Emma Benson spent two consecutive Christmas Eves hospitalized in Iowa City for anorexia. Now, the 29-year-old Sherrard native is preparing for her first holiday without her father and the baby boy he never got to meet.

Emma Benson this month with her new baby Zeke, and Eloise, in front of their tree.

The former Emma Williams is one of three daughters of Bob Williams, the beloved Quad City Music Guild director who died suddenly Oct. 4, 2020 at 61, from a heart attack. Thirteen days later, Emma gave birth to her second child, Zeke, and she’s dealing with a lot of bittersweet emotions now.

Benson recently posted on Facebook that between Covid and missing her dad, she felt like skipping over the holidays, but she found a November 1991 journal entry from him – when Emma was six weeks old and her sister Laurel was not quite 18 months:

“I intend to create some memorable moments for our family. Traditions are the stuff families are made of. The right traditions can’t help but build annual anticipation and excitement. If I’m lucky enough, I may even be able to continue some of them with my grandchildren.”

Benson (who also has a sister Molly and brother Daniel) has been thinking a lot about her dad this month, since he LOVED Christmas and he maintained their traditions, even when she was in a psychiatric ward at University of Iowa Hospitals in December 2013, during her senior year at St. Ambrose University, being treated inpatient for 25 days for the eating disorder anorexia nervosa.

Anorexia is characterized by an abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight.

“A lot of it is connected to personality, perfectionism. I was very busy in college as an RA,” Benson said recently, noting she was a dancer since age 3. “As a very empathic person, I was working with a lot of students who were struggling with a lot of things and I wasn’t sure how to support them while also supporting myself. I think a little bit of my history and experience as a dancer my whole life, there were mind-body connections I had that weren’t necessarily healthy.”

“It created this perfect storm for me,” she said of the eating disorder, close to starving herself. “I was always hyper aware of food and exercise. I think some of the emotional toll I was experiencing in college – my first time away from home, a time of self-discovery, just kind of

Ezekiel was born Oct. 17, 2020, just 13 days after his grandpa died unexpectedly.

catapulted me into this eating disorder.”

“I think I ignored it for a very long time,” she said, noting she severely restricted her diet and was over-exercising.

“I was always a smaller person and my first year of college, I gained a little weight and that got in my head a certain way,” Benson said. “There were perfectionistic tendencies I had within myself.” She combined not much eating at all, and when she did, it was very low-calorie food, paired with a lot of running.

Her disorder started sophomore year at SAU, and her parents and (future husband) Aaron became concerned. Emma did some outpatient therapy, including campus counseling for two years, but physically wasn’t getting better.

By December 2013, the outpatient therapist said it was time to get a higher level of care, since Emma’s weight dropped very low (she didn’t want to say exactly). Physically, the illness took hold more and she needed more medical support.

Benson went directly to Iowa City, and was admitted Dec. 6, 2013, until New Year’s Eve.

That length of time for eating disorder treatment was not unusual. “My first admission was short, compared to a normal time in the hospital for someone with anorexia,” she said. The next year, in late December 2014, she was hospitalized for two months (to February 2015).

“It was a very managed diet, and I was able to continue to eat normally,” she said of 2013, noting she didn’t have any IV treatments.

Ambrose (where she majored in public relations) was very supportive during her last semester, and let her work remotely from Iowa City, Benson said. She did outpatient treatment to the end of February.

Her father drove an hour and a half nearly every day to Iowa City.

Emma with her parents at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, 2013.

“I wouldn’t have been able to get through it without him visiting,” she said. “It was so different than anything I’d ever experienced. It was a very scary time. Just to know that I had this constant coming in…that was very special support that not many patients get to experience.”

Benson wasn’t allowed to have her cell phone while in treatment. She communicated on Facebook Messenger using a desktop computer in the day room.

“My dad knew I checked my messages first thing in the morning. He sent me a message every morning for those 25 days between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. to be sure I had a note to read from him when I checked,” she said. “He wrapped up every message reminding me he was proud of me.”

He was Benson’s Secret Santa that year. For the week leading up to Christmas Eve, when he’d come up, he’d bring an elf doll named Elfis to deliver Secret Santa surprises. “Elfis always came with a corny poem and a carefully thought-out gift,” she said.

“I knew all along it was my dad who had me but still acted surprised when he gave me my final gift on Christmas Eve. He gave me a scrapbook and supplies with a poem written all about the importance documenting my life in recovery and how he hoped the scrapbook would give me a healthy hobby disconnected from eating disorder behaviors.”

Her mom Jenny also came out some evenings after work and her husband then was in his last semester of grad school at Ambrose, in occupational therapy.

That 2013 Christmas, she wanted to get released by the 25th.

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“Christmas was so routine to us – it’s something we look forward to from Dec. 26 until Christmas the next year,” Benson said. “I was feeling a lot of guilt; I’m going to mess up Christmas for my family. As the time got closer and closer, my family just kind of showed up and showed me, it doesn’t matter where you are, we’re going to find a way to make Christmas special and joyful.”

“We can be going through this really dark and hard time together – which is me being in the hospital and fighting this illness – but the joy of

Bob goofs off with the kids in front of the tree in 2001 — Laurel (left, standing), Molly, Daniel and Emma.

Christmas can coexist with that,” she said. “They brought so much joy, not just to me, but to other patients.”

“Christmas was very different that year, but it was amazing to see how some of those traditions – like Secret Santa, is the biggest one in our family – just came to Iowa City and the hospital, that didn’t change,” Benson said.

Her family always went to St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Matherville, a Christmas Eve Mass. They had to give it up that year.

In 2013, their whole family and Aaron were at Iowa City for Christmas Eve, in the psychiatric unit. Emma begged to leave the unit so she could spend time with her family, and for one hour, they went to another hallway of the hospital and exchanged gifts.

“We all cried and hugged and didn’t want to separate,” she said. Her whole family returned Christmas Day, and they were able to go to a cousin who lived in Coralville. Emma got to open her stocking there; her father had hand-stitched stockings for all his kids.

“My family were all adamant we would be together on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” she said.

A busy 2014 of extremes

Emma graduated SAU in spring 2014, got married in September, and started grad school at Iowa State University in Ames that fall.

“The rigorous schedule of graduate school and that huge life transition, I think really triggered the eating disorder and I turned back to the same behaviors, as a means to control what was going on,” she said. “All of a sudden, in those three or four months, I got to the same place that I was the winter before – which is not uncommon at all for eating disorders and treatment.”

Benson went back to the same facility in Iowa City Christmas Eve 2014, and then did partial hospitalization in March and April.

That Christmas Eve, she got a call from the university saying an inpatient bed was available (that she was waiting for) and Emma was

The Christmas stocking Bob Williams stitched for granddaughter Eloise in 2017.

admitted. “It was very hard for me to tell my dad, I am going to miss Christmas,” she said. “I remember being admitted that night. I must have just left my Secret Santa gift at home. I was so adamant that my family – we were so close to Christmas – that I wanted them to celebrate Christmas at home. I didn’t want them to come see me at the hospital.”

“That year, they stayed home,” Benson said. “I was so grateful; I think they called me 10 times on the unit phone Christmas Day. That was the first Christmas ever we wouldn’t have all six of us together. Aaron was able to be with my family Christmas Day, which was nice.”

She planned to do a two-year master’s program in student affairs, planning to work in higher education admissions and student retention. “It was very clear to me, if I didn’t dedicate my whole life to focusing on recovery, it would be a lifelong yoyo of in treatment and back into the real world,” she said.

It was so hard in 2014, after the peak experience of her marriage. “I think it’s the hard and dangerous reality of eating disorders,” she said. “I think a lot of people struggle this way. It’s so easy for eating disorders to go undetected. Here’s this happy person having great experiences, who is so very sick. It was a very intense year all over the spectrum, all of that back and forth emotionally was so exhausting.”

Benson continued to see a therapist in Iowa City for a year and a half (at first three times a week, then weekly). “That continued care was key to my recovery,” Emma said.

“I think for me, the most important part was the in-person support,” she said. “The inpatient treatment was super important. Some people with eating disorders try to step right into the therapy, without dealing with the physical part. For people with anorexia, there is no such

Bob Williams with his kids Daniel, Molly, Emma and Laurel on Thanksgiving weekend 2014, after decorating the tree.

thing. I was in the head space too, that I’m gonna recover from this eating disorder without gaining wait. It doesn’t work that way at all.”

“For two years, I kinda just dedicated everything to recovery,” Benson said. She asked her dad not to visit quite as often in her second hospitalization.

“I think I really need to sit here and focus on journaling and sit with my emotions, to work through them,” she said of 2014-15. “My dad was still very supportive. I think that second time around, he would have been there every day…I told him, Dad, I need to sit on my own and see if I can do it.”

“Journaling in treatment was a super important part of my recovery process,” she said. “I had a lot of thoughts connected to different experiences and emotions that I never recognized. Writing it out allowed me to understand the more deep roots of this eating disorder. It kind of let me be more authentic in the way I was recovering and addressing the different emotions I was feeling.”

Six years later, re-reading her journals “is really powerful,” she said. “I have to do that every once in a while to check in…I kind of see how my recovery has helped those things transform.”

“It’s very bittersweet, because I see what a sad and dark time that was for me, then I read all those memories of support and joy and love,” Benson said. “That just seems like such a lifetime ago, so much has changed.”

Musical theater since high school

Musicals were literally in Benson’s blood.

Bob Williams was the youngest director in QCMG history when he helmed “Fiddler in the Roof” at Moline’s Prospect Park at 23 in 1982. He went on to direct so many popular shows there, including “Beauty and the Beast,” “West Side Story,” “Les Miserables,” “Drowsy Chaperone,” “A Christmas Story,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Wizard of Oz,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” and “Cabaret.”

Emma was very involved in the dance team at Sherrard High School, and was in musicals all four years in school, mostly in the chorus (her

A scene from Music Guild’s “Cabaret,” in 2011, choreographed by Emma Williams.

only solo was in “Godspell,” doing “Turn Back O Man”).

Bob directed theater at Sherrard for about 13 years, and in the middle of that, his wife directed some shows at school, while Emma was there. She choreographed shows at Sherrard as well.

“It came pretty naturally,” Emma said of choreography. “Being on dance team in high school, there as an expectation, and we would all choreograph. It was just something I really enjoyed and it came naturally.”

At Guild, she was influenced by Kathy Schutter, who choreographed “The Producers” (which Emma was in), April 2009.

Benson’s first Music Guild show was “George M” in 2006 – she was on stage for seven shows altogether and choreographed three for her dad as director – “Drowsy Chaperone” (2011), “Cabaret” (2013) and “Les Miserables” (2014).

“Drowsy” and “Cabaret” are very dance-heavy, and her father was very supportive of her work.

“I think that was such a huge part of it – he made me feel so confident and was always so excited about what I shared,” Benson said. “He was kind of inspiring to me, the way we worked together. He was such a good teacher. He was a really good role model.”

Emma Benson dances on her September 2014 wedding day with her dad.

Her favorite show with him was “Drowsy Chaperone,” in part because it was her first and it was so much fun.

Ambrose did “Drowsy Chaperone” her freshman year (Emma was assistant stage manager) and the lead Man in Chair role was played by Andrew Benson, who became her brother-in-law. Aaron and Andrew (twins) are two years older than her.

Emma didn’t perform in shows at SAU; she was professor Cory Johnson’s work-study student. She worked as a resident advisor at Ambrose.

Of the musicals Emma worked on with her father, she said: “It was the best. Those are some of my favorite memories of him. We had very good working relationship…I was very young at the time.”

“He gave me a lot of independence and kind of gave me the reins, and let my own vision come to life,” Emma said. “I have a lot of my dad in me. It was fun to surprise him with what I was working on. I learned so much from him. We had such a good time.”

Her last Guild show was the epic classic, “Les Miz” in 2014.

A new career, outlook

After Benson’s treatment, she started working in childcare, which was rewarding. She found a Montessori school in North Liberty, and became a lead teacher there. Benson has been working there nearly six years (now is the program coordinator for the school), and she and her family moved to Cedar Rapids 18 months ago.

“I kind of completely re-formed my identity from the ground up,” she said of her career. “I always loved working with the children and it ended up being a really good fit for me. That’s turned into a really rewarding career.”

Aaron is an occupational therapist and works in long-term in care in the Iowa City area.

Proud grandparents with Eloise during the 2019 holiday season.

They had their daughter, Eloise (the first grandchild for Bob and Jenny) in October 2017.

“It has been my final step in healing,” Emma said. “Motherhood has been amazing and my daughter has been great. I do feel like that experience has been the final thing I needed to do to claim full recovery from my eating disorder.”

Bob Williams adored being a grandpa. “He was the ultimate papa to her,” she said. “When I went back to work full-time, I just wanted my daughter to have a close relationship with my dad. He had all this time staying home, so we designated Mondays as his day.”

He would come spend the whole day with Eloise, and did that every week up until the pandemic this past March, Emma said.

“They were just really special days for them,” she said. “He would prepare different craft projects for her so he could come with activities ready. Their special Mondays I think is such a fun memory, and my daughter just adored her papa. They had a very special relationship.”

The most exciting thing was, Bob had stitched personalized stockings for his kids, and in 2017, he finished a new one for Eloise. “He fully immersed her in all our traditions,” Emma said.

In one of their family traditions, she would give Eloise a different holiday-themed book every day for Advent, and after she told her dad, he went to a store in Cedar Rapids and showed up with 30 holiday books. After he died, they went through his boxes and found one called “Books for Eloise,” including about a dozen Christmas books.

“The Christmas books she’ll get this year are the books my dad had been collecting,” Emma said. “That was kind of special.”

Eloise went to rehearsal for “Beauty and the Beast” with Bob for his birthday, June 5, 2019.

The Christmas stocking Bob Williams stitched for granddaughter Eloise in 2017.

“She sat right next to him as he followed book and called lines,” Emma said. “It was a really sweet thing that she was able to share that.”

Seeing it was her first Music Guild show. “She really enjoyed the show,” Emma said.

Her father’s sudden death Oct. 4, 2020 was all the more shocking since he was in good health – he wasn’t on any medication, and didn’t have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Emma’s due date was Oct. 17, which when her son Ezekiel was born. Bob was really excited about the impending birth (he didn’t have other grandkids besides Eloise). Robert is one of Zeke’s middle names.

“It just came so naturally to him; Eloise is his pride and joy and I just knew he was excited to have more, and be able to multiply all the joy Eloise gave him,” Emma said of her dad. “He was excited to have a grandson.”

Bob helped redo their nursery, including new paint. He passed away on a Sunday morning, and Aaron had met him in Tipton earlier that week with a bag of frozen meals to stock away. “I feel like his life was revolving around the excitement that was the upcoming birth,” Emma said.

They had a funeral outdoors at Trimble Funeral Home in Moline, with about 30 people.

“It’s so hard, with this happening during a pandemic, but that was kind of a gift in and of itself – because it was just our family and our closest friends from Music Guild,” Emma said. “Just being able to have this intimate service, we were all able to laugh together and weep together. There wasn’t the anxiety of having to greet hundreds of people coming to see him and pay respects. It was so special.”

Bob Williams with his kids Daniel, Molly, Emma and Laurel on Thanksgiving weekend 2014, after decorating the tree.

All four of the kids performed songs in honor of Bob, and Emma read from Man in Chair’s closing monologue in “Drowsy Chaperone.” “The service was very Dad; it was a celebration of his life, but it was very hard,” she said.

Christopher and Erika Thomas, and Sarah Lounsberry also sang, and Dave Blakey played piano. Songs were from “Pippin,” “Little Women,” “Godspell,” and “La Cage aux Folles.”

Christopher shared the similarities between Bob and Man in Chair, in their passion for musicals.

The night of the 4th, several friends of Bob gathered with the Williams family outside at Music Guild. “We couldn’t wrap our heads around people paying tribute to our dad,” Emma said. “It seemed so unreal. Us going to Guild and hearing this, and experiencing this, will be the first time that we’ll have to accept that Dad is not here, going to Music Guild without Dad.”

“He would want us to be there,” she recalled. “I feel like my dad connected with these people at Guild, knowing it was such like a family experience for him.”

The Williams children in 1999 proudly show off stockings stitched by their father (Emma is far left).

“It was such a huge part of our life.” Emma said. “Our Music Guild family has wrapped us in support during this time and it’s such a gift. It’s amazing to hear the impact my dad has had on so many people.”

Dealing with this Christmas

Her dad never shied away from hard conversations and spent so much time listening, “trying to learn the complexities of eating disorders so he could better support me,” Benson posted on Facebook. “I am so fortunate to have had a dad who was never ashamed of my diagnosis and although he was scared, he didn’t let his fear keep me feeling anything but 110% supported by him.”

“I was always positive that those days — the days of doing the hard, heavy work to try to overcome my eating disorder — would be the hardest

days of my life,” she wrote, “But navigating this season without him is much harder. But thank God for him and my family and the friends who loved me to this place of strong recovery before his passing.

The Williams family at Christmas 2019.

“The poignant memories of treatment hit me hard around the holidays. My heart aches deeply for people struggling this time of year with mental illness and holds so closely those exploring and seeking recovery,” Benson said. “Last year in my reflection post, I shared some lyrics from ‘Let It Go’ as I have such poignant memories of the movie playing the Christmas Eve night I was admitted and it became some sort of recovery anthem for me.

“Well this year, thinking of recovery and of my dad, lyrics from ‘Frozen 2’ are striking me (I’m clearly the mom of a ‘Frozen’-obsessed toddler) and I’m finding power in these words as they apply to recovery, to grief, and really all things 2020…” she posted of the all-too-apt song, “The Next Right Thing.”

“I won’t look too far ahead

It’s too much for me to take

But break it down to this next breath, this next step

This next choice is one that I can make

So I’ll walk through this night

Stumbling blindly toward the light

And do the next right thing

And, with it done, what comes then?

When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again

Then I’ll make the choice to hear that voice

And do the next right thing.”

Bob picking out a Christmas tree in 1993, with Laurel (left) and Emma.

As was family tradition, they covered this year’s Christmas tree in a beautifully excessive amount of lights and ornaments. “I know the weeks ahead will look painfully different for many,” Benson wrote. “I hope everyone is able to embrace and adapt old traditions to find some comfort and joy in these difficult times.”

This month, she’s been thinking about her dad a lot, and recently noted an important lesson about loss and gratitude he taught her and her siblings.

“His parents, my grandparents – he had a really special relationship with them.” Benson said. “He lost both his parents over 20 years ago, before I was 8, they both passed away. They were very young – they both passed away at 62. Granted, they did have health concerns.”

“My dad openly grieved his parents until the day he died,” she said. “Especially around the holidays, my dad obviously loved Christmas and just made such a joyful celebration, but I remember days around the holidays he would spend with tears in his eyes. He would openly tell us he was reflecting on his parents.”

“I feel like for the past 20 years that has shown me the way joy and grief can co-exist all the time, especially around the holidays. I imagine my Dad’s Christmas without my grandma who passed away, he had to have been so sad, but I have such happy memories just of that Christmas. We still had our traditions; we still had a good time.

“That’s what he would want us to do,” Benson said. “For the rest of my life, Christmas will come and we’ll miss him so incredibly much, but I will still celebrate the season in his memory. This was his type of year. If Christmas was a person, it would be my dad. He was so merry and festive.”

The whole Williams family will celebrate the holiday at her house for the first time. “He has instilled such a joy and love in our hearts for the season, even with him not here with us, that still remains. So I’m thankful that he gave that to us.”

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.