‘I gave it my all to the very end’: Minnesota teen who inspired neighborhood tribute, dies of rare cancer
Emma Smrekar, who graduated from St. Croix Preparatory Academy in Baytown Township in 2021, loved taking pictures, drawing and painting. She served as the school photographer and worked on the yearbook.
ST. PAUL -- For the past 16 months, the globe lamps in Stillwater’s Oak Glen neighborhood have been decorated in teal, Emma Smrekar’s favorite color.
Emma, 18, of Stillwater, died Jan. 17 of complications related to rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer that forms in soft tissue. Emma and her neighbors were featured in the Pioneer Press in November 2020. The article’s headline read: “The lights are on for Emma. Neighborhood glows teal as Stillwater teen battles cancer.”
Emma, who graduated from St. Croix Preparatory Academy in Baytown Township in 2021, loved taking pictures, drawing and painting. She served as the school photographer and worked on the yearbook.
Her favorite artist was Vincent Van Gogh, and at the top of her bucket list was seeing “The Starry Night” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her wish came true in December.
“One of her cousins pulled some strings, made some phone calls, and she ended up getting the royal treatment from MoMA,” her father, Scott Smrekar, said. “Emma got a private tour, dined at the museum’s fancy restaurant and left with a to-go bag packed with tons of MoMA merchandise.”
While in New York, Emma’s feeding-tube area on her abdomen started causing discomfort. A trip to the emergency room upon her return showed that her cancer had spread aggressively; doctors estimated she had just “days to weeks left to live,” he said.
“She was able to live the remaining two weeks of her life comfortably at home,” Scott and Lindsey Smrekar wrote on Emma’s Post Hope website. “She was pain free and surrounded by many loved ones and her many pets.”
On the night she died, Scott Smrekar said he looked out the window while doing dishes and saw that their across-the-street neighbors, Dan and Amy Stoffer, had illuminated all of their exterior house lights with teal bulbs.
It was Dan Stoffer who, after learning of Emma’s diagnosis, came up with the idea of illuminating the neighborhood with teal lights. Many of the houses still have the original matching globe lamp posts that were installed when Oak Glen was developed. The lights stretch the length of Swenson Street and extend around the corners to Oak Glen Drive and Oak Glen Trail. Every household in the immediate vicinity — 23 in all — participated.
“The lights were on until Sunday night,” Scott Smrekar said. “We are just so appreciative for all that they have done. It meant so much to us – just about every night we’ve had food, whether it was a home-cooked meal or takeout from a restaurant.”
Smrekar said Emma got to check another bucket list item off her list in October. She and her parents and her sister, Hannah, spent 10 days in Hawaii. Emma took her camera and got to photograph all of the adventures she had planned and researched, including snorkeling the Molokini crater, swimming with sea turtles and driving to the top of Haleakalā, he said.
“If you were told that you had only 16 months left to live, and two-thirds of that time you’re going to be really ill — vomiting, bed-ridden, nauseous – it’s amazing that she was able to do all this fun and cool stuff the third of the time she felt well enough to do these things. She really packed it in.”
Four days before Emma died, Lindsey Smrekar asked her how she wanted Hannah, 16, to remember her. This was Emma’s response: “A fighter whose body wasn’t taken by cancer. Cancer doesn’t define who one is. I gave it my all to the very end.”
A memorial service has been held.