married American student Allan Otto of Minnesota, and emigrated to the United States, where they lived in Indiana; Washington, DC; Baltimore, Maryland; and the Twin Cities of Minnesota. There she raised a family of four children in Golden Valley and learned to live with a physically and mentally handicapped daughter.
She became involved with community service, especially the early ARC, then called MARC, and was deeply inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and by Mahatma Gandhi. An artist, she painted the family kitchen and patio with Pennsylvania Dutch designs, the music room like a forest, the dining room like a Chinese home, and recreated a Moroccan yurt in the basement as a library. She created gigantic needlepoints, composed a chorale, and was an early member of the Weaver’s Guild, the University on MN International Center, and the Twin Cities Recorder Society. She planned exhaustive family vacations that were deeply educational, and she and Allan were members of the Rolling Squares square dance camp club and danced and camped with their kids and other friends all over the Midwest, and the Ottos became the host family for foreign students from many countries, who became part of the family.
Lilly collected folk art everywhere she traveled, and often got to know the artists personally. She cooked a different meal every night of her 27 year marriage to Allan. Her oldest daughter Suliko was physically and mentally handicapped and died at age 14, and Lilly began studying special education, in which she earned a bachelor’s degree.
After she and Allan were divorced in 1979, Lilly joined the Peace Corps, serving in special education projects in El Puyo, Ecuador and Guatemala City, Guatemala, where she also studied back loom weaving with indigenous textile artists. Loving Latino culture, Lilly settled again in the US, this time in Albuquerque, NM, where she earned a master’s degree in special ed from the U of NM, and taught. There she met her second husband, John Robinson, an international banker, who shared her love of dancing and Latino culture. She felt she had found a soul mate. They traveled extensively together and felt in all ways compatible, and she listed her experiences with John as among the most valued parts of her life. Sadly, a year after they were married, John passed away from pancreatic cancer, with Lilly caring for him at home. Lilly travelled to India, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Europe and Russia, then got certified in teaching English as a Second Language and moved to Yogyakarta in Java, Indonesia to teach English, where she lived and taught. Lilly supported financially disadvantaged young people through their education in several countries by providing monthly support.
Lilly returned to Albuquerque shortly before the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Having grown up in war under a right-wing regime, Lilly had been upset about the CIA’s involvement with Central American right-wing regimes and saw the new, further spread of war and right-wing thinking as the undoing of everything she stood for. She dedicated her time to being a full-time peace activist, especially via the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice and the American peace values of the 1950s and 1960s, and by joining the Raging Grannies.
In 2011, she returned to Minnesota to spend time with her children in her final years, and gave monthly from her meager retirement income to dozens of charitable organizations. Lilly was big hearted, vivacious and passionate, and left beloved friends behind in many countries. She was opinionated and difficult and filterless, and she challenged everyone she knew to always do more to promote world peace and social justice. She was one of a kind, with a life defined by her love of the world and especially of its many and varied peoples and her deep desire for peace.